Louis Mulkey, subject of the documentary The Green Wave, was the basketball coach at Summerville High School in South Carolina, in 2006. Testimonials from former players and colleagues at the school unfurl Mulkey’s tale. He works shifts as a firefighter and spends the rest of his time at school with his players.
Director Guido Verweyen paints the details of a man obsessed with helping people. Mulkey pushed his athletes to finish high school and then to graduate from college. His tough love seems very intense, but his approach worked in context: he knew how to communicate with the student athletes he was dealing with. He met them where they were and spoke their language. Many of his players credit him for providing a father figure and preparing them for life in a positive way. He went so far as to sit in the classroom with struggling students and help them succeed at their academics, and only then could they play sports.
Mulkey was white, and his players were mostly black. It’s an important dynamic to call out. He treated these young men as human beings, with full respect. They were people he deeply cared for, and this all happened in South Carolina, a state not well regarded for positive race relations. He pushed for racial awareness and diversity. Black players point out that Mulkey was regarded with suspicion by the school’s racist elements and the community because he acted as an authentic anti-racist. Mulkey was tenacious with his players, insisting they stay on the team even if they were in trouble, preferring to help them resolve their issues and stay attached to the team, rather than jettisoning them for infractions, whenever possible. We learn about Mulkey in the words of the people around him. He leaves a powerful legacy.
“…credit him for providing a father figure and preparing them for life…”
Louis Mulkey died in 2007 in a fire at age 34. The coverage of the fire that killed Mulkey is chilling and disturbing. He went into a big-box furniture store blaze with 8 other firefighters, and the fire spread so quickly they were trapped and couldn’t find a way out. Everyone in his life deeply felt his death. His players were devastated.
Fast forward to February of the next year, and the biggest game in Summerville High School history. The mission: Beat Spartanburg and win the state title for Louis Mulkey. The end of the game is a dramatic cliff-hanger that pivots on whether a final shot beats the buzzer or not.
This piece will land hard with nostalgia and deep poignance for anyone who was part of the school during Mulkey’s time but struggles to be accessible to a general audience. A couple of recollections of events are interpreted as supernatural messages from the great beyond from Coach Mulkey, and these derail the story with their strangeness. Filmically, the one-note structure of The Green Wave falls flat. It’s an effective approach, but not as engaging as it could be. However, this is a minor flaw, and the film still makes a moving tribute to an inspiring story of a rare gem of a vibrant young man and the people whose lives he touched in such a profound way. The world would be better if there were more men like Louis Mulkey.
"…The world would be better if there were more men like Louis Mulkey"