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‘Hoop Dreams’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 04, 1994


Steve James
Arthur Agee;
William Gates;
Bobby Knight;
Mike Krzyzewski;
Spike Lee
Not rated

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Hoop Dreams” is the most powerful movie about sports ever made. Compiled from more than 250 hours of footage shot over five years, this extraordinary documentary about two Chicago teenagers who dream of becoming NBA stars is so absorbing and comprehensive and genuinely profound that it transcends the narrow parameters of its genre.

The realities of American life are the film’s true subject, particularly that debilitated segment of the population that sustains itself with impossible dreams of escape. Certainly, no other movie—documentary or dramatic feature—in recent memory provides such a vivid account of inner city culture.

When the movie picks up their stories, William Gates and Arthur Agee are rising high school freshmen who see basketball as a way out of their near-desperate circumstances. Almost by default, basketball is everything to them, and when a local scout brings them to the attention of the coach at St. Joseph’s High School, a private school in Chicago’s affluent suburbs, it looks as if they have been placed on a fast track for success.

The prestigious St. Joseph’s is famous for being the alma mater of Detroit Pistons superstar Isiah Thomas. He is also the personal hero of young Arthur, who proudly wears his jersey number. And according to St. Joseph’s Coach Gene Pingatore and a round table of grizzled sportswriters, William is far enough along in his development to be touted as the “next Isiah.”

At first the boys seem to blossom in their new circumstances. Not only does William become a starter on the varsity, he also becomes an honor student. And though Arthur, who is slighter and less mature physically than William, makes it only as far as the freshman squad, he also seems to be coming into his own.

Soon, though, Pingatore decides that Arthur isn’t coming along as quickly as he had hoped as a ballplayer. William’s scholarship is supplemented by a sponsor, but Arthur is not so lucky and once his prospects as an athlete begin to fade, he is forced to leave St. Joseph’s and return to public school, where his academic performance plummets.

For all of William’s early accomplishments, he too begins to have academic problems, especially after he injures his knee and is forced to have surgery. And once the troubles begin, there is very little in the way of guidance from parents, coaches or teachers for these young dreamers to fall back on. Arthur’s father, for example, is shown shooting baskets with him and then hustling off to buy drugs.

For filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, the trio who observed the boys and their families at close range, the betrayal of these young people by both families and public institutions borders on the criminal. The coaches are shown as parasites and manipulators who make pie-in-the-sky promises to their young athletes while paying lip service to their parents’ concerns about the importance of scholastic achievement.

It’s impossible to watch “Hoop Dreams” and not feel that American athletics exploits the fantasies of big-time wealth and celebrity that are envisioned by thousands of boys like Arthur and William. From the start, the notion of athletics as a game is nonexistent. When William is ready to begin his college career, his knee is shot and his passion for the game replaced by the pressure to live up to everyone else’s expectations.

At three hours, “Hoop Dreams” provides more emotion and human drama than 10 Hollywood movies. At times the frustrations of these kids and their families are excruciating. Despite all their setbacks, though, William and Arthur hold fast to their dreams.

By the time he is out of high school, William is a father and, unless by some miracle he becomes one of the select few who actually make a living from professional athletics, far worse off for his delusions of grandeur than he might have been without them. Yet, with so few viable alternatives available, who can blame these kids for indulging their one-in-a-million dreams? “Hoop Dreams” isn’t about the triumph of the human spirit or any of the other top 10 favorite sports cliches. It’s about something far rarer in the movies and of vastly greater significance—it’s about real life.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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