“I was able to take the opportunity and turn it into a community project,” Ken Carter said of the new film “Coach Carter,” based on an extraordinary step he took in 1999. A businessman, he’d assumed the reins as coach of his old highschool basketball team in Richmond, California, as a community service. His players were winning games, but they had violated the rules of a contract they’d signed to attend class regularly and keep their grades at a 2.3 GPA–and he responded by locking up the gym and forfeiting contests until, with the help of tutors, the hoopsters got their studies back on track. The action caused consternation in the community and attracted national media attention.
Carter had a strong athletic career at Richmond during his own highschool years, emulating the older brother whom he idolized. “I played guard–small in stature but large in heart,” he said, referring to his less-than-giant size. “I led the entire league in scoring and steals. I was extremely gifted as an athlete. I was a highschool all-American in two sports, basketball and football. I enjoyed running and getting into shape for basketball and football. I enjoyed doing the pushups, because I understood that conditioning was the only thing that I could really control. I couldn’t control the referee. I couldn’t control the coach, how much time he was going to play me. But conditioning I could control. For instance, as a coach–if you and I ran the length of the court, and it took you three seconds to recover and it took me two and three quarters to recover, that two and three quarters over the period of a game makes me two and a half minutes better than you if all things are equal. Just do the math.” But as an athlete, Carter gave his studies equal importance, and remembers that Richmond had nurtured his intellectual side as well as the physical one. “I used to leave class thinking I was the smartest kid in the world,” he said, and he eventually went on to George Fox University.
Carter’s goal on returning to Richmond was to instill a similar sense of dedication to both athletics and academics into his players. “Do I give them 2000 pushups? Yes, indeed. I started out giving them 500, but they could do 500 so quick after a month of conditioning, it was nothing to them–so I’d start moving the bar, and it got to the point where 2000 was nothing for them. Do I give them suicides [runs up and down the court]? Yes, indeed. If they even blink wrong, they’re running. I wanted them to develop team [spirit], so if you go out and get your teammates to come in and do 50 pushups for you, that’s 50 less you had to do. A lot of people look at me and go, ‘But coach, you’re such a gentle and lovable guy.’ I am,” he said, smiling, “but let me give you this statistic. You’re eighty times more likely to go to jail in Richmond, California…than you are to go to college, and fifty percent of all freshman who entered Richmond High School never graduated. So now, do you think 2000 pushups is hard? No–the streets that these kids are walking, that’s hard.”
But work in the classroom was every bit as important as work on the court. “The school district had a 2.0 grade point average that allowed you to play [sports]. I just raised it three percentage points because, listen, with a 2.0 you have to score 1050 on the SATs to get an athletic scholarship [to college]. Most of our kinds couldn’t do that. It was just the reality–they just couldn’t do it. By raising it just that three percentage points, they could score 950, because the higher the GPA, the lower you have to score on the SAT. So my goal was to get the boys’ GPA as high as I could. I knew that with the tutoring along the way,…they’d have been able to get the SAT [score] and get an athletic scholarship.”
That was the impetus behind Carter’s contract with his players–“It was the one thing that held them accountable for their actions,” he said–and for his decision when he discovered some of them had broken it. The reaction was immediate. “I was getting so much love outside the community, and none inside. I went from Friday being one of the most loved people in our community to the most hated person on Monday when I put the chain on the door with that lock and that sign that said ‘Report to the Library.’ From that day on, everybody in the community really hated me because they went, ‘You’re taking the opportunity away from our boys.’ That’s what they all thought. And I said, ‘Listen, you can’t see the big picture if you’re in it, you’ve got to see the whole picture.’ That was the problem–they were standing in the picture. I said, ‘You’ve got to step back from it.’ It wasn’t just about basketball. The contract made the boys accountable for every action.” But Carter got support in the media and from an even more important source. He recalled that a retired eighty-year old teacher sent him the $1.50 she had left over from her month’s expenses to encourage him to continue his campaign. “She validated my ability to be successful. Who motivated the motivator? She did.”
Carter said that back in 1999 there was already some interest in using the story as the basis for a movie. “People had called me during the lockout, but it was years later before we got to this point. I didn’t do this for a movie. I was happy coaching. I just waited until the right person called me. So we took this Hollywood project to MTV Films and Paramount Pictures…and we turned it into a community project and a school project, because not only is our basketball team a part of it, their families are a part of it, my family is part of it…We did not run from any of those issues–teenage pregnancy, drug use, drug dealing, alcoholism, and outright just not being disciplined in your life. We didn’t avoid any of these issues. We talked about them and we showed them on screen in the best way we could, and how it happened. If I had to give this movie a number of privileges Hollywood took with it, 98.5% of what you see on that screen is true. The movie is real people with real problems, with real solutions. Now, the only privilege is we’ve changed the names of the players because we don’t want to embarrass them or their families. Now, those players are actually in the movie–and their moms–at the end, holding the signs and stuff.”
Of course, the fact that Carter is played by Samuel L. Jackson was a bonus. “Now that you’ve seen the movie, don’t you think me and Mr. Jackson are a lot alike?” he asked with a smile. “When they gave me the pen to write down the name, I had only one name–Mr. Samuel L. Jackson. We spent four months shooting the film. I was in his trailer every single day. Before the film, we went to highschool basketball games together. We’d be talking, and I use my hands a lot, and I’m looking at him, and he’s doing the same thing. He was studying me as we were just sitting there. And when he’s in the huddle coaching, he’s not acting–he’s actually coaching. That man can coach, and he knows basketball and he knows sports. And in all this shooting, he was able to help the younger actors and actresses every day on the set. And he was a great example by showing up on time and having integrity.”
Carter’s praise echoed what he’d said about himself during his years at Richmond High. “I wanted the boys to have a positive role model,” he explained about the way he dressed in suit and tie and the standards he adhered to. And he explained that now, half a decade later, he followed the same principles he’d used back then in preparing the young actors playing his team for their roles. “They went to basketball camp with me,” he said. Oh, I ran them just as hard! [They said} ‘Coach, we’re actors!’ [And I said], ‘No, you’re basketball players today. If you want your check at the end of the week, you need to run.’ And the shots that they were taking in the game, they had to make their shots. We’d stay until they’d make the shots. In practice, if they’d miss a shot, they’d do pushups.”
The energy Carter was describing in making the movie recalled his time as coach, and he sounded almost wistful remembering his success. “I first came to Richmond to coach basketball players,” he said. “They became students. I went to coach boys, and they became men. I went to work on my school and my community, and my school went to work on me. And I realized one thing: that we must all do more than we’re paid for as an investment in our future. I used every available resource we had at the school, and we were able to win–on the court and off the court.”
And Carter closed by saying that anyone who wanted to know more about his work and his philosophy should check out his website at www.coachcarter.com.