[box cover]

Coach Carter

In the pantheon of basketball movies, it's hard to beat Hoosiers. No, make that the pantheon of sports movies. At once immediate and elegiac, the 1986 film not only captures the small towns and backroads of the American midwest in the early 1950s, but it also efficiently summons up why basketball matters — even though the game ostensibly involves putting a leather ball through an iron hoop, it rewards teamwork and discipline, while also illustrating the cardinal sin of Pride and its many costs. With a mere five players per side, basketball is a small team sport. As such, it has the capacity to socialize the unsociable. And if these thematics could find resonance in Hickory, Indiana, in 1952, then somebody realized they also should apply to Richmond High School in present-day Los Angeles. Samuel L. Jackson stars in Coach Carter (2005) as Ken Carter, a sporting-goods store owner who finds himself, in mid-life, actively recruited to helm his alma mater's struggling basketball program. The pay is minimal ($1,500 for one season), and the upside is nearly non-existent — filled out by ill-behaved inner-city kids who are coming off a string of losing seasons, the Richmond Oilers are more likely to win the state lottery than the state basketball championship. But Carter inexplicably takes on the thankless job, and right away he asks the team members to sign a contract, which demands (among other things) that they will maintain 2.3 GPAs and wear ties to class on game-days. A few students balk, but those who remain are intrigued, and perhaps even drawn to Carter's unusual mix of respect (referring to each one of his players as "sir") and strict discipline (handing out pushups for backtalk). The Oilers even start winning games. But when the academic progress reports come in and most of Carter's players have failed to uphold their contracts, the coach does the unthinkable by locking the school gym and forfeiting games until each player has demonstrated the same commitment to academics that they hold for basketball. Coach Carter is a film of simple lessons: Academics are the foundation of a successful future; hard work can be rewarding; respect is a universal language. However, despite its good intentions, the story fails to make a fundamental connection between its lessons and the sport of basketball itself. Instead, the intoxicating sensation of winning games is used in a carrot-and-stick approach to guide wayward students into a greater awareness of their own futures and the impact of the choices they make today. It may come across as a hip-hop Afterschool Special, but the off-court vignettes aren't necessarily bad. However, they render the basketball sequences in a dimmer light. One could even argue that Coach Carter would be a better movie if pitched as a straight drama, with the on-court action rendered off-stage like mighty battles in Shakespeare's Globe Theater. But Stand and Deliver this is not, and while it flirts with an ambitious 2:15 running-time, it's made more digestible by the presence of Sam Jackson. It takes an A-list charisma to head up this sort of saccharine earnestness — and at least fans also get to enjoy watching SLJ scare the hell out of his boys with that inimitable killah stare while handing out pushups by the hundreds. Paramount's DVD release of Coach Carter offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Extras include the featurettes "Coach Carter: The Man Behind the Move" (19 min.) and "Fast Break at Richmond High" (11 min.), six deleted scenes with a "play all" feature, a music video, and previews for other Paramount titles. Keep-case.

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