Tuesday, January 25, 2005 Updated: January 26, 10:45 AM ET
How real is the reel 'Coach Carter?'
By Jeff Merron Special to Page 3
In the opening credits of "Coach Carter," the audience is told that the movie is "Inspired by the life of Ken Carter."
Is this just another Hollywood way of saying, "we're telling the truth, sort of, when it serves our purposes." Or is this the true story of the Richmond (Ca.) High School Oilers 1998-99 season?
Ken Carter, in a news conference at Richmond H.S. just a few weeks ago, gave his take. ""I believe in this movie," he said. "I was there every day of the shoot and worked with the writers and producers."
That should make things accurate, for sure. But Carter added, in what might be considered a cautionary note, "It's a combination of 'Rudy,' 'Stand and Deliver,' 'Lean on me,' 'Hoosiers' and 'Seabiscuit.'"
Uh oh. So, how real is the reel? You decide.
CARTER, CARTER, AND CARTER
Sam Jackson plays Coach Carter in his first sports-themed movie.
In Reel Life: "Coach Carter" is directed by Thomas Carter. In Real Life: No relation. But a huge connection to the inner-city-feel-good-hoops-coach-as-savior-on-screen subgenre. Thomas Carter played James Hayward, a main character in "The White Shadow," the classic drama about high school hoops in South Central L.A. That show, many viewers agree, jumped the shark when Hayward graduated
(jumptheshark.com) at the end of the second season. But it was about time. Carter was 24 when his character got his high school diploma.
In Reel Life: Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) is introduced to the team. The outgoing coach describes himself as a former Richmond player who still holds the school's scoring, assists, and steals records, was two-sport All American, and got a basketball scholarship to George Mason University. In Real Life: Carter was a very good high school player, being named All League his senior year (1976-77) after averaging 23.3 points per game. Carter told Rush Limbaugh in Feb. 1999 that he played basketball, and made no mention of other sports.There's no evidence that he was an All-American in any sport, although it's possible.
Carter didn't attend George Mason University. He went to San Francisco State, then Contra Costa College, and finally, for one-and-a-half years, George Fox University, where he did play basketball.
In Reel Life: Carter says to a player, "As of now, you are 'sir.' Sir is a term of respect." Throughout the film, he calls everyone "sir" and "ma'am." In Real Life: That's right on. That's what he did. And does. A conversational snippet, from "The Limbgaugh Letter" of Feb. 1999:
Rush: Hey, Coach!
Carter: Yes, Sir.
Rush: Thank you for carving a little bit time out for us here. I know you've got to be just jammed with all these requests. So we appreciate it.
Carter: Sir, like I say, if it's for our kids, everything is worth it
Rush: Well, that's an interesting philosophy. "If it's for the kids, everything is worth it." What do you do? Is it correct what I've read, that you're only a part-time coach?
Carter: Yes, Sir. I'm self employed.
Rush: Doing what?
Carter: My family owns a sporting goods store, Sir.
Rush: So you've had a lifelong interest in sports?
Carter: Yes, Sir.
Rush: Participated in it yourself?
Carter: Yes, Sir.
In Reel Life: Carter wears a sleek suit and tie at all times. In Real Life: True. "That's something drawn directly from Coach Carter," Thomas Carter told Film Journal. "The real Ken Carter has the snappiest ties in Hollywood, snappier than Sam's in the film."
In Reel Life: Carter's son, Damien (Robert Ri'chard), attends St. Francis, and is a player there, but he doesn't get into a preseason exhibition against Richmond, because, his father explains, he's a freshman. In Real Life: Damien was a sophomore during the 1998-99 season depicted in the film. He had started for Richmond's varsity as a freshman.
In reel life: Never cross Samuel L. Jackson.
In Reel Life: When Carter accepts the coaching position, he's told he'll be paid a $1,500 stipend for the season. In Real Life: That's what he was paid.
In Reel Life: Apparently, Richmond has only a varsity squad. In Real Life: Richmond had varsity, JV, and freshman teams, 45 players in all.
In Reel Life: As the movie begins, Richmond is being crushed in a preseason game against St. Francis, led by Tyrone Crane (Sidney Faison). Crane, interviewed after the game, is billed as "The next Lebron James." In Real Life: That's one kick-butt local prep TV reporter. During the 1998-99 basketball season LeBron was in 8th grade, and hadn't received much national media attention -- although he was already considered a phenom. However, for any reporter to be describing any high school player as "the next Lebron" in 1999 would be & unlikely.
In Reel Life: Carter names plays and defensive schemes after his sisters. The man-to-man pressure defense, for example, is named "Diane." In Real Life: Carter had seven sisters and one brother, and did name plays after them. "When we go, 'Cookie!' Cookie is our toughest defense," he told the Contra Costa Times in 2001. "That's my sister, who's the toughest and who is the loudest."
In Reel Life: Richmond is invited to compete in the Bay Hill Holiday Tournament. They make it to the finals. Down by 6 with 1:20 to play, Damien makes a three-pointer, dishes an assist, steals the ball and makes another three, then drives for the winning bucket at the buzzer, to give the Oilers a 79-78 win. In Real Life: Carter's son was, indeed, an excellent player, good enough to be named honorable mention All-Conference as a frosh. By the time he graduated, he had surpassed his father as Richmond's all-time leading scorer and, according to coachcarter.com (coachcarter.com), was "California Boys Basketball Leading Scorer."
In Reel Life: In Richmond's first game after the lockout, they beat Arlington, 82-68. In Real Life: The Oilers beat St. Elizabeth High School, 61-51, their first game back.
In Reel Life: After the preseason game against St. Francis, Richmond doesn't lose another game, and there's no mention of any losses. In Real Life: Richmond finished the season with a 19-5 record, and did lose steam, losing two in a row shortly after returning.
In Real Life: Richmond faces top-ranked St. Francis in the first round of the state tournament. The Oilers play a great game, but lose 70-69 on a St. Francis buzzer-beater. In Real Life: Richmond lost in the second round of the state tournament.
Every high school athlete's worst nightmare.
In Reel Life: The team is locked out in January 1999, during the same season Carter takes over as coach. In Real Life: Carter began coaching the team in 1997. The lockout began on Jan. 4, 1999.
In Reel Life: The Oilers are undefeated 16-0 -- when the lockout begins. In Real Life: The Oilers were 13-0, and had a No. 3 ranking among California's Div. III schools.
In Reel Life: Principal Garrison (Denise Dowse) strongly opposes the lockout. In Real Life: The school principal, Haidee Foust-Whitmore, was supportive. "I laughed at first, when he shared his proposal with me," she told the L.A. Times a few days after the lockout. "I said, 'This man must be crazy.' But the bottom line is that he was trying to get the kids up to par, get them working up to their potential. So I said, 'This is great.'"
Foust-Whitmore wasn't too pleased with being portrayed as the naysayer in the film. "It was explained to me that in Hollywood there's always forces of good and evil," Foust told John Simerman of the Contra Costa Times. "I said, 'Doggone it, do I have to be the evil one?' These kids are going to believe every word they see on the screen."
In Reel Life: The lockout issue is discussed at a school board meeting. Parents rail at Carter, and one says, "I move that we remove Carter as head basketball coach." A board member responds that the board doesn't have that authority, but can vote to end lockout. The vote is 4-2 in favor of ending it. Carter quits. In Real Life: According to the Sacramento Bee, Foust-Whitmore let district officials know of the plan, and they agreed to it in advance. Diana Easton, the president of the school board, told the L.A. Times, "I think it's great. He's saying there ought to be a balance between sports and academics."
But there was some disagreement, especially with the way Carter went about doing things. He didn't call parents first, for example. Pam Walker Fletcher, the mother of starting forward Christopher Gibson, said, "My son supports his coach, but I just don't agree with the way he is doing it. The parents of those kids should have been right up there with him at that press conference (which followed the lockout), backing him up." And at least one board member did believe the lockout
should have been discussed with the board prior to being implemented.
But there's no evidence that a vote to end the lockout was discussed or taken by the school board, or that Carter threatened to quit.
In Reel Life: After the lockout, the Richmond campus is flooded by journalists and Carter is interviewed on national TV and radio. In Real Life: True. He was on "Today," "Good Morning America," "All Things Considered," and the story appeared in many major newspapers.
In Reel Life: There's no mention of how other teams -- opponents who might be affected by cancelled games -- reacted to the lockout. In Real Life: Several coaches voiced their distaste for Carter's action. Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight said, "There's nothing wrong with the idea, but I just don't think it is fair to the other schools involved & Doing it this way, I think you're punishing other schools."
Ocean View High coach Jim Harris said, "To me, it was disrespectful to his opponents."
In Reel Life: The players quickly improve their attitudes, attendance, and grades, and are back playing in about a week. In Real Life: The lockout lasted eight days, costing the team one non-conference game and one game against alumni. Carter, Principal Foust-Whitmore, and athletic director Roy Rogers together decided to end the shutdown.
COACH CARTER'S REPUTATION AND LEGACY
There's a shortage of Ken Carters in the coaching ranks.
In Reel Life: The players clearly respect Carter, and several times in the movie it's made clear that they want to play for him so badly that they'll run thousands of suicides and do hundreds of pushups for the opportunity. In Real Life: "A lot of guys didn't want to play for him," Courtney Anderson, the Oakland Raiders tight end, told John Simerman of the Contra Costa Times. "It wasn't because he was a hard coach. It was more his ego."
In Reel Life: The players continue to do very well academically. Problem pretty much solved. In Real Life: Carter locked the players out of practice on Feb. 11, because the team didn't continue the daily tutoring regimen that began after the lockout. "For some reason, our young men are starting to slip away," Carter said at the time. He didn't cancel any games, but several players were benched for poor academic performance.
In Reel Life: Throughout the film, a common theme in Carter's seemingly endless speeches is the importance of getting good grades in order to get into college. At the end of the movie, it's noted that five players went on to get college scholarships and six went on to college. And that Carter's son, Damien, went to the U.S. Military Academy. In Real Life: "I wouldn't say he put that much time or effort in our grades or us going to college," Anderson, who was on the 1999 team, told the Contra Costa Times. He wasn't a bad guy. He wasn't a good guy. He was just a coach."
But against long odds, many players did go on to college. Wayne Oliver, who graduated in 1999, went to Cameron University in Oklahoma. Two other players, the L.A. Times noted in 2001, were going to U.C. Berkley and UNLV. And Damien did attend West Point, but left after a year or two to go to school on the West Coast.