movie trailer (apple.com - quicktime)
NOTE: This spoiler was sent in by Miranda
At the start of the movie, Coach Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) takes a part-time, low-paid ($900 for the whole basketball season) job coaching the basketball team at his old high school, an inner-city public school in Richmond, California. At first, the boys are unruly and disrespectful. They also lost almost all of their games the previous season.
Coach Carter sets strict new rules for them -- they have to maintain a 2.3 grade point average (C+), they have to attend classes and sit in the front row, they have to wear jackets and ties on game days. One of the boys, Cruz, walks out of practice on the first day after an altercation with Carter. We later see Cruz hanging with his older, drug-dealing cousin.
Under Carter's leadership, the team starts winning games. Carter's son, Damien, a good student who attends private school and plays basketball there, quits the private school (against his dad's wishes) and transfers to Richmond High School to play basketball on his dad's team.
Another player, Kenyon, has a pregnant girlfriend, Kyra (played by singer Ashanti) who has given up on her plans for college in favor of having the baby, even though she sees first-hand how well that has gone for her cousin.
Cruz goes back and forth between dealing drugs and playing on the team, even though he has to fight his way back on the team (Carter makes him do some ridiculous number of suicides -- a sprinting drill -- and pushups in a week, and when he comes very close but not quite up to that number, the other boys impress Carter by offering to do the rest of the suicides and pushups for Cruz ... so Carter lets Cruz back on the team.)
Even though the boys are winning games, Carter eventually realizes that they are developing a bad attitude about it (being arrogant and taunting the other teams), and that many of them are not living up to his academic requirements (attending class and maintaining a 2.3 average).
Carter cracks down on them, even locking them out of the gym (in the midst of an undefeated season). He cancels basketball practice (even forfeiting some games) and makes the team spend the practice time in the library, being tutored by some of their teachers. (This leads to Cruz's second time quitting the team.)
This leads to a battle with the parents and the school board; the board eventually votes 4-2 to end the lockout (the dissenting votes are the school's principal and the chairwoman of the board). Carter is on the verge of quitting over this, but when he arrives at the gym to pack up his stuff, he finds the boys sitting at school desks in the gym, with their teachers tutoring them there. Heartened by this, Carter stays.
Cruz has gone back to working for his drug-dealing cousin. One night, the cousin is gunned down on the street while Cruz is saying hi to his friends from the team. Fortunately, Cruz ends up at Carter's house that night; Carter brings Cruz into his house, lets him back on the team, and pretty much saves him from a future like his cousin's.
Kenyon gets a full scholarship to college (I think it was one of the California state schools, but I'm not positive). He goes to his girlfriend, with whom he's been on the outs, and tells her the college even wants to help them, as married students with a baby. She tells him that she chose to abort the pregnancy. They do get back together, though.
The big climactic game takes place at the state tournament, against St. Francis (the team's arch-rival, and Damien's former team). The score, with like fo ur seconds to go, is something like 70-69 Richmond. In the last possible second, St. Francis scores one last basket, taking the score to 71-70 St. Francis. The team is understandably disappointed by the loss, but Carter gives them a really good talk about all they've accomplished, and tells them that this loss doesn't take that away.
Over the closing song, titles onscreen tell us that six of the players went on to college (this was a school at which only about 50% of students graduated, and a very small percentage usually went to college). Kenyon, Junior, Worm and Cruz were among those who went to college, and at least Kenyon and Cruz graduated from college (it wasn't clear to me whether Junior and Worm did). When he graduated three years later, Damien got a scholarship to West Point.