It’s a testament to the power of a movie when college students are willing to spend three hours of a Thursday night on uncomfortable gym bleachers to watch it.
A sizeable crowd showed up at the Hoop Dreams screening, the breakout 1994 documentary that tracks the high school basketball careers of Arthur Agee and William Gates, two Chicago teenagers from rough neighborhoods with NBA ambitions. The event was sponsored by The Order of the “C,” the Office of Minority Student Affairs, and the Center for Race, Politics and Culture. The event began with a short introduction by the filmmakers Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Gordon Quinn, as well as a grown-up Arthur Agee himself, only 14 when work on the documentary began.
I will freely admit that high school sports have never held much interest for me. I don’t understand the fanaticism that comes with the territory; why can’t people just have fun? Hoop Dreams, however, makes it very clear how important sports can be. For Arthur and William, one basketball season can determine the rest of their lives. Basketball means so much more than a game; it is college, a future, and a way out. At one point, Arthur’s father, Bo, is asked what will happen if his son does not make it to the NBA. He responds that he doesn’t even let himself think about such a fate.
As Arthur and William get older, the price they pay for their NBA dreams gets steeper. William is under incredible pressure as the star player of a school with a basketball legacy. William’s coach, not a favorite with any audience, is demanding to the point of brutality, and William undergoes two knee surgeries before he turns 18. The genius behind Hoop Dreams, however, is that it goes beyond the sport, showing the audience other aspects of the young men’s lives. William fathers a child and doesn’t tell his coach about it for three months, missing the birth of his daughter to attend the state championships. Arthur’s family is thrown into turmoil when his father becomes a drug addict, and, after some violent confrontations with Arthur’s mother, leaves the family. The Agees have to go on welfare and endure some trying times, at one point living without gas or power.
The film finishes with both Arthur and William in college, still playing basketball, but in a different state of mind than when they began. William concisely explains his own disillusionment with it all when he says, “It became more of a job than a sport to play.”
After the screening, the filmmakers and Arthur stuck around for questions and answers with the audience. They revealed that Arthur married the mother of his child during college and now works as a pastor. Arthur’s father cleaned up and rejoined the family again, mending old wounds. But sadly, he was murdered just last December, and the family accepted donations in his name after the screening.
Joking about their humble beginnings, the filmmakers talked about how no one thought that this movie would succeed. Who would sit through a three-hour documentary? And worse, there is no Hollywood happy ending. In general, they believed the movie did well because everyone can relate to some part of itthe characters are as real as the person sitting next to you, and their problems become your own.
Arthur Agee, a natural crowd pleaser, is now a father of two and has plans to launch a Hoop Dreams clothing line. Although he looks very different now, you can still see the same cocky 14-year-old shine through. I wondered if it was painful for Arthur to watch such an up-close and honest portrayal of his life with an audience. When asked if he would do it all over again, however, Arthur responded with a resounding, “Yes.”
If you want to see basketball, there’s certainly plenty in Hoop Dreams. But there’s also a lot more going on than lay-ups. Peter Gilbert described sports as “one of the few things people do when they meet people different from themselves.” I think this can account for the initial success of Hoop Dreams, but the enduring quality of the film is what makes it truly noteworthy. What was originally a movie about basketball came to mean much more: family, struggle, the pain that a dream can cause, and the opportunities it can open up. Despite the many setbacks we see Gates and Agee suffer, there is a certain uplifting quality about the film that’s hard to put your finger on. Maybe Steve James summed it up best when he said, “People look at this movie, and think there is some kind of hope for America.”