Lives Forever Changed The costars of Hoop Dreams didn't make it to the NBA, but that's no tragedy

September 19, 1999

If there's a drawback common to most documentaries, it's the
absence of closure, the lack of a sequel. No matter how
engrossed an audience becomes in a subject, there is lingering
curiosity. Take Hoop Dreams, the award-winning film that laid
bare the myth of salvation through basketball. Neither William
Gates nor Arthur Agee, the two Chicago hoops virtuosos whom the
movie shadowed through their teenage years, ever made it to the
NBA. That much most folks know. But five years after the release
of the highly acclaimed film, what has happened to the two
principals?

A hoop dreamer emeritus, Gates, 27, laughs self-effacingly when
he recalls the intensity of his adolescent aspiration to make it
to the pros. "Don't get me wrong, I still love basketball," he
says. "But sometimes I can't believe how big a role it played in
my life, how that guy in the movie was me."

As his well-upholstered midsection attests, basketball has slid
precipitously on Gates's list of priorities. He is far more
concerned with providing for his wife, Catherine--who was his
high school girlfriend--and their three children, ages one, four
and 10. Gates commutes 100 miles a day from the family's home in
Wisconsin to Mt. Prospect, Ill., where he works for the
Community Economic Development Association (CEDA). He plans to
attend law school next fall. He is also on the board of
directors of the fledgling Collegiate Professional Basketball
League. "I'm just a normal, middle-class guy now," he says, "and
that's fine with me."

At the end of Hoop Dreams, before Gates's freshman season in
college, his basketball career had already peaked. Having never
fully recovered from a knee injury he suffered in high school,
Gates averaged less than eight points a game in his four years
at Marquette. After taking a break from school to work full
time, Gates received his degree in communications last spring.
As the first member of his family to finish college, he had to
approach the dean's office three times to ask for extra
graduation tickets. "I had about 40 people cheering me on,
including my three kids," he says. "Getting that piece of paper
felt as good as any game-winning basket I ever made."

He doesn't want for anything, but William Gates will never be
mistaken for Bill Gates. "Like most people," he admits, "I wish
things were a little better for me financially." That said, does
he resent that players such as the Washington Wizards' Juwan
Howard and the Dallas Mavericks' Michael Finley, both of whom he
lit up in high school, make millions in the pros? "Not at all,"
says Gates, surprised by the question. "I root like crazy for
those guys, and one day I'll tell my kids, 'I was part of that
class.' They just went in one direction, and I went in another."

Hoop dreams have lingered longer for Arthur Agee. In the
middle-class Chicago suburb of Berwyn, Ill., where he lives with
his parents, Agee wakes up early to lift weights and do sit-ups
before going to shoot jumpers in an empty high school gym.
Several times a week he plays in basketball leagues around the
city, including one with NBA players at the Moody Bible
Institute. After playing college ball at Arkansas State, Agee
did hard time in the IBL, the CBA and the USBL but claims he
never got a fair shake. At each stop, he says, the team was more
interested in his familiar name--"I was always the guy who had
to go to car dealerships and sponsor lunches"--than in his
skills. Still, there's no extinguishing his flame. "I try to be
realistic," he says, "but I've still got a lot of game left in
me, and I'm just hoping to catch my break."

While Agee, 26, has yet to wean himself from basketball, it is
no longer his exclusive passion. Trading on the publicity he
received from Hoop Dreams, Agee has embarked on an acting
career. Two years ago he was asked to read for the part of Jesus
Shuttlesworth--which went to Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen--in
Spike Lee's He Got Game; he instead landed a cameo. Earlier this
year Agee played a prominent role in the TNT basketball movie
Passing Glory. On the first day of shooting, Andre Braugher, the
movie's star, sought out Agee to tell him that he was a natural
actor. "Maybe it was being in front of the camera so much when I
was growing up," says Agee, "but taking on different roles and
portraying different people comes easily to me."

True to the irrepressible personality he displayed on film as a
teenager, Agee remains enormously sociable and is exploiting his
quasicelebrity status to the hilt. He delivers motivational
speeches to groups several times a month; he is planning to
market a Hoop Dreams clothing line; and he has a consulting
agreement with a Chicago health club. The unmarried father of
three children, all of whom he sees regularly, Agee also runs
the Arthur Agee Role Model Foundation, which provides
scholarships and services to underprivileged kids. This fall the
foundation has teamed with Chicago ophthalmologist Barry L.
Seiller to provide visual performance testing and free contact
lenses to athletes at Marshall High, Agee's alma mater. He
spends the balance of his days "networking," as he puts it; his
cell phone and pager play a constant symphony of beeps and buzzes.

The unexpected commercial success of Hoop Dreams brought Gates
and Agee nearly $300,000 apiece in royalties. When Agee received
his first check, he purchased a house in Berwyn for his parents.
It's only a 10-minute drive from the family's previous, decrepit
apartment in the West Garfield Park neighborhood of
Chicago--where their lights were once turned off when they
couldn't pay their electric bill--but it may as well be in
another country. The Agees' tree-lined street is quiet; they
have a small pool in the backyard, and there are excellent
public schools nearby. It has been years since the move, but
Sheila Agee nearly implodes with pride when she gives visitors a
tour of the house. "With all the tough times we went through,"
she says, struggling valiantly to restrain tears, "I still can't
believe this is ours."

As for other epilogues, Curtis Gates, who got as far as junior
college basketball but was living vicariously through his
younger brother, works for FedEx. Arthur's father, Bo Agee, has
kicked his cocaine habit and, after serving time in prison, has
remarried Sheila. He is self-employed as a motivational speaker.
Arthur Agee and William Gates both chuckle when they report that
their crusty coach at St. Joseph High, Gene Pingatore, finally
made it to the Promised Land "downstate" last season. Pingatore
sued the filmmakers over his portrayal in Hoop Dreams and later
dropped the suit in exchange for the filmmakers donating
scholarship money for students at both St. Joseph and Marshall
high schools.

Though inextricably intertwined in our minds, Agee and Gates
scarcely keep in touch. The last time the two saw each other, in
1998 at a party hosted by the movie's director, Steve James,
Agee asked Gates if he had any interest in helping to launch the
Hoop Dreams clothing line. Gates, who is so determined to move
on that he initially declined SI's interview request and didn't
want to pose for a photographer, smiled and shook his head in
disbelief. "Arthur," he said, "why would anyone want to buy
basketball jerseys with our names on them?"

Says Agee, "I told William we have to be creative and seize the
opportunities. We're just different, I guess."

They do, however, agree that fate intervened when they consented
to let a team of filmmakers follow them for nearly 4 1/2 years
and thrust their lives into the public domain. "You have to
remember," says Gates, "when you're in middle school and live in
Cabrini-Green and three guys say they want to make a movie about
you, it made you feel special." Likewise, not a day goes by that
Agee doesn't think about where he'd be if not for Hoop Dreams.
"I've met the President, I've been to the NAACP Image Awards,
I've signed an autograph for Magic Johnson, I still get noticed
in airports," says Agee, who, when folks can't quite place his
face, likes to say he's a golfer. "Things like this don't
usually happen to guys like me."

In a wonderfully poignant scene in the movie that critic Roger
Ebert called "one of the best films about American life I have
ever seen," Gates tells how a friend said to him, "When you get
to the NBA, don't forget about me." Without missing a beat Gates
responded, "Well, if I don't make it, don't forget about me." At
two vastly different coordinates, a million miles removed from
the NBA, Gates and Agee are making it just fine. Funny how a
low-budget documentary funded by piecemeal grants can provide a
slam dunk of a Hollywood ending.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG "I've met the President; I've signed an autograph for Magic Johnson," says Agee.

"I'm just a normal, middle-class guy now," says Gates, "and
that's fine with me."

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