The real Coach Carter

Published: Saturday, January 22, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 21, 2005 at 11:01 p.m.
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Samuel L. Jackson stars in "Coach Carter," now playing in Gainesville.

Scripps Howard
When Carter was just a kid, maybe 8, the day he predicted all of this.
He was in the kitchen, waiting to be given the big wooden spoon his mother was using to stir cake batter.
''I'm talking to her and I'm licking that spoon, and I start to interview myself,'' Carter remembered. ''My mama is looking at her little son. She's proud of me, of course. And I say, 'You know what, mama, one day they're gonna make a movie about me, and I'm gonna pay off all your bills and buy you this big ol' house, and you'll never have to worry again.' "
Last Friday, a little boy's bold prophecy came true when ''Coach Carter'' opened nationwide and became the No. 1 film of the four-day weekend. It brought in $29.2 million at the box office. Carter says his mother can now have anything she wants.
Samuel L. Jackson plays Carter, one-time high school boys' basketball coach in the San Francisco Bay city of Richmond, Calif.
In January 1999, in mid-season, Carter locked the Richmond High School gym and canceled all practices and games, prepared to abruptly end a winning season because of his players' academic failings. He believed that schoolwork was more important than anything, even basketball.
The lockout attracted national attention and set off an uproar among the citizens of Richmond. ''Coach Carter'' very closely follows the true story.
''You have to understand,'' Carter said last week over lunch, ''Richmond High School hadn't won many basketball games in the last 20 years, maybe five or six in that time. And all of a sudden, we've won 16 straight games. We weren't just beating people, we were beating them convincingly. The gym was full every game, and people were excited. You'd drive down the streets and see signs in the windows of businesses (saying) 'Go Oilers' and 'Go R.H.S.' The kids, the players, were just like rock stars.
''We were undefeated on all three levels - varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams. So now you have 45 undefeated kids, and now you're gonna make us forfeit games? Yes, I am. At that point I was prepared to forfeit the whole season.''
The movie, directed by Thomas Carter (who won Emmy awards for ''Don King: Only in America'' and ''Equal Justice'' and is not related to Ken Carter), focuses on the Oilers varsity squad, which included the coach's real-life son, Damien Carter. (He's played by Robert Richard, from UPN's ''One on One.'') Also appearing in ''Coach Carter'' as Richmond players are Rob Brown ("Finding Forrester''), Rick Gonzalez ("The Rookie''), Antwon Tanner ("Never Die Alone''), fashion model Channing Tatum ("Havoc'') and Nana Gbewonyo, a student at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark., making his acting debut.
When Ken Carter took over the Oilers' troubled basketball program in 1998, he was a successful businessman with a sporting goods store and barber shop. He had graduated from Richmond High in 1977 and was still the school's all-time scoring leader.
Richmond High's academic record in the late 1990s was dismal: Only half of the freshman class was expected to graduate.
Richmond was a predominantly black working-class city with high unemployment and rampant drug problems. Carter was determined to better the future for his players.
He presented them with a contract: If they wanted to play basketball, they would agree to maintain a 2.3 grade-point average, attend all of their classes and sit on the front row. If they complied, he promised to help them get into college.
When 15 of the 45 players in the basketball program failed to meet Carter's terms, he padlocked the gym and sent everyone to the library, where tutors were waiting.
''I didn't think anything was going to happen,'' Carter said of the community's backlash, which included a brick thrown through the front window of his sporting goods store. ''I thought everybody was going to say, 'Coach is doing the right thing,' and pat me on the back.''
But even after school officials reopened the gym, the players honored the lockout and forfeited two games before their failing grades were brought up.
''So much emphasis is put on sports that academics sometimes get the short shrift,'' director Thomas Carter said by phone from Los Angeles. ''Kids should be encouraged to excel in the classroom. And that a coach would value that, I'm sorry to say, is all too uncommon.
''Ken had the courage to stand against so many people who were not being supportive and, because the team was winning, it was harder to get support. It's one thing to take that on with a losing team but quite another with one that is winning. It's more important to win with intelligence.
"My mother was a teacher for 40 years, so I was very close to those ideas,'' said the director, who had directed episodes of ''Miami Vice,'' ''St. Elsewhere'' and ''Hack'' before making his big-screen debut with ''Save the Last Dance'' (2001).

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