Hoop Dreams arrives just in time to add a level of irony to the opening of the NBA season. We grateful Houstonians (myself certainly included) will welcome our champs back with open arms and soft, yielding minds because, thanks to them and the basketball gods, we finally had our day. The Knicks defeated, we Houstonians got together and willed ourselves an image of triumph so clear and intense that it was like a hologram hovering over the skyline.
Now that we've finally lived the big sports payoff, we can truly admit to the power of games to inspire dreams -- or illusions -- of transcendence. Especially to the power of basketball. Its players are so naked, and the game's flow is so jazzy and emotional, that at least in late 20th-century America, a spectator's mind can feel like a hardwood floor, registering every measured bounce of the ball, every otherworldly sneaker squeak. If basketball can take even a geezer like me, with only a burnished memory of his little turnaround jumper last seen 20 years ago, on a sort of astral projection, imagine what it can do for a black ghetto kid who's actually the best player on his neighborhood court.
Or rather, don't just imagine such, go see the whole psychic world basketball can conjure up, and the material world it thrives in, brought to life on screen in Hoop Dreams, which makes any number of claims to being the most important film of the year, including this one: this film is the clearest imaginable mirror of our society.
Everyone portrayed here -- from the legendary high school coach who "discovered" Detroit Piston star Isiah Thomas and who would like to find another just like him, to his two latest recruits (the main subjects of the documentary), to their parents and dead-end brothers -- is both so nakedly needy and focused that this film plays as an X-ray of their souls.
The documentary's structure is simple enough, but the effort that went into it must have been heroic. Three white filmmakers, director Steve James, and producers Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, spent nearly five years detailing the lives of Chicago teenagers William Gates and Arthur Agee. The project started out to be a short film about Chicago's street basketball scene, but after the filmmakers met Gates and Agee, they expanded their focus, shot 250 hours of film and produced an intimate epic.
It's easy to see why the documentarians found Gates and Agee so compelling. As middle-school players, both were good enough to
be recruited by the suburban Catholic school basketball power, St. Joseph's, coached by Gene Pingatore. Both boys committed themselves to making the hour-and-a-half-long daily commute to attend the prestigious school, and, more important (to them, if not to their mothers), to play where Isiah once played, to be coached by his coach -- in short, to catch a little of his magic and (they hope) follow his path to fortune and fame.
In a moving early sequence, we follow the bashful Agee to a St. Joseph's basketball camp that Isiah himself attends, much to the kids' pleasure and delight. Agee, who spends much of the film in varying states of depression and self-repression, can't stop smiling when he gets to go one-on-one with his hero.
But to say that Gates and Agee made a perfect pair for the filmmakers doesn't mean they have much in common. Theirs is the perfection of opposites. A fictional film that showed such a symmetry between its main characters -- when one is up, the other is down -- would get old fast, but here the powerful sense of reality behind the film makes the connection between the two boys, scarcely acknowledged by the pair themselves, downright sublime.
Agee is barely good enough to be accepted at St. Joseph's and be offered a scholarship. Gates, on the other hand, looks like the second coming of Michael Jordan. He becomes the first freshman to ever start on the St. Joseph's varsity, and by the time the team has gone deep into the playoffs, he has become the go-to guy. And while Agee struggles in St. Joseph's demanding classes, Gates blossoms as a student. If the camera loves the good-looking and likable Gates, it seems to pity Agee.
So in the boys' sophomore years, when tuition goes up beyond the limit of the players' scholarships, it comes as no surprise that the school finds Gates an angel to cover the difference while asking Agee's family to pay the extra. The money is well-beyond their means, so sad young Agee has to return in defeat to his chaotic neighborhood school, where he scarcely manages to make the inferior basketball team. Gates, meanwhile, is better than ever as a sophomore. At this point you expect the film to end with Gates' highly touted recruitment by Duke and Agee's slide into minimum wage jobs, drugs and prison.
But Hoop Dreams is a great film precisely because this doesn't happen. At this point, the story has barely begun, and as each new scene unfolds, its people become more complicated. The film may be at its absolute best when it concentrates on the young men's families, and places the kids in a context outside the classroom and the basketball court. Agee's mother, Sheila, becomes one of the movie's strongest presences; similarly gripping is her drug-abusing husband, Bo. In the Gates household, it's William's older brother, Curtis, a onetime high school star himself who now lives vicariously through William, who takes the spotlight.
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If Hoop Dreams were a work of fiction, much of what happens in its later stages, the twists and turns of what would be the plot, might be shrugged off as cliche. But the fact that this is a documentary makes all the difference; when the cliches come to life, when it's real people experiencing the surprise failures and successes, the events can't be easily dismissed. Instead, they're absolutely thrilling.
The same goes for the game footage (the filmmakers must have had several cameras, so well is it captured), which is intense in a way that the mere choreography of a fictionalized game can only dream about. There's plenty more that could be said about Hoop Dreams, about the way black inner-city life is first shown entirely as an estate to escape, then begins to look good compared to the streamlined hypocrisies of the suburbs; about its portrayal of college recruiting -- this is year-round madness, not just March's; and, above all, about the film's final optimism, which comes through in scene after scene. This is, quite simply, a film rich in detail, rich in character, rich in feeling and rich in the rewards it gives a viewer -- if not always in the rewards it gives its two main subjects.
By Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert.