Editor's note: This article appears in the February 13 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
At an afternoon matinee of Glory Road last week, I happened to be the only one in the theater. That situation always works better when enjoyed with a significant other, if only because you can make the requisite "I rented out the theater for us!" joke. But since I had nobody to share the moment, I decided to call the Sports Gal.
Me: (blaring movie behind me) "I'm at Glory Road, and I'm by myself!"
Her: (screaming baby in background) "What?"
Me: "I'm at the movies. Nobody else is here!"
Her: (after a beat) "I think I want a divorce."
Within 30 seconds, some dude showed up and ruined the moment. It's more reliable than Joe Buck's jinxing a no-hitter -- as soon as you call someone to say you're alone in a theater, someone else shows up. At least the guy was sitting in front of me, so I could monitor him. See, whenever I'm in a theater with just one other person, I start to wonder what would happen if that person inexplicably attacked me and we had to fight to the death with nobody around to break us up, like in a bad episode of "24". Please tell me I'm not the only one who thinks about this stuff.
Unfortunately, this little subplot was much more exciting than the actual movie. Midway through, as I was halfheartedly sucking on Sour Patch Kids and zoning out during another tightly filmed, you're-making-me-dizzy basketball scene, I realized something:
We may never see another great sports movie again.
Maybe every idea has been done. Maybe Hollywood has given up. Maybe we're just plain tired of watching them. But I can't remember the last time a sports movie enthralled me. Just in the past few years, I definitely enjoyed "Love & Basketball", "Friday Night Lights" and "The Rookie", all of them warranted a DVD purchase. Still, none of them resonated. I remember seeing "Field of Dreams" in college ... when that baby ended, my friend Jen and I remained in our seats for a good five minutes afterward. Neither of us could move. We were blown away. Will a sports movie make me feel that way again? You got me.
These days, it's more important for a sports movie to be marketable than great. Just look at "Glory Road", which tackles one of the most important moments in sports history: Don Haskins' turning around Texas Western's hoops team by recruiting black players, then battling racism at every turn to eventually win the 1966 title with five black starters against an all-white Kentucky team. Call it Black Hoosiers. How can that miss? Impossible, right?
Not when Hollywood is involved. Apparently the phrase "based on a true story" means "We bought the rights to a true story so we could perform more surgery than the guys in 'Nip/Tuck'." I don't have a problem with this idea. After all, "Hoosiers" was inspired by Milan High's underdog run, "Rocky" by Chuck Wepner's. But that's the thing, they were inspired by those events. "Glory Road" pretends to tell Texas Western's story, even using real names and games, only it embellishes almost everything. Like Haskins' winning a title in his first season, when it actually took five. Or Haskins' making a dramatic statement by starting five blacks against Kentucky, when he'd actually been doing that all season. Why not go all the way and turn the backup center into, say, a secret member of the KKK?
I know they were relying on the "Remember the Titans" playbook here: a dash of racism, a little R&B music, some feel-good moments, sports scenes that feel like MTV videos, a tough-but-lovable coach, a poignant ending. But why would you want to fictionalize a watershed sporting event? Imagine a Jackie Robinson movie in which Jackie joins the Dodgers in 1955 and wins the World Series over the Yankees with an inside-the-park homer in the seventh game. Would that be remotely acceptable? So why did the makers of "Glory Road" think they could do what they did? Worse, after they made all that stuff up, how could they run the "Here's what happened to each guy" closing montage as if they'd just wrapped up a true story? Why not tell us "Don Haskins continued to coach Texas Western until 1995, when he was mauled to death by a cougar while trying to save a family trapped in a burning car"?
For whatever reason, Hollywood doesn't understand that the phrase "based on a true story" leads to certain expectations. Take "JFK", which brainwashed moviegoers into believing in Jim Garrison's "heroism" and Oliver Stone's convoluted conspiracy theory. Since Stone's film featured real-life assassination footage and an imaginative screenplay, it became easy to believe that, hey, Tommy Lee Jones' character paid Oswald to kill JFK, and the guy Kevin Costner played (bad accent and all) was the only man who could figure it out! Isn't that kind of filmmaking a little dangerous? "Glory Road" wasn't nearly as reckless, but the producers had the opportunity to make an entertaining, important sports movie that also happened to be accurate. Instead, they went James Frey on us.
That's not the only problem. For a movie about a team that prevailed over bigotry, there wasn't nearly enough ... bigotry. I wanted to be frightened for the guys. I wanted to be ashamed we live in a country where not long ago you weren't supposed to play five blacks at once, where Americans looked down on other Americans because of their color. Didn't quite happen. And because the basketball scenes were only passable, one person was left to save the movie: Josh Lucas, as Haskins.
Discussing Lucas last month, my friend Josh (a Hollywood bigshot) told me, "Everyone out here desperately wants him to make it." In other words, there aren't enough under-40 actors who can carry their own movie, so they needed Lucas to hit a home run. That way, they could overpay him to carry mediocre big-budget movies for years to come. This is how Hollywood thinks.
Forget going deep; Lucas barely gets on base. For two hours, he's doing a Jon Gruden impersonation with a passable Southern accent. And he's fine. But he didn't take me anywhere. It's not like watching Gene Hackman in "Hoosiers", or even Gabe Kaplan in "Fast Break", when you're sitting there thinking, "Wow, this guy's carrying the movie!" Again, Lucas is okay. I'd give him a B-minus. On the other hand, I just spent 20 minutes trying to think of who could have done a better job and didn't come up with a single name. Ben Affleck? Nah. Matt McConaughey? Please. Brad Pitt? No way. This is why they needed Josh Lucas to nail "Glory Road".
Which is fair. But I need another great sports movie. How many times can I watch "Hoosiers", "Rocky", "Slap Shot" or "Caddyshack"? We're going on 20 years here. The thing that discouraged me most about "Glory Road" wasn't that they turned a relevant story with A-plus potential into a formulaic sports flick no better or worse than "Coach Carter" or "Miracle" or anything else from this decade. What hurts is that I walked into the theater with Earl Boykins-size expectations. I had given up before it started.
And when it was over, I found myself exchanging disappointed glances with the other paying customer in the theater. Neither of us was happy. In retrospect, maybe we should have skipped the movie and fought to the death.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day, Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.