Sport is not always a ticket out of the inner city in Hoop Dreams (1994), a tale of two Chicago boys chasing their basketball dreams.
Hoop Dreams documents the American dream and its long shadow. It’s a heart-rending look at two 14-year-olds who persevere, succeed, fail, and keep hope alive. Richly woven, this documentary conveys a vivid sense of Arthur’s life in Chicago’s South Side, and William’s days in the Cabrini Green neighborhood.
James, writer/editor Frederick Marx and cinematographer Peter Gilbert follow Arthur, William and their families over four and a half years as the players emerge.
Recruited by good school
The two are recruited by mostly white St. Joseph’s High School, even though each reads at a fourth grade level. The story begins as Arthur and William enter the school with partial scholarships, and ends as the two begin college.
Highs and lows fill the boys’ lives. As Arthur visits St. Joseph’s for the first time, he meets and plays one-on-one with his idol, N.B.A. star Isiah Thomas of the Chicago Bulls. The joy on his face is unforgettable.
Just over a year later, Arthur is expelled because his family is $1500 behind in tuition payments. Arthur’s parents separate after domestic violence. Sheila Agee has lost her job due to a back injury. She was dropped from welfare for a time. Arthur’s father Bo recovers from a crack cocaine addiction as he serves prison time.
Luther Bedford, who later coached Arthur at Marshall Metro High School, believes that St. Joseph’s “would have found a way” to help the boy if he were performing well on the court. The film makes clear why at-risk youth need extra help in order to succeed.
William does well on St. Joseph’s varsity team, and manages to raise his school performance. His scholarship is supplemented by benefactor Patricia Wier, president of Encyclopedia Britannica. Wier also helps William secure a summer job at her firm.
William’s life changes when he becomes a father. When he tears knee cartilage, doctors tell him he may miss a year of his basketball career.
William reveres his older brother Curtis, once a rising basketball star who becomes a security guard. Deemed “uncoachable,” Curtis battled drug addiction. William wants to make his family proud and forge his own identity too.
Playing at Marshall Metro
At Marshall Metro, Arthur still does not like school but he makes friends and improves his game. In one of the film’s sweetest triumphs, Arthur helps his team win a championship.
At an All-America basketball camp, William hears director Spike Lee. “This whole thing is about money,” he tells the players. “The only reason you are here is because you can make their schools win and they can make a lot of money.”
Hoop Dreams is filled with crucial game moments for Arthur and William. As crowds cheer, adulation washes over them. They began playing at outdoor neighborhood courts where illegal drugs are traded.
Now they are part of a school team. People pay to see them. From the bleachers, their families shout.
Two lives transformed
William graduated from Marquette University and enjoys a business career. Since graduating from Arkansas Sate, Arthur teaches and speaks to inner city youth. Both have their own families and say this film helped change their lives.
Hoop Dreams won the Audience Award at Sundance 1994. It was recently named the top film in Morgan Spurlock’s Current TV series 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die.
The passion of high school and college sports, less evident in the pros, is alive here. Team spirit and high hopes rule. What Hoop Dreams adds is a call to compassion and inclusion. (5 out of 5 stars)
Hoop Dreams 1994 / PG-13 / 2 hours, 51 min
Cast Overview: Steve James, William Gates, Arthur Agee, Emma Gates, Sheila Agee and Gene Pingatore
Director: Steve James