Tuesday July 21st, 2009

The first clue that one of the greatest movies ever made had lost its relevance came when I asked the cashier at my local Blockbuster where I could find a DVD of the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams. The young lady, who was probably not even in grade school when the movie was released, pecked at her computer keyboard for a few seconds. "Sorry," she reported, "we don't carry it."

Don't carry it? The store had shelves upon shelves of trite action-hero movies, vapid romantic comedies (Jennifer Aniston, anyone?) and multiple seasons of shows that had already aired on TV. Hoop Dreams, alas, was nowhere to be found. Something was very, very wrong with this picture.

I knew better. After watching the movie at home a few nights later (thank goodness for Netflix), I realized that even though Hoop Dreams might not be as commercially viable as it once was, the years have done nothing to diminish its relevance -- or its quality. Hoop Dreams was, in effect, America's first reality show, but the zeitgeist the movie begat has predictably morphed into a celebrity-driven, attention-deficit culture which has relegated the film to its current obscurity. (The Apprentice was fun for a while, but then people got bored; ergo, The Celebrity Apprentice.)

Hoop Dreams, which chronicles five years in the lives of two high school basketball players from inner-city Chicago, resonated with audiences precisely because it wasn't about famous people. Unlike, say, Sebastian Telfair and Lance Stephenson, two New York City schoolboys who were the subject of recent documentaries, William Gates and Arthur Agee were not can't-miss prodigies. Gates eventually became a bit player at Marquette, while Agee played two years of junior college ball before suiting up for Arkansas State. Agee bounced around basketball's minor leagues for a few years after that, playing for teams eager to capitalize on his Hoop Dreams notoriety, but neither player ever sniffed the NBA.

No, these guys were just ordinary people, but the moments of trial and tribulation that were caught on film proved to be, well, extraordinary -- and America loved it. The 2-hour, 50-minute film won an Audience Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, scored a major distribution deal from Fine Line Cinema, became the first documentary to close down the prestigious New York Film festival and ended its theatrical run as the highest-grossing documentary in U.S. history.

Hoop Dreams resonated with audiences because it was indisputably authentic, that rare movie that unfolds in real time. The filmmakers, led by director Steve James, did not originally set out to make a documentary about these two players. Their aim was to explore the subject of inner-city basketball. So they latched on to an insurance salesman named Earl Smith, who fancied himself an expert bird dog of young talent. The directors discovered Agee at the very same moment that Smith did, as a spindly 14-year-old who was blowing by his slower classmates on a local playground. ("That's the best first step I've seen in about five years," Smith said.) The camera follows Smith and Agee on a visit to St. Joseph's, a tony private school with a prestigious basketball program located in the suburbs. When they get to the school, the coach, Gene Pingatore, encourages the filmmakers to check out another young prospect with even more potential. That's how James, and the audience, first meets William Gates.

If you haven't seen this movie, you might glean from the title that it details the dreams of these two aspiring players. It doesn't take long, however, to understand that the real dreams are the ones that are harbored by the youngsters' close friends and family members. "I don't even think about him not making it [to the NBA], 'cause I'm so focused on him making it," Bo Agee, Arthur's father, said in one early scene. When Gates injures his knee his sophomore year, his mother laments to the camera, "What do you think that will do to his career?" Gates also is subjected to withering pressure from his older brother, Curtis, who once had the talent, but not the discipline, to be a Division-I college player. As Curtis now bounces between unemployment and low-wage jobs, he has taken it upon himself to mentor his brother toward a life of professional riches. "All my dreams are in him now," Curtis said.

"I always felt that Curtis should not be living his dreams through me," William said during an interview. "Seems like everybody I know is my coach."

While both players attend St. Joseph's as freshmen, it is quickly apparent that Gates, who immediately earns a starting spot on the varsity, is the more talented prospect. To defray his tuition costs, the school enlists the help of a wealthy, white local family. Agee, on the other hand, receives no such assistance. When his family falls behind on their payments, he is cast out in the middle of his sophomore year and lands back at Marshall High, his local public school. "If he had gone out there [to St. Joseph's] and played like they had predicted him to play, he wouldn't be at Marshall, and it don't take no brilliant person to figure that out," said Agee's new coach at Marshall, Luther Bedford.

Another thing that struck me while watching Hoop Dreams was the total absence of any mention of summertime or AAU basketball. Perhaps this helps explains why it feels so outdated to some people and is thus unfit for shelf space at Blockbuster. Was it really just 15 years ago that the world of college basketball recruiting still centered around high schools? The only glimpse of the future comes when Gates attends the Nike All-American camp in Princeton, N.J. (wait -- isn't that Juwan Howard eating that pizza?), but even that interlude is cut short when Gates re-injures his knee on the second day. When Bedford later complains about another high school coach in Chicago who is recruiting area grade-schoolers ("We don't understand what we're really doing to these young kids. A kid is 12 years old and you're baiting him to come to your school to play basketball?"), it seems quaint compared to the agent-driven nefariousness that has so infected the grassroots in today's game.

The dramatic moments are lined up throughout the movie like pearls on a string. There is the scene where Bo Agee, who had been astray from the family for several months, shows up shirtless and glassy-eyed on a court where Arthur is playing. He says hello to his son, shoots a few jumpers and then walks to a far corner of the playground flashing cash at a drug dealer. (Several years later, when James showed the Agee family the movie for the first time in their home, Arthur, who had been through jail and rehab and returned to the family, got up and rewound that scene, then said with a laugh, "I can't believe you got that on film!")

The camera also catches Gates as he opens up his ACT results and learns that he has passed on his fourth try, thus enabling him to attend Marquette on a full scholarship. We see the Agee family glumly walking around their apartment after the lights have been turned off because they couldn't afford to pay the electric bill, and we also see William playing with his new baby daughter, who was born during his junior year at St. Joseph's. In a later scene, during an uncomfortable visit between Gates and his mostly-absent biological father, we hear William's voice saying, "I always knew I was gonna be a better dad than he was."

But the one moment that never fails to choke me up is the scene where Agee's mother, Sheila, learns that she scored an 89 on her nursing exam, the highest in her class. As she celebrates and embraces her teacher, Sheila brushes tears from her eyes and says, "I didn't think I could do it. And people told me I wasn't gonna be anything." How many countless hours, days, weeks, months did James and his camera crew have to spend with these people just to capture this one little gem of heart-ripping triumph?

During the last hour of the movie, the protagonists' lives intersect in a plot twist lifted straight out of screenwriting textbooks. While Gates never fully recovers from his knee injury and misses a game-winning shot in the state tournament that prematurely ends his senior season, Agee leads Marshall on a surprise trip "downstate" to the semifinals of the state tournament at the University of Illinois. Now it is Gates' turn to watch from the stands as his friend plays in front of a packed house and is surrounded afterward by newspaper reporters. Marshall's season ends one game shy of the final, but Agee earned a junior college scholarship. We then see both players turn positively weepy as they say goodbye to their mothers and head off to college. Those scenes are moving not because these kids are bound for NBA glory, but because they're revealed to be a couple of mama's boys who are afraid of leaving home for the first time. Famous or not, that's something all of us can relate to.

The seeds of drama and character that are planted in this movie have been borne out in the 15 years that have passed since its release. While Gates eventually married his daughter's mother, had three more children and returned to his old neighborhood to start a ministry, Agee has continued to bounce from project to project, still trying to live off of the modicum of fame he got from Hoop Dreams. The families have endured more tragedy and hardship; Curtis Gates was murdered in a 2001 carjacking, while Bo Agee was gunned down in his backyard in 2004. The wide-eyed boys who grew up before our eyes in the movie are gone now, but their lives have continued to unfold in real time.

The movie ends with Gates reflecting on all the friends and family who were so desperate to see him fulfill his hoop dreams, much more for their sakes than for his. "When somebody said, 'When you get to the NBA, don't forget about me,' I should have said, 'If I don't make it, don't forget about me.'" Neither Gates nor Agee ever made it to the NBA, but 15 years after they first brought reality to the big screen, these two ordinary people are as unforgettable as ever.

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