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BATON ROUGE, La. -- In the spring of 2005 the cast and crew of "Glory Road" journeyed from El Paso, Texas, to Louisiana State University to recreate the historic 1966 NCAA championship game between Texas Western and the University of Kentucky. This was the first time five black players started a collegiate game. "Glory Road" is being released by Disney, the parent company of ESPN, and hits theaters Friday.
Before he became a suave, Armani suit-wearing NBA coach, Pat Riley made his mark as a player for coach Adolph Rupp's Kentucky Wildcats. Riley was a starter on the team that lost to Texas Western in the 1966 NCAA championship.
That game and subsequent loss had a lasting impact on Riley. He shared his memories with his good friend, Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer of the film.
On the set, the Miami Heat coach talked about his former coach and the effect the game had on the sport, society and himself.
1. What's your most vivid memory of that game?Pat Riley: The most vivid memory of it was the pain that you go through. It was a hard loss. There's only one time that you get a chance to do something significant in the NCAA championship. And when you get there, you've really got to do it. If you don't, you never really get another opportunity. We didn't. They were better than we were, more aggressive than we were. And they did it under the most trying circumstances.
2. Did the social impact of this game hit you when you were playing in it?Riley: We were too tunnel-visioned into winning the NCAA championship. Nobody would discuss the issues back in the '60s. While they were in the mastheads of the newspapers across the country -- all the strife and unrest and the burning of cities and all that -- we were playing basketball. Now that I think back I feel guilty about the whole thing. I'm glad this story is coming out.
3. What do you remember about the atmosphere?Riley: We were playing against five very good black players and they were playing against five very good white players from the South. Everybody was thinking those thoughts, but that wasn't something that the media would bring out. There was no spin on it. It was a very, very competitive game, but most of the time back then the fans and players behaved themselves. There was not a lot of celebration, not a lot of that craziness coming from the audience. I think it was born out of the '50s and '60s discipline.
4. What do you think of Wes Brown's portrayal of you?
Riley: Wes is doing a great job -- great job. He's gotten dunked on, so he knows how I felt in 1966. He's taken some hard fouls, made some jump shots and he's doing me proud, absolutely. My wife, though, says he's a little bit better looking than I am.
5. What kind of insight were you able to give Jon Voight into the character of coach Rupp?
Riley: I met him when I was coaching the Lakers. He absolutely has been a sponge. I respect the fact that he thinks that I can help him. He's a method actor. It's so eerie about how he sounds and how he's picked up Adolph's mannerisms in his voice. I think he's going to represent coach Rupp in a very dignified, competitive manner. Jerry Bruckheimer could not have casted a better man to play him in this movie.
6. There have always been a lot of negative preconceptions about coach Rupp. Was he a complicated or complex man?
Riley: No. Most people that have done something absolutely significant in their industry can often be misunderstood. He was the greatest coach at the time. He was the John Wooden, the Bobby Knight, the Dean Smith and he was bigger than life. There were a lot of perceptions about him that absolutely took on a mythical thing. Something he would say, all of a sudden would be something else 10 years later.
The best thing that ever happened to me in my life was to go to the University of Kentucky and play for a man who was disciplined, organized and when I left there I thought I was a better person for it. So all the misconceptions about him from the outside world weren't true.
Voight channels Rupp
Oscar winner Jon Voight sat apart from the others staring blankly at the drab parquet floor beneath him. He looked as though he had been spooked by the ghost of Adolph Rupp.
That wasn't too far from the truth. As he had done in previous biopics such as "Ali" and "Pearl Harbor," Voight chose to stay in character as soon as he stepped on the set. As a result, his portrayal of Rupp is so right on that even Riley did a double-take the first time he heard Voight deliver a line.
"He's really got coach Rupp down," Riley said. "He immediately took me back to that time in 1966, back to that game. It is eerie."
Voight, a native New Yorker, was just 28 at the time and embarking on a career that would include such hit films as "Midnight Cowboy," "Deliverance," "Coming Home" and "The Champ."
"I didn't know too much about this story to begin with," Voight said. "I went through the '60s knowing quite a lot of things but I wasn't focused on that for some reason. It was interesting when I read it. I didn't know anything about coach Rupp because I was from the North -- New York -- and I guess we didn't pay much attention to Kentucky basketball."
Voight, however, does recall the era.
"I remember that time very well because I went on some marches and civil rights was a very important movement," Voight said. "It was interesting to see justice being served in this aspect of equality that is in the Constitution after all. That was a very stirring part of the '60s. That was the positive amid all the assassinations and the political unrest."
Voight discovered that, aside from compiling an 879-190 record in 41 years at Kentucky, beneath Rupp's gruff exterior was a man with a tremendous sense of humor who was a commanding presence on the court and a timid communicator off of it. And Voight, like others who knew Rupp well, thinks that, contrary to rumors, Rupp was not racist.
Voight found some of the answers by talking to friends and associates of Rupp. He also listened to more than 100 audio tapes of Rupp from postgame interviews and various speeches. Rupp intrigued Voight.
"I listened to him and said, 'You know, I like this guy,'" Voight said. "I think this guy is an interesting guy. I know that he was raised in a culture in that part of the world where he probably did have built-in bigotry. But was he a bigot? And I had to say that he was an idealist and a teacher. I know that he coached teams for the Olympics with black players and that one of the first teams he coached in high school had a black player on it. The black players were always very supportive of him.
"I thought that was interesting. I had to wonder why they were trying to put this label on this guy."
After completing his research, Voight assessed that Rupp was not a bad guy, he was a smart one. Sure, he was in a position where he could have made a difference and challenged the status quo, but he knew what black players would face in the SEC during that time.
"He'd play against Mississippi State and the fans would throw live skunks at him, and he was white! He knew what would happen if he brought a black player into that situation," Voight said. "Sure, people later said that he could have made a statement, but he said it would take a strong kid to stand up to that and he wasn't looking for the kind of kid who could deal with that kind of pressure.
"He wouldn't have been comfortable in the role of crusader. He wouldn't have sacrificed his work to make a statement at that time. He wanted to continue being a basketball coach and a successful one. That may be a flaw, but not too many people are heroic. And he had to think about his family and what he was going to put them through."
Voight hopes that his portrayal of Rupp will help dispel some of the misconceptions of the man who led Kentucky to four national championships and 27 SEC titles.
"He can't defend himself, so you have to be very careful and clear about what we know about this guy," Voight said. "He was a teacher, he was a technician and a psychologist of sorts. He was tough, and yes, even arrogant. He wasn't a warm and fuzzy guy. But the bottom line was that he was successful. That was the way he got to the top. That was the way he became a winner."
Getting his game on
When Derek Luke signed on to play Texas Western guard Bobby Joe Hill in "Glory Road," he initially felt that his passion for the story would help him overcome his less-than-stellar basketball skills.
But by the end of the film, the actor who had portrayed high school running back Boobie Miles in "Friday Night Lights," had unearthed a game that he now claims could rival a "second-string high school player." That's not too shabby for a guy who is the first to admit he's no natural athlete.
Learning to play ball with the help of Mike Fisher (the film's basketball coordinator) and current USC hoops coach Tim Floyd, however, was probably an easier task than portraying someone who was no longer around. The real Hill, who helped lead the Miners to that improbable NCAA championship in 1966, died of a heart attack in 2002. Unfortunately for Luke, there was not a lot of published material on Hill, so he had to rely on information from Hill's widow and his surviving teammates.
Luke talked about his preparation for the role, the social ramifications of the 1966 NCAA championship and his challenges on the court.
1. How would you measure the progress of the nation in terms of race relations since 1966?
Derek Luke: One of the things I discovered during my research was that race relations have continued to improve, but at first I thought the progress had stopped because when I looked at the NCAA -- these guys and their victory -- I saw how the civil rights movement was one of the things that made this happen. I felt like basketball was just one of the veins that was connected to the heart of it all. My point is that back then, most of these people -- that moved the movement -- were spiritual leaders. So in doing research for this particular movie, I think of more than just how it [race relations] has changed. It's more of a question now of who is in leadership. How are people being led? I think that's what's different.
2. What do you think a film like this says to people of your generation?
Luke: I think it gives us a perspective and an appreciation that sports is not an obligation, it's a privilege. You played for more than yourself. There's no such thing as an obstacle you can't overcome.
3. Was it a disadvantage not having the real Bobby Joe Hill around as a reference source?
Luke: It's always good to have as much information as possible. The interesting thing about Bobby Joe is that he was very much like he was [portrayed] on screen. He didn't talk much. He was like a kid when he came on the court. He just came alive. As far as interviews, there wasn't a whole lot of information leading up to Bobby Joe. That's where I had a challenging task.
4. Who gave you the most insight into him?
Luke: There were bits and parts from everyone. Nevil Shed, who was his roommate, gave me the most information regarding Bobby Joe. The one thing that everyone says about him is that nothing ever bothered him.
4. How did you see him as opposed to the way he's portrayed on film? It looks like he was kind of a ladies' man who liked to party.
Luke: Now that's him! I think Bobby Joe liked his environment. Once he was among friends and his teammates, he enjoyed himself. That's one of the things that I enjoyed about him. He was a man's man and was a fun guy to be around. He was one of those personalities that just stuck out. A natural leader.
Sneak Preview: Behind the scenes of the making of "Glory Road"
5. A lot of your co-stars say that your game has come a long way since those early days of shooting in Baton Rouge. How would you assess your skills today?
Luke: I do believe I'm a better baller than when I started. I have better form and more understanding. I felt like I was the iron-on and had some challenges. A lot of other people had experience, but the fact of the matter was that people depended on Bobby Joe to make the plays. He got his name from what he did on the court. So it was just allowing myself to feel and be led by that spirit.
6. Did you actually make all those shots or were there some cutaways involved there?
Luke: There were cutaways, but there was one special shot. The director comes up to me and says, "Hey Derek, this is what we're going to do. You're going to start it, we're going to use your face and your body and then we're going to throw a double in."
We rehearsed it and ran the three-shot play. I get the ball, throw it up and it goes in. The whole stadium goes quiet. The film crew goes quiet.
They're screaming, "Run Bobby Joe, run Bobby Joe!' I started running and they were like, "We got it!'
I made a statement. Then I became part of an NCAA team.
7. Who gave you the best advice when it came to the game?
Luke: We dealt with a lot of NBA coaches. Tim Floyd did most of the physical training for us and I spoke with Pat Riley. I also spoke with the real Don Haskins. Those three guys -- put all the elements together -- the physical, the mental and the spirit of what was happening at that time, that day, and how to play. I think the combination of that royalty just birthed the skill.
Miki Turner is a segment producer for ESPN Hollywood and can be reached at Miki.P.Turner.-ND@espn.com.