There’s more poignancy in three hours of Hoop Dreams (1994) than in all the releases of most summers. This is a movie that is only nominally about basketball; here is a sweeping story that uses the pursuit of professional basketball fame as the backdrop to examine the central element of America: race and class. It has surprises and twists, humor and sadness, joy and heartbreak. All great documentaries, like all championship teams, require a little bit of luck and Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, who made Hoop Dreams, were the benefactors of amazing subjects whose improbable careers develop in ways they could never had anticipated, but just like those winning teams, they have the skill to capitalize on that luck and have given the world one of the great examinations of poverty in America on film.
Arthur Agee and William Gates live in a part of Chicago where it’s an accomplishment to turn 18. From their preteens they have been scouted by area high schools because of their basketball ability. Both Arthur and William are invited to attend prestigious St. Joseph’s High, a suburban institution that has a powerhouse hoops program. The claim to fame for St. Joe’s and certainly for its bombastic coach, Gene Pingatore, is that it once enrolled Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, a fact that Pingatore uses as a yardstick against every incoming student.
In their freshman years, Arthur and William go in different directions as Arthur’s game and grades stall and William excels on the court and in the classroom, leaping from a fourth-grade level to something more consistent with the other ninth graders while contributing to the varsity, a rare feat for a freshman. Because Arthur’s skills plateau, his scholarship to the private school becomes suddenly less generous and his family, which is earning minimum wage at the best of times and on welfare at the worst, can meet the school only halfway and he’s barred from admission for his sophomore year. Thanks to William’s promising ability, however, school donors and special arrangements make themselves evident to keep him in school.
In their sophomore years, William’s star continues to rise while Arthur’s appears to be sinking, as Arthur languishes on the junior varsity for a city school and William brings St. Joe’s to the brink of the state finals with two more years yet to develop.
However, in their junior years their paths change trajectories, and William is tripped up by injuries, costing him playing time and confidence while Arthur reemerges as a star for the city school. In their final years, St. Joseph’s is quickly bounced from the playoffs, as a frustrated William becomes more disillusioned with basketball and lets his grades slip, and Arthur leads his public school team to the finals.
All of that is amazing enough and is good fodder for a compelling story, but it is only a fraction of what Hoop Dreams manages to show you. This is a movie about economics and race, family and history, dreams and reality. Yet it’s a true documentary; the filmmakers simply observe their remarkable subjects, but they are competent enough to let the poignancy come through in the shot selections and the Oscar-nominated editing.
“It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s the system,” we’re told in one of the movie’s dozen cutting moments, this one after Arthur is cut from St. Joe’s and thrown into the public school fray. The Agees owe nearly $2,000 to the school for Arthur’s freshman year, a heavy burden for them, as they bring in only $300 a month when things go well. “The line has to be drawn somewhere,” says Pingatore, who also happens to be the school’s director of development. Fine, but Arthur wouldn’t have been at St. Joe’s in the first place if the school hadn’t recruited him. Neither party got what they wanted, but only the Agees got stuck with the bill. “I never spent too much time around white people,” Arthur explains as to why he has struggled to catch on at St. Joseph’s. Maybe so, but to achieve his NBA dream, he’ll have to, as along every step, he and William become evaluated by an increasing number of scouts, recruiters and coaches, the majority of whom are white and who in many ways hold their futures in their hands.
There is an uneasy feeling that their skills are being manipulated. The kids seem to understand this at least on some level and seem guarded and untrusting around their white authorities (there’s a specifically awkward moment when a white college recruiter painfully, inelegantly asks William if he notices how well the “blacks” on campus are treated). The players’ misgiving is subtly expressed in their clothing: As Chicago kids they are often festooned in Bulls or Bears gear, and Michael Jordan, based on the posters in their rooms, appears to be their favorite athlete, but their clothing reflects less a loyalty to their city (which doesn’t appear to do much for them) and more to a sport or a style. Arthur honors a variety of teams from Georgetown to the Detroit Pistons and Washington Redskins; it’s hard to believe he roots for them all.
I don’t want to pile on Pingatore, who comes off as a little callous (so much so that he was part of a suit against the movie), but as pure as his intentions might be, his future isn’t dependent on whether or not his kids like William go on to the NBA. He preaches that they have to devote their whole lives to basketball, but he continues on even if they do that and still don’t come close to playing in the pros. In many ways, Arthur and William have put all their eggs in this single, unlikely basket at the urging of their friends, coaches like Pingatore, some of the recruiters and others, but they are the only ones absorbing any of the risk. St. Joseph’s endlessly drags out Isiah Thomas as the example of the kid who made it, but they don’t underline how rare that is. They’re taking advantage of a dream that blinds people to stark odds. “Well, another walks out the door, another one comes in the door, that’s what it’s all about,” Pingatore sighs as he sees William off after graduation. Pingatore and other coaches are the ones who remain, with more dreamers lined up.
Because the filmmakers spent five years with these kids and their families, we get to know them, and a tense moment on the court takes on a personal nature because we know all who will be affected if Arthur or William doesn’t come through. Both boys are essentially shy (and truly, when they’re not playing basketball, they are more the acted upon than the actors in their worlds) but are distinct. William is more thoughtful (“That’s why when somebody say, ‘when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me’ … I should’ve said to them, ‘if I don’t make it, don’t you forget about me.”) and Arthur is more headstrong, never admitting weakness or vulnerability. He betrays these things, however, as his father drifts in and out of his life and in privileged moments the camera catches the hurt this causes him on his face.
The Agees and the Gateses are prominent figures in Hoop Dreams, and there are stark lines drawn between the men and the women of the families. Arthur’s father says he had the skills to be a pro ballplayer, but he didn’t work hard enough, a story eerily similar to that of William’s brother, who was a high school standout but a college screw-up, who quit the team and then the school and now struggles to find work. Both relatives make few bones that they are living their broken dreams through Arthur or William. Their mothers are more practical. Emma Gates looks on disquieted as William and his brother discuss plans about getting to the pros; she can see William on the same path as his brother, and she speaks as if she deeply wishes that the posters of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins on William’s wall were of accountants and lawyers instead. Sheila Agee turns to the filmmakers and tells them about her income versus her expenses and pointedly asks, “Do you ever wonder how I’m living?” Both Arthur and William promise that the first big ticket item they get when they reach the NBA will be a car or a house for their mothers, and their moms smile and nod as if they were bringing these things back from Mars. Sheila Agee values a heartfelt Mother’s Day note from Arthur more than all the promises. Broken promises are a theme of Hoop Dreams.
“My mother, God bless her, she always said in America you can make something of your life,” a coach says. That’s true, but these kids only want to make one thing of themselves. They’re told that with hard work they can have it, but William’s body disagrees, constantly undercutting him. They are so focused on NBA stardom that Arthur and William undermine their chances of being successful at anything else. William is recruited by Marquette, a school he’d never have an opportunity to attend if not for basketball, but his low ACT scores put that into jeopardy; he simply isn’t as interested in committing himself to his studies. As a late bloomer, Arthur ends up in a small junior college, and while his dim NBA reality finally dawns on him, he still only begrudgingly admits that there might be other occupations for him, mainly architecture or stand-up comedy.
Hoop Dreams is a profoundly sad movie, one of the most empathic, and for all its big sports moments, it exists in the quiet dignity of families struggling against poverty. I think of huddling around lamps when the unpaid lights are turned off or the care taken on a modest birthday cake. For all its big dreams, its happiest scenes are ones of small victories that give us hope. In the emotional highpoint, we find that the long-suffering Sheila Agee has been putting herself through nursing school. While there are throngs of people at Arthur’s or William’s games, her graduation ceremony is a modest affair but ultimately is a bigger milestone in her life than those games represent. She’s the only one who ultimately makes her dream come true.