Talking with the Real Coach Carter
High school sports movies featuring an underdog team and a coach who makes a significant difference to its players are nothing new. Friday Night Lights, Hoosiers, Rudy and Remember the Titans come to mind as examples of films playing up the type of drama that made such movies so popular.
Coach Carter, based on true events, has a similar theme. Ken Carter accepted a basketball coaching position at a high school in Richmond, California in the late 90s, but only if he could coach on his own terms. Young athletes who would rather dunk a ball than crack a book were not ready to sign a contract demanding they sit in the first rows in their classes, do their homework, attend study hall, maintain a certain grade point average, be respectful on campus, and say ‘Yes Sir’ not only to their teammates but also to teachers. While some coaches care only about game stats, it quickly became known that Coach Carter cared about all aspects of his players – and mainly how they would fare in the future.
The real Ken Carter, who was himself a winning basketball payer at Richmond High School, is out promoting the film and spoke to me about his days as a coach at the school. Naturally, he’s very thrilled to be played by Samuel L. Jackson in the film.
“Watching him portray me was like an out-of-body experience,” says Carter. “In the four months of shooting, never did he stumbled on his lines, and not only did he know his lines, he knew everyone else’s lines. It was a young cast, so Samuel helped them with their lines as well, and for some of the kids -- like Ashanti -- it was their first time acting. Samuel L. Jackson made everyone raise the bar; he gave 100 percent on the set every single day.”
In the movie, when Coach Carter first walks into the gym decked out in his suit and tie, he tells the boys they will sign a contract -- or they will not play. A few players laugh and walk out the door. Of those that stay and get mouthy, Carter demands they call him and each other “Sir,” and orders them to do 1500 pushups and a series of suicides (a running exercise). This became a standard practice for unruliness.
“The 1500 in the film was gentle,” says Carter with a warm laugh. “It was nothing for me to give them 3000 push ups, but because they were in such good condition, they could do them easily. They were well-conditioned in body, but I was trying to condition their minds.”
How did the real players respond to signing a contract? “With every important thing we do in our life we sign a contract that holds us accountable,” says Carter. “The contract was something tangible to hold the kids accountable, something we could reflect back to when I had an issue with that kid.”
Carter whips the Varsity team into shape and they go from a losing team to winning every game. In the film, as in the real situation, when Carter fails to get the support of other teachers to furnish weekly grade reports he takes things into his own hands. Before a major state championship play off game, he locks the door to the gym and announces no games until the boys raise their grades.
“Not only did the boys rebel but so did the community,” recalls Carter. “When I padlocked the door, I also banned all basketball-related activities. I was prepared to cancel the entire season, because 15 of the 45 players were not living up to the classroom achievements they agreed to in the contracts. Instead they were walking around like rock stars.”
Carter’s son was a member of that team. What was it like for him at that time? “It was extremely hard, and I’m proud of the way he handled it. He wanted to be a part of the team and be accepted, but he also knew this was the right thing to do. He had a 3.7 grade average and some of the other kids were doing well, too.”
Coach Carter’s brave move resulted in a few surprises. The community met with the school board, and a decision was made to cut the lock off the door and resume play. But when Carter arrives at the gym, the team members are seated at desks and the better students are helping the ones with low grades.
Because Carter’s methods were so successful, he advocates that more coaches use them today. “The system we have in place now definitely does not work,” he declares. “We’re expelling a lot of kids. A lot of times people are scared of change, but we need to try different things in our schools. Fifty percent of kids that entered Richmond high school with my son, never graduated, they dropped out; we need to change that statistic.”
The varsity, junior varsity and freshman basketball teams under Carter’s reign excelled, a fact that makes this real-life story even more significant and hopeful than films with similar themes. Carter is very proud of his accomplishments.
“In some high school environments kids are 80 times more likely to go to jail than college. Every kid in my basketball program that were seniors went on to college,” he says. “We won a lot of games during my tenure as coach, but the number I’m extremely proud of are the kids that went on to college that not only changed their lives but their families’ lives as well.”
Ken Carter continues to work with the foundation he started --the Ken Carter Foundation -- a group that sponsors basketball camps, mentors kids with academia, provides grants and helps young entrepreneurs.
Carter says he wants kids to learn there are more roads to success than professional sports. “There are less than 5000 professional jobs in sports, but Microsoft has 20,000 millionaires in that one company. So the chance of a kid making it in sports is less than one in a 1000.”
For more information on Ken Carter or his foundation go to www.coachcarter.com
(Photo of Ken Carter from the www.coachcarter.com website. Read Diana Saenger’s reviews of classic films at http://classicfilm.about.com.)