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
Don't carry it? The store had shelves upon shelves of trite action-hero movies, vapid romantic comedies (
I knew better. After watching the movie at home a few nights later (thank goodness for Netflix), I realized that even though
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.
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,"
"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,
Another thing that struck me while watching
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,
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
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.