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‘Coach Carter’

“Coach Carter,” which marries lessons in basketball with those of becoming a good citizen, crosses “Lean on Me” with “Hoosiers” and results in an inspiring story.

The movie, which opens nationwide tomorrow, is based on the true story of Coach Ken Carter who, in 1999, locked his undefeated basketball team in Richmond, Calif., out of practices and games until some of the players got their grades up.

 

“Coach Carter,” which marries lessons in basketball with those of becoming a good citizen, crosses “Lean on Me” with “Hoosiers” and results in an inspiring story.

 

The movie begins with Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) being offered the coaching job at his old high school, situated in the rough-and-tumble town of Richmond. Carter accepts the job and its $1,500 stipend on one condition: that he be allowed to coach his way.

 

That way demands players and their parents sign a contract stipulating that the players will maintain a 2.3 grade point average, sit in the front row of their classes, and wear ties on game days. They must also respect him, and each other, and use terms like “sir.”

 

After initial tensions get worked out, all parties hit their stride and the team becomes a success. All goes south, however, when the players—pumped up by a big tournament win—sneak out late at night to party. Adding insult to injury is Coach Carter’s discovery that some of the players aren’t meeting their GPA requirement.

 

That’s when Carter locks the gym, cancels practices and begins forfeiting games until the players hit the books. The decision causes an uproar in the community and garners national press coverage. (Audiences may remember hearing about the actual story back in 1999; click here to listen to the NPR interview with the real Coach Carter at the time.)

 

Scenes of students/players meeting new teachers/coaches are usually a lot of fun in the movies, and the one from “Coach Carter” is no exception. Carter is tough mentally and physically, and it’s his way or the highway.

 

Carter must convince everyone—players, parents, even the principal—that the youngsters are students first and athletes second. For those who view only basketball as a ticket out of Richmond, this doesn’t sit well.

 

Director Thomas Carter (“Save the Last Dance”) assembled a good cast. In addition to Jackson, the movie stars Rob Brown (“Finding Forrester”) as Kenyan, a player whose pregnant girlfriend (played by Grammy-winner Ashanti) leads to additional complications.

 

Rick Gonzalez as Timo Cruz, who struggles to balance his life on the team with his life on the streets, is also convincing. His character arc is probably the most fully developed, even if he falls somewhat out of the story in the middle hour.

 

Most sports movies emphasize those Big Moments when important lessons are learned, and the few in “Coach Carter” are well done, especially when the team takes a drastic measure to get one of its own reinstated.

 

“Coach Carter” isn’t a sugar-coated sports story. It’s grittier; Timo Cruz is caught up in drugs and guns, and others just want the girls. In other words, this ain’t no “Hoosiers” …

 

Nor should it be. “Hoosiers” is one basketball story, and “Coach Carter” is another. Both are part of American sports. This one, however, portrays a few sexual situations among teens, as well as some solid partying. It approaches casual sexual activity as a fact of teen life without anything to suggest a modification in such behavior.

 

But those who are fed up with the increasingly self-congratulatory behavior of athletes will appreciate Carter’s take on that phenomenon, as well as his jab at a culture whose pro athletes are above the law.

 

“Coach Carter” isn’t as squeaky clean as some other recent sports movies, but not every story or situation can honestly be told that way. Ken Carter’s task was different from Jim Morris’ in “The Rookie” or Herb Brooks’ in “Miracle.”

 

An extreme situation called for an extreme approach, and Ken Carter’s approach will inspire anyone to muster courage in the face of adversity.

 

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, sexual content, language, teen partying and some drug material. Reviewer’s Note: There are multiple reasons, not just one or two, why this film got the PG-13 rating.

Director: Thomas Carter

Writers: Mark Schwahn and John Gatins

Cast: Ken Carter: Samuel L. Jackson; Damien Carter: Robert Ri’chard; Kenyan: Rob Brown; Kyra: Ashanti; Timo Cruz: Rick Gonzalez; Worm: Antwon Tanner; Junior Battle: Nana Gbewonyo; Jason Lyle: Channing Tatum.

 

The movie’s official Web site is here.