Making the Grade: An Interview with the Real ‘Coach Carter’
- Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Not everybody has the guts to stand up for what’s right – especially against an inner-city community that’s experiencing what it’s like to be winners for the first time. But, when members of his high school basketball team failed to live up to their promises to attend class and maintain their grades, that’s just what one California coach did.
On January 4, 1999, Ken Carter locked his entire team out of the gymnasium and sent them all to the library for study hall, creating a media frenzy. Academics, he said, had to come first. Besides, all the players and their parents had signed written contracts before the season, agreeing that the boys would attend every class, sit on the front row, maintain a 2.3 grade point average and wear coats and ties to school on game days. They also promised to do community service.
It was the only way, Carter said, that he could make his “student-athletes,” as he insists on calling them, directly responsible for their future and teach them respect – for themselves and their teammates.
Respect, they certainly got. In their first season, after Carter’s arrival as their new basketball coach, the team soared to a record 16-0 – giving everyone something to dream about. That’s when Carter finally got the progress reports he had long been requesting from teachers. He was devastated to learn that at least half the players were skipping classes and failing.
Without hesitation, he locked the entire team out of the gym and started forfeiting games.
The incident, which almost cost Carter his job, is portrayed in the upcoming film, “Coach Carter,” starring Academy Award-nominated actor Samuel L. Jackson. It’s a true-to-life film, with all the language and issues that accompany poverty, loss and urban areas. But for some, “Coach Carter” just might provide a new way of looking at the sports vs. academics dilemma.
“This is definitely not your typical story, and Ken Carter is not your typical guy,” Jackson said, explaining why he agreed to play Carter in the film. “Both the story and Ken are about teaching young people to expect more from themselves and to see beyond their present.”
I recently met with the real Coach Carter, the man behind the film, when he came to Atlanta promote the film. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: You had a very big role in the making of this movie. Tell me a little about that.
A: Well, first of all, I wanted the movie to be accurate. I worked with the writers, the producers, the director and the actors. I was a part of the movie process the entire time. Mr. Samuel Jackson just did a wonderful job as being the leader. He made all the other actors rise to the occasion, and they did a wonderful job. He led by example. He was never late, because I would have had him do push-ups. (Smiles.) He never stumbled – not one single line. And during all that – learning me, my hand rhythms and things of that nature -- he was still able to coach and mentors the other young actors on the set. That’s why the movie is so intense and keeps you engaged at all times.
Q: Some people make movies for money, some for fame. You don’t strike me as that sort of guy. What was your goal in making this movie?
A: Well, they called me – I didn’t call them. But it was just a heartwarming story. You know, you’re 80 times more likely to go to jail in our neighborhood than you are to go to college. Then 50 percent of our kids who enter as freshmen never ever graduate [from high school]. Drastic times take for drastic measures. I’m a real fun-loving guy, but I’m tough when I need to be tough. By no stretch of the imagination do I try and be friends with my players or have them like me. A lot of coaches want their team to like them, so they let things slide. But in the end, you’re doing the student-athlete an injustice. Because, at some point in his life, he’s got to be held accountable for his actions. Whatever the pros do, the college athletes imitate. And whatever they do, the high school athletes imitate. You see it all the way down to the junior high level and even elementary school teams. A kid scores a touchdown and he’s got his John Travolta dance he’s doing.
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