Every kid who plays basketball dreams of making it to the NBA. And the fantasy does not die easily, lasting through college for some of the most talented players. But nowhere does pro basketball's lure have a stronger grip on the young than in poor, inner-city African-American communities, where getting to the NBA is regarded as one of the few tickets to a better life. In 1986 three Chicago-based filmmakers and inveterate hoopsters, Peter Gilbert, Steve James and Frederick Marx, set out to make a half-hour documentary on what they considered the unique culture of street basketball in big-city black neighborhoods.
The result, a nearly three-hour film called Hoop Dreams, was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It was shown earlier this month at the New York Film Festival, where it again drew rave reviews. Last week Hoop Dreams opened in movie theaters across the country, thereby giving wider audiences a look at 4½ years in the lives of Arthur Agee and William Gates. Agee is from West Garfield Park, and Gates, the Cabrini-Green housing project—two Chicago neighborhoods in which too many black men never reach the age of 30.
Early in the film, which begins when both Agee and Gates are 14, it is evident that they are outstanding basketball players. Both have the opportunity to attend St. Joseph High School, a suburban, predominantly white Catholic private school and a perennial basketball power. (During a visit to the school a starstruck Agee plays one-on-one with his idol, Isiah Thomas, a St. Joe's alumnus.) Though Agee's and Gates's lives seem very similar at first, they take different turns not long after the boys enter St. Joe's.
The documentary captures not only each boy's pursuit of basketball nirvana, the NBA, but also the pressures he feels. It illustrates how each player's dream comes to represent the hope of a better life for his entire family. Both youngsters have male relatives—Arthur's father, Bo, and William's brother Curtis—who, having had hoop dreams themselves, live vicariously through the boys. Arthur's family must deal with Bo's addiction to cocaine (which he has since overcome), and his temporary abandonment of the family. William fathers a daughter by his teenage girlfriend and willingly adds that responsibility to his many others. (He married her after filming was completed.)
October 31, 1994
Because the documentary covers 4½ years in the lives of these families, the Agees and Gateses are portrayed in rare depth. When examined closely, circumstances that seem to reinforce stereotypes of inner-city life are revealed to be the results of complicated, often heartrending decisions made by people struggling to maintain some degree of financial and domestic stability.
Hoop Dreams also offers a startling look at how early the recruiting of young athletes begins, and at the contradictory motives of the adults who influence the boys' athletic and academic destinies. After watching the film, one finds it difficult to condone or condemn categorically the actions of people like street talent scout Earl Smith or St. Joe's varsity coach, Gene Pingatore, or the organizers of the Nike-sponsored basketball camps at which college coaches watch the country's best schoolboy talent compete. "We wanted to give as full a portrait of the process as possible," says Marx. "It is not so easy to condemn someone like Gene or Earl, who on one hand seems to be using the kids, but on the oilier hand is offering kids like William and Arthur a chance at an education and the possibility of going onto a good college."
Each of the filmmakers had his own hoop dreams. James, 39, the director and co-producer, was the MVP of his basketball team at Hampton (Va.) High School. "I was 6'3" when I was 15 and didn't grow anymore," says James. "I'm one of those guys who says, 'If I had been 6'7", I would have made it." "He went to James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., where he was a freshman walk-on in 1973. During orientation. Mike Fratello, who was then the JMU freshman coach and now coaches the Cleveland Cavaliers, arranged an eye-opening game of two-on-two for James and three freshmen on basketball scholarships. "I was matched up against a guy named Sherman Dillard, who was 6'5", 200," says James. "I felt pretty good, I was scoring on him, but he was taking me to the rack every time he touched the ball. After the workout Fratello asked me what I thought of Dillard. I said. 'He'll be a pretty good power forward for you.' Fratello looked at me and said, 'He's our point guard.' " James graduated from James Madison and went on to Southern Illinois University, where he got his Master of Fine Arts degree and met Marx, another of the producers.
Marx, 38, recognized his athletic limitations early but still led his team in rebounding in his senior year at University High School in Urbana. Ill. Marx says wryly that Urbana "had the smallest student body of any high school in the Midwest." At 6'5", he stood out. He graduated from the University of Illinois before going to film school at Southern Illinois.
Gilbert, 37, the third producer and the film's director of photography, says he "was a bench warmer" at several high schools. And, he adds, "I was very good at fouling." After earning his undergraduate degree at Wisconsin, Gilbert went to film school at New York University.
It was James who, while playing pickup ball at Southern Illinois, first thought of doing the documentary. He says, "There were three courts in the gym. and the best game was played on the first court, and the game was mostly black guys. And on that particular day I looked around and saw that all three courts were filled with black guys. I began to realize that they had a camaraderie that I'd never seen or felt before, and it had to do with basketball. I had the dream when I was a kid. I played ball all day, and I didn't care about school. But that day at the gym I understood how different the stakes were for kids like William and Arthur."
James corresponded with his film-school buddy Marx, who by that time was teaching English in China, and the two began to plan their film. In April 1987, James and Marx, who had returned to the States, pitched their idea to Kartemquin Films, a documentary film company in Chicago. Kartemquin agreed to help produce the work and gave James and Marx office space. Next they began researching Chicago's street basketball scene. It was also through Kartemquin that James and Marx were introduced to Gilbert.
Early in their research, they met the sweet-faced Arthur Agee on a court in West Garfield Park. "We knew once we'd found Arthur that he was someone we should follow because of his wide-eyed innocence and pure love for the game," says Gilbert. William Gates was chosen for the project, says James, "because we were enticed by the prospect of following a phenom we'd heard about. We expected a player like him to be cocky and outgoing, but he was shy and extremely smart."
Gilbert had worked on a variety of film projects before joining James and Marx. He had been the cameraman for Barbara Kopple's documentary about a meat packers' strike in Austin, Minn., American Dream, which had taken five years to complete and won the director an Oscar. "I knew what it was to follow someone for a long period." says Gilbert. "Ultimately it is that longitudinal narrative that allows you to sit through Hoop Dreams for three hours." The trio finished shooting the film in 1991, and then James and Marx, with editor Bill Haugse, spent 2½ years editing 250 hours of film down to just under three.
Since the filming Agee and Gates have gone on to Division I schools—Agee to Arkansas State, Gates to Marquette—and continue to pursue their dreams of playing in the NBA and of providing better lives for their families. During the course of the project Gilbert's and James's wives had five children between them. The filmmakers have signed a deal with Turner Pictures to fictionalize the documentary, and Spike Lee has been named the project's executive producer.
What started out as a look at the basketball dreams of two inner-city boys turned out to be the three filmmakers' own dream come true.
James Reynolds is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn.