Saturday, November 20, 2010

HOOP DREAMS: “If I’m Not in the NBA”

The back of the beat-up old jacket that contains my video copy of the movie Hoop Dreams hypes the documentary as follows: “They have nothing – except talent and a dream – and in this tough Chicago neighborhood, dreams are all they can count on.”  From this, we would expect to see the basketball equivalent of Rocky.  The description on the jacket continues: “You will come to know them and root for them as if they were your friends, your family, and against all odds, these boys will prove that with faith, talent and a little luck, anyone can achieve the American Dream.  An amazing and uplifting chronicle ….”  Why the distributors of this film felt the need to market the movie in this way is a mystery.  In the entire 176 minutes of length, nothing in the movie would even suggest that this description on the jacket is an accurate summation.  This may possibly be the most depressing of movies that I have ever seen because it contains almost no element of hope.  For once we see in a movie that the “million to one shot” that the underdog has to face is truly a “million to one shot.”
 
William Gates is a young high-school prospect that grew up in the Cabrini Green neighborhood in Chicago.  Arthur Agee, another basketball prodigal, grew up in the West Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago.  Both of these black youths are recruited to play high-school ball at a very early age.  Arthur, in fact, was “discovered” while in grammar school by Earl Smith, an unofficial basketball scout who hopes to turn young finds into professional prospects later in life.  William appears slightly more thoughtful and articulate than Arthur, but in a number of other respects the two young boys are remarkably similar.  Both William and Arthur have fathers who off and on completely disappear from their children’s lives.  Both of the youth are extremely close to their mothers.  And both do poorly in school.  Coach Gene Pingatore of St. Joseph’s Catholic School convinces William and Arthur to enroll in St. Joseph’s.  To get to St. Joseph’s requires that each ride the bus two or three hours each day to the southwestern Chicago suburb, and it puts a financial strain on each of the families to have the two go to school there.  But it is at St. Joseph’s that the two young boys part company.  William, during his freshman and sophomore year becomes the star basketball player and is compared to his hero, Isiah Thomas.  Arthur is unable to compete at this level, is failing most of his courses, and is eventually asked to leave the school when his family is no longer able to pay the school’s tuition.  Arthur’s parents, Arthur “Bo” Agee, Sr. and his mother, Shirley Agee, feel that the school has reneged upon an agreement that was made that Arthur would be allowed to finish his education at St. Joseph’s.  The family was so poverty stricken at this point that they even had their electricity shutoff for failure to pay the electric bill.
 
Arthur’s parents may be the two most interesting individuals in the movie.  Shirley’s dream is to become a nurse, and she eventually does graduate from the nursing program that she has enrolled in with a graduation ceremony being held in a near empty auditorium.  Outside of his son, we’re never sure what Bo Agee dreams about.  He says at one point that he doesn’t even think about his son never making it to the NBA.  Bo has a lengthy criminal record and has spent much of his life addicted to Crack.  At one point, Bo walks off of the blacktop where he was playing his son in one-on-one basketball in order to make a drug deal – all of which is contained on film.  After making one of his many returns to home, Bo has a religious conversion and swears off the drugs.  Arthur sometimes seems to show his father affection (probably for the sake of appearances), but for the most part he seems understandably guarded whenever his father reenters his life.
 
William also has a lot of people “depending” upon him to make it big on the basketball courts.  William’s brother, Curtis, a failed college basketball star, now vicariously lives off of his brother’s success.  William, though not a stellar student, has slightly better grades than Arthur.  As early as his freshman year in high school various Division One college basketball programs are recruiting him.  William has an on and off relationship with Coach Pingatore.  Pingatore, though a much better than average high school basketball coach, is nevertheless reminiscent of every crotchety old gym coach that most of us have ever known.  His temper is short, and he’s unafraid of humiliating his players in front of the players’ teammates and family members.  Pingatore is quick to give personal advice to William and the other players, and almost all of it is bad.  And it’s in this atmosphere of constantly being browbeat by his coach when William’s high school years take a turn for the worse.  During his sophomore year, William misses two free throws during an important game and this predates a number of disasters still to come.  Shortly after this, William injures his knee and he was to be bothered by this knee injury for the remainder of his basketball career.  And then during his junior year, just when he was to make his return William becomes a father when his girlfriend gives birth to a girl.  We are never sure if William’s mind is completely upon the game of basketball again.
 
As it turns out, leaving St. Joseph’s may have been the best thing for Arthur – at least so far as basketball goes.  He is enrolled in a high school called Marshall and he eventually becomes its star player.  So much of an improvement does his presence bring to Marshall’s program that by Arthur’s senior year the school goes to the state tournament and brings back the third place trophy.  Unfortunately, his academic record never truly improves.  His grades are so poor that many of the better college programs do not want to touch him.  And Arthur’s life long friend, Shannon Johnson, disappears from the school and probably is lost to the world of crime and drugs.  Eventually, with his mother and father (who once again returns home to “support” his son) looking on, Arthur agrees to attend a junior college in southern Missouri.  This junior college does not have the credentials to inspire hope for anyone in Arthur’s position.  Of the seven black students attending this college, six of them were in the school’s basketball program.  Arthur does eventually graduate from the junior college and then went onto play basketball in Arkansas from where he received his four-year degree.
 
Even after his knee injury, William is still recruited by the better schools.  He also attends a Nike basketball camp directed by Frank Du Bois.  Spike Lee, Mike Krzyzewski, Bobby Knight and Isiah Thomas all make appearances at the camp, and the boys who attend get to hear various rants from the visiting celebrities about the need to excel.  William eventually accepts an offer to attend Marquette where he obtained his degree, but he never made a mark for himself as a player at the University.
 
William struggles with his entire identity being tied to basketball.  In an argument he has with his girlfriend concerning his inattention to his duties as a parent, he tries to emphasize to her that basketball is his way out.  His girlfriend is not too sympathetic towards this line of reasoning.  At another point in a conversation he has with Coach Pingatore, he mentions that he plans on becoming a communication major in college and at some point returning to communicate to Coach Pingatore that he will not be making a donation to his program.  This after Coach Pingatore tells William that William’s high school playing time had not been quite what he the coach had hoped for.  “Will you remember me if I’m not in the NBA?” William at one point sadly states.  William by this point has grown tired of all the talk about his prospective professional career.
 
We are left to wonder if the “hoop dreams” of the two young boys “that turns them into men” (according to the video jacket) ever amounted to anything.  In watching Hoop Dreams, we do and we don’t care for the boys and their families.  A New York Times review of this film expressed the thought that this movie never looks beyond the stereotypes.  I don’t think this is an accurate criticism.  I’m not sure the boys were able to look beyond the stereotypes.  Nothing in the movie makes me more uncomfortable than watching either Arthur or William in an academic setting.  Though failing in math, Arthur tells a career counselor that, outside of basketball, he might be interested in becoming an accountant or an architect or even run his own business – and we know that he will never accomplish any of these things.  The two are almost encouraged to smile whenever they are made to look foolish in school.  When Arthur is unable to comprehend a Spanish phrase during class he laughs along with his friends.  When William in informed that for the fourth time his ACT scores are not sufficient to get him into a Division 1 school, he is told by his recruiter to smile, as “it is not the end of the world.”  In the entire movie, we see virtually no one who cares that the boys are not succeeding academically except in relation to their basketball play.  And even the two boys do not seem to care.
 
Arthur never stopped believing that he would go to the NBA, and he never makes it.  Apparently, William at some point did get an NBA tryout (after this film had already been released), but his one chance to make it there was cut short when he injured his foot. But perhaps the boys were not wrong in thinking that basketball was their ticket out of the ghetto.   Even if neither made it to the NBA, it was their basketball abilities rather than their classroom knowledge that allowed them to pick up a college degree.  Unlike in most movies, their world did not come crashing down upon them when their dreams went unfulfilled.  However, also unlike most other movies, we are never surprised that their dreams went unfulfilled.  What surprises us the most is that they even made it as far as they did – and this fails to uplift us.  (Probably they came closer to their dream than most of the boys in the neighborhood because by some fluke they happen to be subjects for a major motion picture.)
 
What most people would identify as the real tragedy occurred later on to the family members who tried to make their lives revolve around the boys’ basketball careers.  William’s brother, Curtis, was murdered in Chicago in 2001.  Arthur’s father, Bo, was shot to death sometime in 2004.  But even this is not unexpected.  There is so much repetition in the lives of young people like William and Arthur that these kinds of events are all too familiar.  And just as William was to father a child out of wedlock, we learn at the end of the movie that Arthur was to father two children of his own while attending college.  Probably as occurred with his own childhood, Arthur will appear and disappear from the lives of these children as they grow to adulthood.  If one of the children happens to be a boy, maybe Arthur will then dream about the days when his own son will become an NBA star.
 
There have been a number of self-congratulatory reviews written concerning this movie speaking about what a revelation it is to view this documentary.  There’s no revelation here. This film was released in 1994 and nothing has changed.  Sociologists have known what growing up in neighborhoods such as Cabrini Green, Watts and Harlem has done to our youth for close to a century.  The reason that the dream of sports’ success has taken such a hold upon so many youth is that contrasting their own lives with that of their sports idols makes that “million to one” chance seem more probable than their chances of surviving another twenty years on the street.  The producers of this film, Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert do not even have to do a great deal of editing to bring the message of this movie across.  All they have to do is point the camera and let the subjects live and speak – which makes Hoop Dreams superior to almost every documentary ever made.  And I’m guessing in ten or twenty years, filmmakers could find another couple of boys in one of these neighborhoods and film almost the identical story.
 
December 28, 2007 
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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