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MISSED BASKET <br> 'COACH CARTER' THROWS UP AN AIRBALL

COACH CARTER ** 1/2

STARRING: Samuel L. Jackson, Rob Brown, Robert Ri'chard, Ashanti

DIRECTOR: Thomas Carter

RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes

RATING: R for violence, sexual content, language, and some drug material

THE LOWDOWN: The true-life story of a high school basketball coach who benched his team for poor academic performance.

Man, it should have been a slam dunk.

Just watching the endless stream of commercials promoting it, you'd think "Coach Carter" would have all the requisite components of the "sports as a metaphor for life" genre lined up and ready to hit one from the key.

The indomitable coach. The underdog team. The smart kid at risk. The coach's adult foils. The adversity. The ultimate triumph. It has a real life story to give it clout. It has Samuel L. Jackson, for crying out loud.

With all this going for it, how could "Coach Carter" fail so dismally at rising above a pack already loaded with mediocre offerings? This film has more flaws that Kobe Bryant has lawyers.

In "Coach Carter," director Thomas Carter (no relation) adapts the story of Ken Carter (Jackson), a former all-star basketball player who in 1999 agreed to coach the ragtag team at his inner-city alma mater.

Carter made the team sign contracts promising to maintain C averages and attend all classes. His practices were like boot camp with lessons in courtesy, sportsmanship and self-respect tossed in.

The team began winning and headed for the championships. But when they did not comply with his academic requirements, he locked the gym and forfeited games, much to the consternation of the entire school community.

When you are working with such a familiar premise, you darn well better have something that sets you apart from the competition. Well-developed characters, for example. Smart dialogue. A tiny bit of editing. "Coach Carter" has none of these things.

What is does have is Jackson, who could be completely convincing in a love scene with a gym bag.

Jackson is the only saving grace in this overlong, flatly formulaic film that the filmmakers clearly wanted to be the next "Hoosiers." It isn't.

Jackson's less seasoned co-stars have a propensity for delivering most of their lines with a resounding thud. Only Robert Ri'chard and Ashanti ever come across with any vitality. The rest of the cast seems to be e-mailing their performances in. And some of them were apparently blocked by Spam filters.

The biggest failing of "Coach Carter," thought, is its editing. Whoever it was who decided that this thing should be 130 minutes should be forced to sit on a bleacher in a Buffalo public school gym and made to watch an endless loop of "The Main Event."

A good 30 minutes could have been chopped off this gangly movie and no one -- except maybe a self-important filmmaker or two -- would have suffered.

No one should have to sit in a movie theater desperately waiting for the half-time buzzer.

e-mail: bsullivan@buffnews.com