Hoop Dreams (1994)

Directed by Steve James

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Hoop Dreams was meant to be a 30 minute PBS documentary on Chicago street culture through the eyes of kids playing playground basketball.  It ended up as a near 3 hour feature documentary with over 300 hours of footage.  When it was released, 8 years after shooting began, the film would win Best Documentary at Sundance, though it failed to receive an Academy Award nomination.  Because of the resulting frustration of many who championed the film, the Academy changed its voting process going forward.

This is likely one of the most influential documentaries of all time, though I’m not even sure how you quantify that.  It’s a story about basketball, the strength of the idea of the American Dream, socioeconomic barriers, race and community.  Through the stories of two 14 year old kids who aspire to play in the NBA, we meet a wide range of characters and track the next four years of their lives.

Arthur Agee and William Gates remain the focus of the film, though there is much to be learned from the plight and experience of their friends and family.  When their paths take them to different schools, we similarly learn a lot by the differences in their experiences.  One is given about everything he needs to succeed at St. Joseph’s, a private high school in the suburbs of Chicago, while the other is forced to leave the same school when his scholarship can’t cover tuition increases.  He spends the rest of his high school career at Marshall, a small public school in inner city Chicago, where he and William each live.

The film is striking for so many reasons, some of which the characters themselves are aware of and others which they will have only noticed with time.  As promising young talents, they are both given plenty of opportunity to succeed, but the Agee family sees much more quickly how much the game Arthur loves is based on financial incentive.

If Arthur had lived up to a certain standard of basketball excellence, he and his family reason, St. Joseph’s would have done everything they could to keep him in school, as they do with William, a more promising player.  Because Arthur, even at only 14 years old, isn’t where they want him to be on the court, they force him to leave behind a promising academic school, jeopardizing more than just his basketball career.

Later William will learn a similar lesson, but as long as he remains an incredible player with potential, he is given everything he needs.  Later in his career he will endure multiple knee injuries which risk his future and make him question his love for the game.  Near the end of the film he will say what I think is the most heartbreaking line of the film when discussing how people in the neighborhood talk to him…

“If you make it to the NBA, don’t forget about me.  What I should say is if I don’t make it, don’t forget about me.” 

By that point in time, three or four years into the filming of the documentary, William has understood just how fickle this dream is.  When things are going well, they’re great, but when you hit a bump in the road, you risk losing everything.  It’s why, when watching the documentary, when you see William go down on the court with an injury, you wince because you know what it represents.  I found myself quickly doing the math, trying to figure out how much time he’d lose and how far back that would set him.

What other people see as just an injury, William (and the viewer) see as a disruption of his entire life.  Coming from a low income area, he and his family (as well as Arthur) know that basketball is the way out.  For the kids, they just want to play the game, and people have told them they’re good at it.  For their parents, it’s an opportunity for a better life in general.

As the years pass, we follow other characters in the kids’ lives.  Arthur’s mother, Sheila, is a resilient figure who is left behind by an abusive, drug-addicted husband (Bo) and then welcomes him back when he cleans up and decides to turn his life around.  Later Sheila graduates from a nursing program in one of the most heartwarming segments of the film.  She fist pumps and smiles through teary eyes in the sparsely populated small room where her two children cheer her on.  We don’t see how hard she has worked for this, but we feel it in the moment.  That triumph follows earlier scenes (months and years earlier) when Bo had been laid off and when their lights were turned off for failure to pay the electricity bill.

The closest thing to a father figure in William’s life is his older brother Curtis, himself once a former promising basketball prospect who burned out because, we’re told, he was deemed un-coachable.  When we first meet them, Curtis is the one pushing William on the playground court.  Later he will lament his own past, saying he could’ve been something, and this moment becomes all the more impactful when a coach tells the camera that these kinds of characters are all over the neighborhood.  He’s a warning sign, someone who squandered his opportunity and now bounces around job to job, taking what he can without a college education.

Curtis evolves over the course of the story.  His struggles for work make him appreciate what he can get when he gets it.  Watching William’s career so closely, he wavers between pride and envy, at one point heading back to the courts to test his hops.  Whether or not William saw it at the time, we certainly gauge how many regrets Curtis has, and we know this is where William could end up if things don’t go well.

William plays out his entire career at St. Joseph’s.  He’s their best player almost the entire time, even in spite of the knee injury that took away most of his junior year.  He’s labelled the next Isaiah Thomas by a television program of local sports reporters, and early on he shows off all of his recruitment letters from colleges.  One of them even contains four-hundred dollars.

His biggest hurdle is himself, particularly when he’s injured and unable to play.  His grades start slipping, and when the documentary team checks back with him one year, they find that he has a daughter, even at only age 16 or 17.

William is always a soft-spoken, kind, hardworking kid.  He’s easy to root for, but at times we see how down he can get on himself.  The St. Joseph’s coach, Gene Pingatore, speaks candidly about William and to William.  He says at the start that he will work him hard, and he expects that William will one day return to the school to talk to incoming players and thank the coach for giving him important life lessons.

By the end of his St. Joseph’s career, William has plenty of individual success, little team success and a full ride scholarship to Marquette University.  He leaves his last meeting with Coach Pingatore joking through thinly veiled frustration that he’ll never donate to the school.

William has his ticket out of the rough and tumble neighborhood, but by the time he graduates he has already become disillusioned with basketball.  He speaks with the wisdom of someone much older than him.  Whereas he once mentioned prioritizing practice over his daughter’s birth (much to his girlfriend and future wife’s dismay), he now speaks of things in life more important than basketball.  As with that line I quoted earlier, William, through basketball, seems to have recognized a certain mortality in the sport and in life.

Arthur’s career has many more ups and downs.  In the local public school we see how rowdy he and others are in class (though who knows, much of that might be a deliberate show for the cameras), as well as how he struggles in school.  Because his family was unable to pay the St. Joseph’s tuition, the private school withholds his transcript which, a couple years later, risks preventing Arthur from graduating, something which in itself is a huge accomplishment.

Arthur is an adequate player on the Marshall basketball team, but in his senior year he makes a big leap.  Through his sophomore and junior years we learn more about his home life, his father’s drug addiction followed by born again Christianity, and we meet his best friend, Shannon, someone presented as a less than ideal influence on Arthur.  He and Shannon remain close for those couple of years, but by his senior year Arthur tells us how Shannon got caught selling drugs and is no longer in his life.

The film spends most of its time on that senior year, for both boys.  When William’s team is knocked out early in the playoffs, we spend most of the time tracking Marshall’s surprise run towards the state finals.  They make it well past any reasonable expectation, and Arthur shines.

By the time he graduates (no thanks to the f*cking St. Joseph policy on releasing transcripts), Arthur has committed to play ball at a small junior college in Missouri.  We follow his recruiting trip there, meeting the lonely-looking house in which all the basketball players live (in an almost all white school), and we observe the basketball court where he will play, which at the time of his visit played host to some kind of unappealing looking luncheon.  The effect of this visit, while offering Arthur an incredible opportunity, was underwhelming, at least when compared to William’s visit to Marquette.  The point seems to be that despite Arthur’s success in his final year, exceeding what William accomplished, his opportunities remain limited because of what others think of him.

You receive in accordance to your value to those who would make money off of you.  The nature of sports in general (particularly the NCAA), is disturbing when you really think about it.  It’s a strange dichotomy in which it remains a source of so many dreams and aspirations, but like politics you see the grimy underside of an endeavor that remains a business for those on top.

The film ends with an update on William and Arthur in the three years between the end of filming and the end of editing.  Arthur played two successful years before transferring to Arkansas State, and William quit the team and dropped out of Marquette… until his family convinced him to go back.

Neither player ever made it to the NBA, but they succeeded in their own ways.  Like with any good story, we begin with what the characters want and end with what they need.  Through their trials and tribulations, both kids grow into admirable young men who often succeeded in spite of their circumstances, using basketball as a way out.

Though not covered in the film, Arthur and William would each lose a close family member to gun violence.  Arthur’s father Bo was killed in 2001, while William’s older brother Curtis was murdered in 2004.  It’s heartbreaking just as a reminder of the realities of their world and the ways of life for so many people.  The opportunities in many communities, due to economics and race and otherwise, are incredibly limited.  What is held so sacred to some is taken for granted by so many others, myself included.

Hoop Dreams depicts so many things worth talking about, whether it’s childhood, growing up, the importance of dreams, resilience, community, regret, etc.  It’s cliche to say it’s ‘about’ America, but Arthur’s and William’s stories, as well as those around them, say so much about what this country promises.  You’re told that with enough hard work you can make it.  We hear this from Coach Pingatore, from Arthur’s hero, NBA All-Star and St. Joseph’s alum Isiah Thomas as well as from NCAA basketball commentator Dick Vitale at an All-American summer camp which William attends.

If you work hard enough, you can become anything you want, whether that’s true or not.  It is true for Arthur and William, but basketball affords them an opportunity many around them don’t have.  Some are made out to have squandered their opportunity, and others fall victim to their surroundings.  Bo’s drug addiction, for example, is part of a broader issue regarding the crack epidemic in minority communities in the 80’s.

So I think after watching this film you’re meant to reevaluate whether or not America provides the opportunity it claims to provide.  Arthur and William, again, have an amazing opportunity, but they are treated as commodities.  The disgust comes in seeing how they are treated, in a manner in which every fickle compliment feels loaded with greed.

The documentary is more complex than to offer one broad takeaway.  It makes you think, and it certainly makes you feel.  Just watching anyone for that long, for that many years of their lives, makes you empathize with them.  By the time Arthur led his time through the playoffs his senior year, I felt like I was one of his parents rooting him on.

Up Next: Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Little Hours (2017), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

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