Many of the important or best games in NCAA basketball tournament history seem to feature the University of Kentucky. I spent seven years living with a University of Kentucky basketball fan, a fan that I have known since childhood. Let’s just say that under such circumstances, you learn to love Wildcats basketball. There is an argument that can be made for the power of divine providence as part of the power and statement of this game. The year 1966 was the only year this could have happened. UCLA won all of the NCAA championships between 1964 and 1973, except for 1966. A little known player, who would one day be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was ineligible to play as a freshman that year. The University of Kentucky, after a mediocre previous year, came together as a team. With University of Kentucky/Adolph Rupp perception–the pride of the South, old school mentality–it would seem like a story couldn’t be better written. My friend goes on to give more of a detailed history of Rupp and the background of the University of Kentucky basketball program at the time. These days, the only thing that would be unusual is seeing an all-white roster hitting the floor. However, Glory Road is not about these days. It is about a chapter of history well worth exploring, as well as being another entry in the sports movie genre.

Remember the Titans. The Greatest Game Ever Played. Miracle. Like them, Glory Road is based on a true story. These David vs. Goliath, root for the underdog type movies follow a specific formula: rookie coach/player (in this case, Don Haskins, played by Josh Lucas) new to the game faces uphill battle, first resistance from the players, then the system, then their ultimate arch-nemesis when they seek to win the big game. The standard for the quality of the particular movie is often best measured in terms of how well it can maintain any sort of dramatic integrity. Though Glory Road seems a little more heavy handed, it still is quite the memorable and effective movie.

Remember the Titans is the easy comparison since it has a similar backdrop of racial politics. Glory Road follows the journey of the Texas Western University basketball team, a multi-racial basketball squad in the deep south, breaking barriers akin to those broken by Jackie Robinson in baseball. Though teams were often integrated, the integration amounted to tokenism (the unwritten rule being “that you never played more than one black player at home, two on the road or three if you were behind”). Let’s face it, history is written by the victors though by most accounts, the movie stays fairly close to the truth and depicts the characters fairly. Some expected creative license was taken, for example, the added scene of the players’ trashed hotel rooms and the actual tempo of the final game. However, Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight, doing a lot with very little screen time), legendary coach of the University of Kentucky team, wasn’t portrayed as a frothing racist (which, I rather expected he would be). And, frankly, Don Haskins recruitment of black players almost smacks of desperate times (his inability to compete for the best white players) calling for desperate measures (recruiting black players).

“I don’t see color, I see quick, I see skill.” –Don Haskins

This was a nice sentiment and I understand what people mean when they say things like this, however the problem is that the rest of society doesn’t necessarily get that same memo. Every time we step out of our front doors we are identified and treated primarily by our racial identity. Or, as the teams’ sometime spiritual advisor put it, “knuckleheads come in all sizes, shapes, and colors.” Black people were still perceived as something less than human. Athletic, sure, but they didn’t have the intelligence for team sports. They couldn’t be leaders, couldn’t control themselves, could never be part of a team game since they were more interested in show-boating. As far as we’ve come, there is still a way to go. Similar sentiments still linger today, since only recently have black quarterbacks seen an emergence on the pro level in football (and I grew up with various adults in my life trying to convince me that black people had extra muscles).

The coach–and by proxy, the movie–succeeded exactly because he actually did see color, recognizing the power inherent in people’s perceptions of color. The importance of the final game was a statement about color: five white players vs. five black players. If color didn’t matter, the movie wouldn’t matter.

“It’s more than just a game now. I sure as hell can’t quit on it.” –Don Haskins

The game symbolizes something transcendent for all those that are a part of it, something greater than themselves. In a lot of ways, the game is their means of liberation: the coaches and the players, both black and white. The black players had been degraded, humiliated, treated as less than human, yet all they want to do is play. Their white team mates stood alongside them, often abused and insulted also, though without the sting that called into question their very humanity. When the team forgot what they had come to do, their mission–and instead focused more on each others’ skin color–they suddenly couldn’t play together. Hatred is contagious: to return hate for hate, the whole team ends up losing.

One of the things that I have come to realize about faith is that you can’t separate ideas from social reality. What you think about God, your theology, can’t be separated from your socio-political status in (your) society. God is involved in history, the story of us, and His revelation is intertwined with our social and political affairs. This movie reminded me that God is for the oppressed, the marginalized. The poor have the Exodus gospel/model: to rise up, decry oppressive powers, and seek liberation. The gospel is an offense to the rich and powerful. It’s the death of their ideas of wealth and power, those priorities.

Our faith needs to have a social dimension, shaped to affect our present situation. We need to understand that evil can be systemic, imbued into the very fabric of our social structures. The good news is about accepting freedom. Christ is the Liberator with a mission of liberation, to free us from the bonds of this world and its systems. Not only that, but we are called to join that mission by adopting the revolutionary methods of peace and love.

The movie succeeds as an inspirational movie not for the usual athletic underdogs aspiring to greatness, but because this particular group of basketball players did not succumb to criticism, jeering and all sorts of racism. A powerful theme of Glory Road was how the game was played. While we need to call evil, evil, we can’t use the same means–the hate, the violence– to combat it or fight for equality. This movie forces us to confront our racial issues and attitudes. We all must travel that Glory Road and like any journey, we’re the better for it.