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‘Hoop Dreams’

By Desson Howe
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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When Arthur Agee—a kid from a Chicago housing project—expresses a desire to play professional basketball, his 14-year-old face glistens with hope. Over the ensuing five years, “Hoop Dreams,” an extraordinarily affecting documentary, traces the sobering ramifications of that boyhood wish. The film, made by Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, also follows the life of William Gates, another 14-year-old kid from the city’s impoverished West Side, who shares the same ambition.

But “Hoop” is no cheesy, rags-to-riches Hollywood saga. It’s about where the boys’ wishes take them, what the recruitment infrastructure does to their intentions, how they develop as people, how these mere pups deal with overwhelming athletic and academic pressure, how their families cope with the tension and what these events tell us about the American dream. You don’t need to love basketball to follow a tale like that, play by absorbing play.

It’s clear from the outset that the boys—who come from the notorious Cabrini-Green district—have talent. And when they both get scholarships from St. Joseph High School, they seem to be on their way. But Arthur and William are remedial students. This predominantly white Roman Catholic school—a 90-minute bus ride away from their homes—is about as foreign as the Land of Oz. It’s clear they didn’t get their scholarships for classroom brilliance. It isn’t any easier on the basketball court. Getting on Coach Gene Pingatore’s good side, it turns out, requires daily, obsessive commitment. And the gravel-voiced coach (who has filed suit against the makers and distributors of this movie for the way he is portrayed) is clearly more impressed with one of the boys than the other.

“When are you going to grow?” he says to the less-favored one.

While Arthur and William give everything they’ve got to winning, and pleasing Pingatore, they struggle painfully with their studies. One is more successful than the other, but his progress is hardly dramatic. The weaker student begins a downward spiral and—inevitably—finds himself falling from official grace. There are other pressures and problems. William’s heavyset brother Curtis, a failed basketball contender, declares of his sibling: “All my dreams are in him now. I want it so bad I don’t know what to do.”

One of the two boys is sidelined with a career-threatening injury. The other lives with a drug-addicted father who—during the course of the movie—leaves home. Back on the courts, both players are constantly finding themselves in front of the basket for a crucial free throw, with significant games—and their careers—on the line. Sometimes the ball goes in, sometimes it skitters agonizingly off the rim. When the boys participate in a Nike All-America basketball camp, essentially a cattle auction where college coaches size up high school players, Arthur and William are literally lost in the herd of kids with dreams of being the next Michael, Isiah or Shaq.

It is this unnerving state of existence that intrigues filmmakers James, Marx (also the producer) and Gilbert (the cinematographer). Their movie, which was made between 1986 and 1991, shows the moral labyrinth before Arthur and William, and although the boys’ destinies diverge not long after they enter St. Joseph, the ultimate paths they take are surprisingly similar.

At St. Joseph, the high school career of professional player and alumnus Isiah Thomas is sanctified in glass-covered displays. His success hovers before William and Arthur like a Holy Grail—and a jinx. “ Hoop Dreams,” whose three hours glide by like the best overtime game you ever saw, shows how two young spirits deal with that specter and how—in ways they hadn’t anticipated— they come through for themselves.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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