When I have heard of Hoop Dreams over the years, I expected a sports documentary full of uplifting moments seeing our protagonists slowly achieve their dreams. Instead, I found a heart wrenching story about two boys with big dreams, lots of talent, but no easy path to make their dreams a reality. Though I could only hope for the best Arthur and William, I think seeing their NBA ambitions fade makes for a stronger film and a call to action for anyone who knows youth in similar situations.
Hoop Dreams is more than a film about boys who play basketball, it’s a dramatic picture of life, luck and school systems in America. Two boys, Arthur Agee and William Gates, are recruited from Chicago’s inner city to play for a suburban private school, St. Joseph High School. Isiah Thomas is a famous graduate from their basketball program. When both boys make the transition from public school to St. Joseph, they only have a 4th or 5th grade reading level, and constantly struggle with their academics and college tests scores.
William is accepted on a full scholarship, makes varsity his freshman year and is expected to excel. But he suffers a knee injury, requiring surgery and lots of time off the court. He also fathers a child while in high school, but seems to bear few consequences. When he returns to the game, you can tell his confidence is shaken, he’s not the same player. In his senior year, he leads his team to a disappointing end to the season.
Arthur only makes the freshman team for St. Joseph and can’t keep up. He is cut from the team, loses his scholarship and has to go back to his neighborhood’s public school. He can’t graduate until the debt to the private school is paid off, something that would have never happened if he hadn’t been recruited in the first place. His family can’t pay that back so easily, his mother lost her minimum wage job because of a back injury. His father has left the family, gotten into drugs and jail. Through it all, Arthur excels on the court for his metro public school and ends up leading his team to be third in the state his senior year, with his old coach who cut him watching.
Such a dramatic tale of dual fortunes could not have been scripted as well as this unfolded into Arthur and William’s lives. The documentary was originally supposed to be a half hour special for PBS. As the filming progressed over five years, the filmmakers saw that this was so much more and the project became a documentary running nearly three hours long.
A moment that really resonated with me in this film is when the power is turned off at Arthur’s home. She looks into the camera and says, “Do you all wonder sometime how I am living? How my children survive, and how they’re living? It’s enough to really make people want to go out there and just lash out and hurt somebody.” If we weren’t sympathizing with Arthur and every other person in his situation, we suddenly come a little closer to understanding.
While Hoop Dreams was nominated for best editing at the Academy Awards, it did not receive nomination for best documentary. When this happened, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel decided to investigate the process in which the documentaries were nominated. Allegedly, part of the process made it possible that the Academy documentary committee could vote to turn off the movie, and they did so within fifteen minutes of Hoop Dreams. What a shame. Since then, the voting procedure has changed.
What makes Hoop Dreams such a great film is how raw and genuine Arthur and William’s struggles are. When we first meet them as fourteen year old boys, they have so much heart and big dreams of the NBA. They really believe they can get there. Soon, we see them slowly become disillusioned by pain and poverty. By the end of high school, they have grown into men, who understand how difficult their aspirations are. Isiah Thomas must have been either rich or very, very lucky.
“That’s why when somebody say, “when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me”, and that stuff. Well, I should’ve said to them, “if I don’t make it, don’t you forget about me.””