Making the Grade: An Interview with the Real ‘Coach Carter’
- Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
- 2005 11 Jan
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.
Q: Showboating, I call it.
A: That’s right. And we address that in the movie. We address teenage pregnancy. We address alcoholism. We address drugs. But we did it in a very classy way – and it’s all true. Now the liberties that were taken with the movie were very small, and those were just taken to protect the families and the kids. I didn’t want to embarrass one single person involved. In fact, all the players and their families, the ones that were involved in the lock-out year, are actually in the movie as extras. My seven sisters – that is true. I have seven sisters and my plays are named after them. Diane and Ernestine, Cookie and Hettie Jean. Grace, Deborah and Linda. They’re named after my personalities.
Q: You’re talking about really important things here – important social issues – that have the power to transform not just the inner city, but all of the fabric of society. Pregnancy, accountability and sports over academics. What is happening in our society, in your opinion, that our priorities have gotten reversed?
A: There’s no accountability. If a student-athlete is gifted, he’s recognized early as being gifted. Then everybody starts to push him along and he doesn’t have to be accountable for his actions. It goes from Pee Wee Football all the way through the pros. If you’re gifted, you’re gifted, and people just let you slide. But what happens to this person when he’s 30? Even if he made professional sports, his career is basically over. And only one in every 500,000 kids gets a chance to play some kind of professional sport. There are less than 5,000 professional jobs in all of professional sports that you can make a living at. Less. But Microsoft alone has over 10,000 millionaires in that one company.
Q: So your message in this film is …?
A: That accountability, integrity, teamwork, leadership and being kind and a light will never ever go out of style.
Q: Are you hearing some of the things that Bill Cosby is saying? It’s a similar message, isn’t it?
A: It’s a little different. I see the student-athlete where I want them to be. Period. And I take that, then we try to work toward that. People say, ‘Coach, you got this big movie with Samuel Jackson in it. Ashanti. You’re a big shot now.’ And I say, ‘Let me tell you the difference between a big shot and a little shot. A big shot is really just a little shot who kept on working hard.’ You take baby steps. My goal at first was not to get the kids into college. My goal was just to get them to their next class. That’s why the contract was so important, because it put parameters around it. They had to sit in the very front row, turn in all their homework, attend every one of their classes, do their community work, go to study hall. There was nothing in the contract related to basketball – nothing. All of it was academic. The parents signed it and I signed it, and that tangible piece of paper kept us all accountable.
Q: I love the line in the movie when the principal says to you, “You were hired to coach basketball. You need to do your job,” and you respond to her, “And you’re responsible for educating these kids. You need to do yours.” Did you really say that?
A: Yes. The principal is responsible for 1,500 kids. And it’s not anything negative that she was doing. I was responsible for 45 – the freshmen and junior varsity and the varsity teams. We were undefeated on all three levels. So I actually locked out an entire program.
Q: So in real life, you actually locked out three teams, not just one?
A: That’s right. And all of them had to report to the library. Because if one of us was failing, all of us were failing. Because we’re a team. And the bond that those kids built with each other – that will be lifelong.
Q: It’s a huge concept, and when people see this movie, it really resonates. I think a lot of people are going to say, ‘Okay! Everybody should be like Coach Carter!’ But why aren’t they? What has happened that schools and even parents aren’t doing what you’re doing?
A: It’s just that people sometimes take the path of least resistance. It’s as simple as that. It’s easier to just get through the day, push them on through school one month, then another month push them on out the door, then do the same thing the next time around. We have to start educating our kids just like other countries are doing, so we can stay competitive in the world. I remember leaving class thinking I was one of the smartest kids in the country or the world – and that’s the way our instructors taught us. They loved us, they nurtured us. There’s a saying that it takes an entire village to raise a child. Well, I’m that child that Richmond, Calif. raised. And I want to be a living example of what can happen to a person if he has integrity in his life, if he has accountability, if he works with a team and is willing to follow then try to lead. And ma’am, most of all, the reason this movie came about, is because I say ‘Yes ma’am’ and ‘No sir’ every chance I get, and try to be kind, to everybody I meet. And I think that’s what we’re missing in our society.
Q: Who made you into who you are today? Did you have a Coach Carter in your life?
A: (Chuckles). Yes, I did. You know what? I kept it in the family line. I have seven sisters. That’s actually true … and I have one brother, Avery, ten years older. He was my hero – totally. He was quite an individual, and still today he’s my hero. So I never had to look outside our family. It was always there. I am the total sum of my family. Everything I am and everything I’m not is because of the sum of my family.
Q: Now you’re a pretty tough dad, but in a way that I respect. I think you’re a great model, but it goes against the grain. What was that like for you as a dad to go against the grain of people around you, as I imagine you must have. Heck, just staying married is a feat in and of itself these days – for anybody.
A: At the time, my son had a 3.7 GPA, but I locked him out with everybody else – ‘cause we’re a team. He didn’t score every point. He didn’t every rebound. So I locked him out just like everybody else. But at home, we never ever talk basketball. That’s a rule. At home, I call him Damien and he calls me dad. But when we get in the car and go to the gym for practice, I become Coach Carter. All our players say ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir’ to each other – all the time. Because if no one in the school and in the community respected our team, we were going to respect ourselves.
Q: What does your son do now?
A: He was at West Point, and he’s about to transfer to either Cal-Berkeley or Cal-State. He’ll be at one of the two next year. He’s majoring in business, but his love is medicine. He’s going to be a cardiologist. I’m very proud of him. But you know, during this time, he caused so much pressure about being the coach’s son. But he was bold and he was brave and he was able to defend himself against all that talk and the negative stuff that was happening. He came through fine. At some point, during the lockout, I was very concerned for his safety and mine, and the rest of our family. The people in our community were just going crazy over this undefeated team. [They were saying,] ‘How can you take the top-ranked team in California and take them off the floor, Coach, because of grades? Because of academics? Just let the boys play.’
Q: It goes against everything that we believe, in America, where sports are king.
A: Yes, let them play and make it up later. But if we send this message now, that sports is more important than getting your education, we really have a problem.
Q: And we do.
A: Yes, we do. Our 45 guys made the library a cool place to be. In 2001, we won the governor’s performance grant. We painted our school, fixed up the gym – I mean, we did everything. But we also wore coat and ties on game day. I went to practice every day in a suit and tie, because I wanted our boys to see a different inning. I believe, if you see it, you can be it. A retired schoolteacher in her 80s wrote me a handwritten letter during the lockout and sent me $1.50. She was on a fixed income. She wrote, “Young man, you’re doing the right thing. Stick to your guns.” She validated me and from there, it was on.
Q: It had to be hot, though. All the media coming at you, meeting the school board, the angry parents and teachers.
A: Yeah, but I’m real calm. I’m real attentive when it comes to coaching basketball. But I’m not the type to rant and rave. I think as a leader you must always be in control. I say, ‘Young man, you’re late. You owe me 2,000 pushups. And if you say anything, it’s 4,000.’ Those things have to be done before they even participate in any kind of practice or a game.
Q: What would you say is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you and the best thing that’s ever happened to you?
A: I don’t think any bad things have ever happened to me. I just look at them as testimonials. If you don’t have a strong test, you don’t have a strong testimonial. I just look at the bright side of every single thing. I just know I’m going to overcome it. You can be big, you can be fast and you can be bright, but hard work will never go out of style. I just believe in working through problems – and I don’t look at them as problems. I look at them as challenges. And I know, sooner or later, I’m going to conquer them.
Q: Are you a man of faith?
A: Yes, I am.
Q: Does that play a role?
A: Yes, but I also … you know, I listen to rap music. You have to be a lifelong learner. You have to learn what your kids are listening to so you can communicate with them. By no stretch of the imagination am I trying to be their friend or partner. I talk to them, though – some every single night. But there’s always a separation – between coach and player, between parent and child. I hope people will contact me, though. I would like kids to correspond with me, about how to improve their grades and anything else.
For more information about Coach Carter and his non-profit foundation, which awards college scholarships to incoming freshmen and mentors junior high students, visit www.coachcarter.com.
Paramount Pictures' "Coach Carter" releases in theaters nationwide on Friday, January 14, 2005.