My child, do not despise the LORD’s discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the LORD reproves the one he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Coach Ken Carter (Samuel L Jackson) is a good stand-in for the Lord, bringing discipline and a new sense of self-respect to a rag-tag basketball team at a ghetto high school in Richmond, California. The old coach, worn out and realizing that he needs to be replaced, convinces Carter, proprietor of a sports ware store to take on the demanding job. Carter, in 1971, had been an all-star basketball player, his name emblazoned on a large banner still on display in the school gymnasium. However, times have changed, with poverty enveloping the neighborhood, all of its problems descending upon the heads of the youth. The undisciplined players had won just four games during the previous season. Even while Carter and Coach White are discussing his coming, the boys, right outside the office, are arguing and squabbling, rather than practicing their game.
The first thing the new coach does is to address the boys as “Sir,” telling the surprised youth that he intends to respect them, even as he demands respect from them. He then passes out a contract that they and their parents are to sign. It requires that they maintain a 2.3 grade average; attend all classes; and wear a shirt and tie on game day. One player objects to what he regards as too high of a grade average: Carter reminds him that if they maintain the higher than minimum average they will need less test points in order to enter college. The angry Timo Cruz (Rick Gonzales) threatens Carter, but the larger man easily grabs the boy’s arm, twisting it behind his back and forcing him against the wall and then out of the gym. “You’re a teacher! You’re not supposed to lay a hand on us,” Cruz protests. “I am not a teacher,” Carter corrects him. “I am the coach.”
Of course Carter is at heart a teacher, and he constantly tries to teach his unwilling charges the importance of discipline and a college education. They can see only the moment, scarcely thinking beyond their immediate desires. Carter bears down hard on them, punishing the whole team with hundreds of push-ups and running whenever one of them is late. This includes his own son Marcus (Robert Ri’chard), who convinces his dad to allow him to transfer from the prestigious high school he is attending so that he can play ball under the direction of his father. He and his teammates develop stamina from the grueling workouts, so that when they finally play their first game, they find that they can outlast physically their opponents in the crucial second half of the game. Thus they begin to see a purpose in the demanding regimin of the coach.
From the first Carter is opposed by most of the parents, who echo the complaint of one of the players, that the contract is b—s—. When someone objects that his son does not have and cannot afford a dress shirts and tie, Carter says that there is a Good Will store a couple of blocks away where they can buy them cheaply. He insists on sticking to the contract, and when he discovers that the boys are not taking it seriously by ducking out of and failing their courses, he brings a storm down upon his head by canceling practice, and even the games. The boys have been transformed into a winning team, so both they and their parents are outraged at being locked out. Even Principal Garrison (Denise Dowse), who has questioned his tactics before but stood by him, thinks he has gone too far.
We have been down this road—one of a high principled teacher (read coach here, as in Remember the Titans) facing intense opposition from those who do not share his vision—but it is a road well worth traveling down again. Based on real incidents at Richmond High during the 1999 basketball season, the film affirms the great value of tough love, discipline, the need for self-respect, and a vision that sees beyond the moment. All this, after great struggle, Coach Ken Carter succeeded at instilling into the once unruly team members. If I were a youth minister, I would be checking to see if the local theater offers group rates. This is a film that youth and parents should be seeing and discussing.
Note: The following includes several spoilers, so wait until you see the film before reading this.
1) What do you think of the team when Coach Carter first meets them? How do we see that each player lives just for himself? Which do you think is more important (and why): that a team have several super-talented stars, or that it develop teamwork along with the players’ talents?
2) What scene shows that Carter’s vision of a team has taken root in the boys? How is the player’s volunteering to take on some of the push-ups and suicide runs of the expelled player a moment of grace? How does this affect the others?
3) Coach Carter’s requirements are rigid and demanding, yet what does he do when two of the quitters ask to come back? Why doesn’t he just re-instate them? How could what he does be an example of what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called genuine grace versus “cheap grace”?
4) In the scenes with the parents, who exhibits the most concern for the welfare of the boys? In a couple of scenes an adult says that “basket ball is all these boys have”—what does the coach reply? Compare the parents’ and teachers’ attitude with those of some of the adults in Friday Night Lights. How are Coach Gary Gaines and Coach Carter cut from the same cloth?
5) When Carter is told that his job is to teach the players to win games, what is his response? How does he have a better concept of student or scholar/athletes than the teachers themselves? Compare the expectations that the teachers have for the boys with that of Coach Carter. How can a teacher’s expectation of a student influence the outcome? (Think back to other teacher films, such as Stand and Deliver, and see how this is an important theme in almost all of them.)
6) How did you feel when Coach Carter, following the vote of the school board to end the lock-out, goes to the gym office to gather up his belongings? How does what he finds there show that the boys have at last understood and accepted his vision? Or is this a case of loyalty to the man whom they do not want to quit?
7) An important subplot concerns the plight of the pregnant Kyra and player Kenny. How does each of them mature in the film? How is this similar to what happens to all of the members of the team? Her decision concerning her pregnancy will not please everyone—what do you think of it?
8) How did you feel after the state tournament game? How does the result go against the usual formula for such sports films? What do you think of Carter’s little speech to the despondent boys? How important do you think his lesson that winning is NOT everything is to our society? Indeed, what does society actually teach? How could this be seen as a subversive film?