You know the insults I receive,
and my shame and dishonour;
my foes are all known to you.
Insults have broken my heart,
so that I am in despair…
This sports inspirational film follows the genre pattern, its chief difference being in the sport, team swim competition, rather than the Big Three—Baseball, Basketball, or Football. It is based on the career of real life swimming coach Jim Ellis, portrayed ably by Terrence Howard. In a brief prologue we see how during his college days Ellis had run into bigotry at a swim meet in South Carolina. Years later, in 1974, he comes to Philadelphia seeking a job. The employment agency sends him to Philadelphia department of Recreation’s run-down Marcus Foster recreation center where the only other employee is maintenance man Elston (Bernie Mac), who scarcely gives the new arrival the time of day.
Slated by the city to be torn down, the old building is filled with furniture, boxed items and file cabinets. The only youth around are all outside playing on the decrepit basketball court. Apparently to save money, Jim bunks down in one of the rooms. While exploring the building, he discovers an indoor swimming pool. He starts in cleaning and renovating it himself, with Elton later joining in. When city employees arrive to take down the basketball hoops, the teenagers are upset, but soon are enticed inside by Jim. It being a hot summer day, the boys are delighted by the large pool. They frolic and bat the ball around, until Jim takes it away and tells them that the old rules, posted on the wall, will be enforced, including “No clowning around.”
After Jim beats one of the over-confident boys in a race, the boys become interested in forming a team to compete in city matches, but they refuse to exchange their loose-fitting shorts for the tight trunks that Jim holds forth as proper attire. As he trains them in the fundamentals, they become over-confident, which proves their downfall when they travel to a suburban club and encounter an all-white team led by the smugly superior Coach Bink (Tom Arnold). Not only are they roundly beaten, but they face the class and racial bigotry that Jim himself had suffered from during his college days.
The only team member who performed well at the match is Willie (Regine Nehy), the girl whom the boys at first had not wanted on the team. And so it is back to their home base for the dejected team, where Coach Ellis will not only have to contend with training and keeping his team together, but also struggle against the Philadelphia Department of Recreation to keep the Marcus Center open. At first the face of the PDR is Sue Davis (Kimberly Elise), a government official and sister of one of the team members. Once her skepticism about what Jim Ellis is attempting to do is overcome, she becomes an ally who knows whom to approach to change the PDR plans.
There are no real surprises in this film, which includes the usual climax of the Big Game (in this case Meet), but this should not bother those who, like myself, love to cheer for an underdog coach and team fighting against arrogant opponents. The film marks the debut of the Zimbabwe-born director Sunu Gonera. It is a good film for the family or youth group to see and discuss together, suggesting by its title that real pride consists in a sense of self worth married to discipline, hard work and loyalty.
1) In the prologue, when the coach tells Jim Ellis about the racist objection to his participating with his white teammates in the South Carolina meet, how did the coach’s decision meet your expectations? Were you surprised?
2) The story takes place in the 1970s: how does racism still permeate our society? Are there any sports wherein a minority person still is an exception? How has Tiger Woods broken the barrier in golf, especially in being able to play in clubs uncongenial to African Americans?
3) Compare the struggles of Coach Ellis and his team with those depicted in such films as: Remember the Titans; Glory Road; The Jackie Robinson Story. The underdog/racism genre also overlaps with the caring teacher/minority students genre: what films, in addition to the recent Freedom Riders have you seen?
4) How does the boy’s overconfidence bear out Proverbs 29:23? How do we all at times need to be “brought low” ?
5) How does Jim Ellis’ anger get in the way? How is this a real problem in sports, especially high contact sports? What does his dealing with his problem reveal about his character, especially when he suspends himself? Do you think he is more concerned about winning or about the development of his team members’ character?
6) At what points do you believe that the hand of God is at work in the film?