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Coach's Example Makes the Difference in Cheer

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2007 6 Jun
  • COMMENTS
Coach's Example Makes the Difference in  <i>Cheer</i>

Release Date: June 26, 2007
Rating: Unrated
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 75 min.
Director: Betsy Blankenbaker
Narrator: Willie Merriweather

The year was1955; the place, Indianapolis; the team, Crispus Attucks—a high school that had been founded by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, in order to ensure racial segregation.  But on that day, none of the prejudice the players dealt with on a daily basis mattered.  The only thing that mattered—the thing that everyone would be talking about, 50 years later—was that five black players won the Indiana High School State Championship.  In so doing, they forever changed the world of basketball, carving a place for African-Americans to enter the game.

On the court that year was a coach’s dream team: Hallie Bryant and Willie Merriweather, who would go on to play college ball then join the Harlem Globetrotters (Merriweather was an All-American at Purdue University).  And then there was sophomore guard Oscar Robertson, who would earn 12 NBA All-Star titles while playing for the Cincinnati Royals and the Milwaukee Bucks.  But Robertson, who would eventually grow to 6’5”, wasn’t always so tall.  His teammates nicknamed him “Big O” precisely because he was so scrawny.  In fact, they only let him join their pickup games because he had his own basketball.

Narrated by Merriweather, director Betsy Blankenbaker’s documentary spends plenty of time with all the players except Robertson, who has limited screen time—and who does not appear at the player’s reunion, for some reason.  Her interviews focus on the racial segregation as much as the games, with the players sharing stories about not being allowed to use the restrooms or eat in restaurants, when traveling, or being forced to accept overtly-biased referee calls at every game, to name just a few.

The best memories, however, are recounted by Coach Ray Crowe, who went on to become an Indiana state senator and who is still considered the most successful basketball coach in Indiana history.  He led Crispus Attucks to win the state championships not only in 1955, but in 1956 and 1959 as well.  A rigorous disciplinarian who had grown up around Caucasians, Crowe was not at all intimidated by them, as other coaches had been.  He felt therefore free to focus on the game, rather than the unstated but widely observed rule which insisted that black players be gentlemen first and players second, thus equating “competitiveness” with unseemly behavior.  Not necessarily a negative thing—except that black players were the only ones being held to that standard.  This attitude was even more ironic given that hardly anyone would play against the young men.  They had to travel all around the state just to find enough teams (usually in small towns) for a full season, in fact.  Without using restrooms or restaurants.

The film’s subject matter is an important glimpse into history that adolescents will appreciate—especially with parental guidance.  And there's no problem with that.  What is the problem is the manner in which Blankenbaker pulls everything together.  Presented as “talking heads” interspersed with the occasional black-and-white still, Something to Cheer About drags—even at just 75 minutes.  It never culminates into a theatrical climax and has huge gaps, not the least of which is a discussion about why the team didn’t win the championships of ’57 or ’58, or how the players got snapped up by universities and the NBA.  We never learn much about their lives at all, in fact, except details about the 1955 season and the heart-wrenching racism they experienced.  Sadly, even that is dealt with in a fairly superficial manner, since all the players tend to talk in generalities.  As a result, Blankenbaker simply doesn’t get to the heart of this momentous experience. She’s managed to extract all emotion from a very exciting story. 

Her best contribution is the original footage from 1950s games, which is shown in brief during the film but featured in full as a DVD extra.  It shows athletes at the top of their game—something Crowe insisted on, both on the court and off, both in the classroom and out.  He became a mentor to the boys, many of whom would have quit school, were it not for Crowe.  As one player stated, in perhaps the best line of the film, “He didn’t want boys to make the basketball team.  He wanted basketball to make the boys.”

Before Hoop Dreams, before Glory Road, there was Something to Cheer About.  What a shame we don’t have more Coach Crowes instilling these values in today’s basketball players.

AUDIENCE:  All ages

DVD EXTRAS:

  • 50th Anniversary Celebration Footage
  • 1955 Indiana High School Championship Game
  • Featurette: “Crispus Attucks vs. Gary Roosevelt”

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol: None.
  • Language/Profanity: Mild—a few obscenities.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: None.
  • Violence: None, except for discussions of racism and some brief stills of burning crosses and KKK rallies.