By Miki Turner
Special to Page 3
NEW YORK -- Before I could even push the record button on my minidisc player, Ken Carter asked, "What did you think of the movie? You want to know what I thought?"
After a lengthy, yet engaging diatribe, it became clear that Carter, whose experiences as a coach at Richmond (Calif.) High School are well chronicled in the film "Coach Carter," is someone worth listening to.
A former star guard at Richmond High in the mid '70s, Carter's former coach convinced him to take over the team in 1997. Carter not only inherited an undisciplined team that hadn't won a game during the previous season, but also a team that was in poor physical condition. They were huffing and puffing after just a few wind sprints.
In less than a year, however, Carter turned the Oilers into physically-fit winners who subsequently grew into respected citizens.
All it took was one man and one contract.
"Coach Carter," which opens on January 14, evolves around a violation of that contract that put Carter and Richmond High -- a predominantly black and Latino inner-city high school located just north of Oakland -- in the national spotlight.
In order to play for Carter, players had to adhere to the following stipulations:
That was a tall order for a bunch of kids who were used to living life on their own terms.
But when Carter found out that 15 of his players weren't meeting academic requirements during the 1998-99 season in which the Oilers were enjoying a 13-0 record, he locked the gym doors for one week.
Carter's decision affected more than 40 varsity, reserve and freshmen players. And while Governor Gray Davis called Carter a "hero," the Richmond community went nuts. The unbeaten varsity team had been a tremendous source of pride for a city perennially plagued by violence, drugs and crime. It didn't matter to them that their kids would win by losing.
During the lockout Carter received death threats, had people spit on him and had his locally-based sporting goods store vandalized. Some folks still haven't gotten over it.
"Honestly, people walk up to me now after all the stuff and say 'Coach, we could have won the state championship,'" Carter said. "But basketball was only the hook, education was the goal."
The players eventually improved their grades after missing two games, but the unbeaten Oilers finished the season at 19-5, losing in the second round of the district playoffs.
Maybe some of those who are still holding a grudge will get over it once they see the movie. Samuel L. Jackson plays Carter in the inspirational film that also stars Robert Ri'card, Ashanti, Antwon Tanner, Rob Brown and Ricky Gonzalez. Jackson was Carter's first and only choice to portray him.
It was a good pick.
Other than the height difference -- Jackson is over six-feet tall while Carter is about 5-9 -- the two are fairly similar in appearance and personality. They're both bald, strong-willed, love hoops and have a thing for Kangols.
"I actually enjoyed the movie," says Carter who resigned in 2002 and now writes books, runs his own foundation and owns several Richmond-based businesses. "It's portrayed in a very good, positive way. Mr. Jackson did a wonderful job.
"The reason I really loved the movie is because they put my seven sisters and my mother in it. I think that's a pretty good start."
Carter, who refers to nearly everyone as Mr. or Miss, sir or ma'am, was on the set every day. It was a surreal experience for him especially since he had predicted that some day someone would make a movie about him.
"I was eight-years-old in Macomb, Miss.," he said speaking with a military-like cadence. "My mother was baking a cake. She had on a flower-colored apron. And I told her this. I said, 'Mother, one day they're going to make a movie about me and I was interviewing myself with the spoon.' I said, 'I'm going to pay off all of your bills and buy you a big house.'
"And you know what?" he added in a quieter tone. "We were walking on the set and she asked me if I remembered when she was baking a cake and we're on the set and both of us are crying. I didn't know it was going to happen -- honestly, I didn't. I made a statement when I was eight-years-old and I think sometimes when you make statements they come true."
During his four years at Richmond High every one of the young men who played for Carter graduated. That's a significant stat considering that Richmond High had graduated fewer than 50 percent of its students during that time. Among his former players are: Courtney Anderson, the starting tight end for the Oakland Raiders; Carter's son Damian, who is now at West Point; and Chris Gibson, a successful businessman in New Orleans.
They're his validation for a job well done.
"The reason why I get up in the morning is because I want to add value to my family's name each and every day," Carter said when asked if he was proud of what he'd done at Richmond High. "It's as simple as that. I believe if you can see it, you can be it.
"Everybody always tells me that with this movie and everything else that I've done, I'm a real big shot. But you know what? A big shot is really just a little shot who kept on shooting."
Miki Turner covers the fusion of sports and entertainment for Page 3 in Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.