Basketball is not just a game. The quintessential city sport, played with reckless passion on random patches of concrete, it classically offers a way out of poverty for its best players, but there is more.
When it’s used right, basketball can also provide a way in for those who have the wit to use it, a chance to dramatically combine the excitement of competition with a provocative look at the complexities of urban life. And “Hoop Dreams” certainly does it right.
A 2-hour, 49-minute epic that zips by like a fluid fast break, “Hoop Dreams” has taken a simple concept and, by a Horatio Alger combination of luck, pluck and pure hard work, turned it into a landmark of American documentary film.
By focusing on the personal side of the city game, “Hoop Dreams” tells us more about what works and what doesn’t in our society than the proverbial shelf of sociological studies. And it is thoroughly entertaining in the bargain.
The trio of filmmakers (Steve James, Frederick Marx, Peter Gilbert) responsible for “Hoop Dreams” made it the old-fashioned way: refusing to stint on time spent with their subjects, a pair of promising teen-age Chicago basketball players, they shot some 250 hours over a five-year period, staying with the young men from before their high school careers to what transpired after graduation.
The result is a film as rife with incident, with the ups and downs of outrageous fortune, as any Victorian triple-decker novel. By adroitly eavesdropping on reality, the “Hoop Dreams” team rooted out the kind of unvarnished home truths that make for the most engrossing viewing.
Where luck enters the equation is with the players selected. Both William Gates and Arthur Agee are but 14 years old when “Hoop Dreams” begins, just out of grade school but already good enough to dream of the money and glory of an NBA career. And the cameras are present when Earl Smith, a neighborhood talent scout, discovers Arthur on a local court. “I don’t know anything about him,” Smith says, “but I’ll bet you a steak dinner in four years you’ll be hearing about him.”
Either or both of these kids could have proved to be duds on the court as well as ciphers as human beings, but it is the great good fortune of “Hoop Dreams” that the reverse is true. Explosively talented players who are willing to be honest in the face of the camera, their life paths turn out to be unpredictable and intensely human, with the agonizing drama of victory and loss on the court always present to add zest to the mixture.
Both William, a smooth natural leader, and Arthur, whose talent is undeniable but rawer, are actively recruited by St. Joseph High School and its cantankerous coach, Gene Pingatore. The alma mater of the NBA’s Isiah Thomas and a perennial basketball power, St. Joseph’s tranquil suburban location requires adjustments for both boys that range from three hours of commuting time to demanding academics and the novelty of spending time with white people.
Since the pleasure of “Hoop Dreams” lies in discovering what happens to William and Arthur as their lives unfold, giving away any more of their stories wouldn’t be fair. Interspersing interviews with parents, siblings, friends, coaches, counselors and others with talks with the boys themselves (plus liberal amounts of game footage), each subject’s particular mixture of disappointment and joy becomes involving in a way fiction often is not.
What is worth pointing out are the meaty themes “Hoop Dreams” touches on, one of the pivotal ones being the thoughtless way these kids are fed into the omnivorous machine that is big-time sports.
While bringing talented city kids out to St. Joseph’s may seem like a win-win situation, it soon becomes obvious that both the school and the boys’ mentors have agendas that do not necessarily put the welfare of their players first. “We don’t understand what we’re really doing to these kids,” says a rival coach, and the truth of that is much in evidence.
But though the pressures placed on these kids are severe, “Hoop Dreams” emphasizes why they try to endure. For both William (“This is my ticket out of the ghetto”) and Arthur (“Nobody is going to take my dream away from me”), basketball is the only thing they can have pride in, the only place where they can see their presence making a difference.
In plain contrast to the sense of hope basketball engenders is the grinding nature of the poverty the boys’ families, both their fierce and protective mothers and their troubled fathers, have to contend with. Without any sense of special pleading, “Hoop Dreams” underlines the difficulties of making something of yourself in an indifferent system, helping us to understand Arthur’s mother when she bares her heart and says, “Do you wonder sometimes how I am living? It’s enough to make you want to lash out and hurt someone.”
In the end, we feel we know both William and Arthur and their lives in a way only a film like this can manage. When the final crawl lets us know just what both men are up to today, audiences talk, marvel and express concern, just as they would with their own friends, and there is no better gauge of “Hoop Dreams’ ” considerable accomplishment than that.
* MPPA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It includes street language and situations. ‘Hoop Dreams’
A Kartemquin Films and KTCA-TV production, released by Fine Line Features. Director Steve James. Producers Frederick Marx, Steve James, Peter Gilbert. Executive producers Gordon Quinn, Catherine Allan. Cinematographer Peter Gilbert. Editors Frederick Marx, Steve James, Bill Haugse. Running time: 2 hours, 49 minutes.
* In limited release in Southern California.