Looking Back At Broken 'Dreams'
Film's Key Players Have Moved On
By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2004; Page D01
"People say, 'When you make it to the NBA, don't forget about me.' I feel like telling them, 'Well, if I don't make it, make sure you don't forget about me.' "
-- William Gates, in the final scene of "Hoop Dreams"
CHICAGO -- The asphalt is still cracked and dried, just as the neighborhood is still cracked and dried. Weeds sprouting from the concrete, muscling up to breathe in the heat of another Cabrini Green summer.
Ten years have passed, 10 years since one of America's most dangerous public housing projects became a laboratory for a documentary film director and his crew, who set out to find the essence of athletic hope among black children hypnotized by basketball in the inner city.
"Hoop Dreams" chronicled the NBA aspirations of two adolescent boys and their families. Their pursuit unveiled broader themes of struggle and adversity -- in a world constantly telling young William Gates and Arthur Agee they were not supposed to make it.
"If you think about it, we were the first reality series," William Gates, a pastor, said. "We just didn't bank in like everybody else. Nowadays, even the 'Survivor' losers go on TV and get paid."
The film's $8 million box-office take made it the highest grossing documentary of all time. Since its theatrical release in October 1994, the only documentaries more successful have been Michael Moore's most recent film, "Fahrenheit 9/11," Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," and the IMax movie-like "Winged Migration."
Viewers first meet Arthur as a doe-eyed 14-year-old on his way to see NBA star Isiah Thomas at a prestigious basketball camp, hosted by a private Catholic high school his parents cannot afford. William soon fills the screen, emerging as his family's last beacon for pro basketball stardom. Their disparate journeys play out over three unsparing hours. Two teenaged protagonists use their skills and desire to try and vault them over every hurdle of urban blight: teen pregnancy, poverty, crime, crumbling public schools, parental drug use and abandonment.
After the credits rolled, their lives moved on.
William is 32 now. Arthur is 31. They have eight children between them, closets full of sneakers and trophies, unresolved issues about why they didn't make it and how close they came, and a deep friendship, rekindled at least once a year.
Gates, still self-aware and socially conscious, is a senior pastor at the Living Faith Community Center in Cabrini Green, where he works at the Kids' Club, sometimes nurturing third-graders who cannot yet read and other times telling a young genius she tested in the top 3 percent nationally.
He came back to the neighborhood begrudgingly, after he was out of work for a time and his brother was gunned down in the street.
Remember Curtis Gates? He was the former playground king who gained weight, lost self-esteem and lived vicariously through his younger brother -- "All my dreams are in him now," he said in the film. He was murdered almost three years ago at age 36.
Arthur is still an infectious dreamer. His sole income now is derived from launching a "Hoop Dreams" clothing line (slogan: Control Your Destiny). He has partnered with MTV's Rock the Vote for a 50-city tour that he hopes will help promote the line.
"We're talking about writing $60 million in orders," said Agee.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company