It’s a growing irony of today’s Hollywood that, the more its filmmakers have come to rely on fact-based stories for their source material, the more inventive they’ve tended to become with the facts. These days, when we see that fateful kicker, “Based on a true story,” experience tells us it’s wise to be more than a little suspicious.
A recent case in point—and one that strikes close to home—is the box-office hit, “Glory Road,” which chronicles the saga of the mostly black Texas Western University 1966 NCAA-champion basketball team, which a title card tells us is “based on the true story of the team that changed everything.”
The story is basically the impossible dream of coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas), who went against the grain of his white, Southern college to recruit a full squad of black players from around the country and then took them to the top—a feat the film contends is a major milestone in the civil rights movement.
In the middle of the film, there’s a devastating sequence of events that begins when one of the traveling Texas Western Miners is brutally assaulted in the restroom of a Southern restaurant by “crackers,” beaten bloody and then shoved head-first into a toilet in which we have just seen a man urinating.
Frightened by the incident, their confidence shaken, the Miners shortly thereafter find, in an even more shocking scene, their motel rooms trashed, their personal belongings violated and the slogans “Niggers Die” and “Coons Go Home” scrawled all over the walls in what looks like either red paint or blood.
From here, the battered team takes a long, solemn bus ride to Seattle for its next game. When they arrive, the mood is so grim that Haskins’ assistant wants to give up. But Haskins can’t, because it’s become a moral crusade for him. “Just THINK of how these boys have been degraded and humiliated just because they’re black.”
Cut to the Seattle University game, where the fans are booing just like all the rest of the rednecks we have seen. And as a consequence of this abuse—the restaurant, the motel, the Seattle U fans—the Miners lose the game: the only loss of their magical season. It’s the low point from which they will rise to a thrilling climax.
Now, there are several things wrong with this scenario. First, neither the restaurant nor the motel scenes actually happened to the Texas Miners. This was divulged to me by the film’s producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, when I interviewed him a month before the film was released. Those incidents were made up, he said, “for dramatic purposes.”
Second, the racist reaction of the Seattle U fans is a fantasy. When I questioned the scene in my review of the film, a number of readers wrote to confirm my suspicion. “I was at the game,” one writes. “I was 12 years old at the time. . . It was a great game but there was no racial booing toward Texas that I remember.”
Another writes: “I am black. I was 16 when I listened to that game on the radio, and I don’t remember hearing any racially motivated booing, or any comment on such a response. I’m certain it never happened. Seattle-style racism, even 40 years ago, was much too genial and covert to have accommodated such a public display of rudeness.”
Still another writes, “I was in that crowd and was actually called by the folks making the movie. They wanted to know about the SU fight song (wasn’t one), pep band and the like. When I could not provide much in the way of info or salacious details, they rang off. . . If we booed loudly, it was—as always—(at) the refs.”
Moreover, the ‘66 Seattle University Chieftains were hardly the lily-white foe the movie depicts. As former player Mike Acres testifies in a recent issue of the Seattle University newspaper (“Racism? What Racism”), they were “a predominately black team. Four of our six top players were black.”