‘Hoop Dreams’ Scores With Dose of Reality

<i> Lynn Smith is a staff writer for the Times' Life & Style section</i>

In the documentary “Hoop Dreams,” two wide-eyed athletes with professional promise -- William Gates and Arthur Agee -- see basketball as their ticket out of the Chicago housing projects, but they run up against others who want to use them for glory and profit. (Rated PG-13)


Not many kids know about this limited-release film, playing at only one theater in the county. It’s not advertised in funny clips on TV or full-page ads in the entertainment section. The few who came to a weekend matinee were brought by parents who were aware of its critical acclaim and had been specifically looking for it.

Many, accustomed more to dramatic features than full-length documentaries, were unsure what to make of the documentary format at first.


But those with patience enough to sit for nearly three hours found enough drama, suspense, emotion and basketball to make up for all that talking and information.

Kelly Lester, 12, gave it a perfect five stars because of the reality factor. “They actually showed in pictures instead of just words” what the boys’ lives were all about, he said. “I liked it all.”

The filmmakers followed Gates and Agee for four years--from the grade-school playground where they played for fun through the harsh coaching at the all-business St. Joseph High School, which recruited them with dreams of NBA stardom, to the competition for college teams.

Along the way, the gentle Gates finds a philanthropist who bankrolls his tuition at the private school, but he bogs down with a recurring knee injury and fatherhood. Without financing, the likable Agee has to return to public school. He must also cope with a violent family breakup, a criminal, drug-addicted father and a mother on welfare.

They grow up so fast, it’s hard to believe they’re still teen-agers by the time they graduate from high school--a major accomplishment for both.

While rough language is heard on rap songs and from the coach, drugs and violence are more talked about than seen, and sex is limited to a lively classroom discussion. The families are portrayed as close, loving and, ultimately, supportive.


But three hours is a long time for children. One father left the theater after about an hour with his three young children, who were obviously bored.

“They should have cut it a little shorter,” said Summer Chaldu, 12, who asked her mom the time after about an hour and a half.

But even though documentaries are harder for her to get into, she said she learned more--particularly about the effects of poverty and the crucial difference grades can make in being accepted into college and setting up a career.

While the movie left the players far short of their dreams, their situations underscored by the sounds of a lonely saxophone, most kids came away with an upbeat feeling.

“I learned you shouldn’t quit; you should keep going,” said Wesley Truesdell, 10. Mostly, he said, “I liked when they played basketball.”

Likewise, his friend Cameron Lester, 9, liked the movie because there were “lots of good games” and “it seemed real.”


Sometimes too real. Scenes of surgery on Gates’ knee, he said, “grossed me out.”