Monday, January 24, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Hoop Dreams" (1994)

"Hoop Dreams" has been called the greatest documentary film ever made, and if I don't quite feel comfortable repeating such an audacious statement, it would be difficult to me to come up with even a handful of other nonfiction movies that compare.

The film was an exercise in serendipity coupled with staggering persistence and patience. Three budding filmmakers -- Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Fred Marx -- received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to make a 30-minute TV special about two 14-year-old inner-city Chicago basketball players. Five years later, their cameras were still rolling and they had more than 250 hours of footage chronicling not only the on-court exploits of Arthur Agee and William Gates, but also the tumultuous journey of their families, and their own carefully guarded hopes and fears.

I doubt the filmmakers had any idea what they were getting themselves into -- or that the basketball lives of these two teens would end up taking such an epic, tragic course. "Epic" is a word that suits "Hoop Dreams" well: The film seems to encompass not just a few individuals' stories, but draw archetypes out of them to personify the larger world around.

Would the trio have guessed that Arthur's father, Bo, would separate from his wife and children, and end up on the streets strung out on crack cocaine? The scene where Bo shows up unannounced on the playground and buys drugs while the cameras are rolling is still a jaw-dropper. Arthur's resentment is palpable, as his dad showed up after a long absence, and he mocks Bo's failed dunk attempt, telling him he's got "old legs."

Another dunking scene with another family member stands out for me now, after seeing the film for the first time in a decade. William's older brother Curtis, who saw his own basketball stardom sputter out, lives vicariously through his kid brother's success -- Curtis constantly berates and belittles William, in the name of instructing him, but it's not hard to guess Curtis' verbal jabs are aimed at his own younger self.

After losing a series of jobs, Curtis has grown steadily heavier as the years roll by. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, he tries to match a younger, leaner player's jam, but can't lift his bulk high enough to even get near the rim. There's a moment where Curtis balefully glares at the hoop, which might as well be 20 feet tall instead of 10, and it sums up the dead end his character has reached. Unsuccessful at anything in life other than hoops, even that has slipped out of his grasp.

I just called Curtis a "character," and often it seems as if the roles of Arthur, William and those around them have been written out for them purposefully. I suppose that's why "Hoop Dreams" is such an emotional, fulfilling cinematic experience: The people in it seem as caught up by the rush of events as those watching them. Despite being a documentary, the story flows with a natural grace. We feel like we're seeing destiny unfold.

But Curtis is not just a character in a movie. He was a real person with his own dreams -- snuffed out now, after being murdered in 2001. Arthur's father Bo is dead, too, shot and killed three years later. Arthur's older half-brother DeAntonio was also murdered in 1994, the same year the film was released.

It's a testament to the probability that basketball -- for all the flaws and inequities in the sport -- saved William and Arthur's lives.

No, neither one of them made it to the National Basketball League. That, of course, was the ultimate hoop dream and the impetus that set James, Gilbert and Marx to following this pair in the first place. Imagine how different the movie would have been if either of them had ended up in the NBA (though we do glimpse a few who did make it at the Nike summer camp William attends, including Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard).

Cruel as it sounds, I think the film is better for it that Arthur and William had middling college careers and went undrafted by the pros. William is now a pastor, and Arthur runs a foundation and clothing line based around his experience with the film.

I think William's words, which close the film, say it best: "That's why when somebody say, 'When you get to the NBA, don't forget about me' and all that stuff, I should have said to them, 'Well, if I don't make it, make sure you don't forget about me.'"

Their fortunes rise and fall over the course of nearly three hours, yet we only glimpse them together twice. (Oddly, they both say, "I love you, boy!" despite hardly ever seeing each other.) They are both recruited as 14-year-olds to attend a rich white school in the north Chicago suburbs, St. Joe's. But when Arthur's hoops prowess is found wanting, he is forced to leave the school when his parents can't pay tuition. William, who is named a starter on the varsity squad as a freshman, is given a full scholarship and stays.

It seems Arthur is the perpetual slow starter and underdog, while William is the overhyped sensation who repeatedly falls short of expectations. William's photo appears often in the local papers, and grizzled sports reporters dub him the second coming of Isiah Thomas, St. Joe's most famous alum (who is briefly seen at a basketball camp going one-on-one with Arthur).

But William injures his knee his junior year, and many of the big college coaches, pursuing him like a prize hind, back away. He makes a comeback his senior year, but never plays with the same confidence. There's a scene at the Nike camp where William pulls a muscle near his injured knee, and Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and other basketball titans look down on him sprawled out on the parquet with expressions like Roman senators whose favorite gladiator has just fallen.

Arthur coasts through school at Marshall High, doing just enough in class to get by and just enough on the court to keep from getting named to the varsity team until his junior year. But he eventually becomes a standout, and leads his team to the city championship and deep into the playoffs during his senior year, eclipsing William's oft-professed goal of going "downstate."

A lot of things stood out for me watching the film again. The part where a section of William's knee cartilage is removed by the same doctor who operates on Chicago Bulls players is hard to even watch. The doc coldly estimates his patient will experience early onset of arthritis, but should be able to resume his basketball career. He could be talking about a racehorse.

Arthur's mother Sheila, though not educated or articulate, is revealed as the true heroine of the film. Though burdened with a husband who won't stay by her side, her devotion to her family is like a foundation made of steel girders. When she graduates from a nursing assistant school, earning the top grades in her class, the triumph is somehow more meaningful than her son's hoops wins. She's so ecstatic at being at the top of her class, she smears lipstick on the teacher's blouse while giving her a hug.

Sheila's graduation ceremony in a nearly empty auditorium speaks volumes. Hundreds or thousands of people will swarm to a basketball game between boys they'll forget the moment they graduate. Yet this woman's victory, which passes virtually unwitnessed, is in many ways more important.

I'm also struck how my perception of the two coaches changed. When I first saw the film, I found much appealing about Gene Pingatore, the St. Joe's basketball icon (he's still there). Gruff but fair, he seemed to push William to be a better player and a better person.

Meanwhile, I thought Luther Bedford, the head coach at Marshall, to be mean-spirited and dismissive. He strove to offer a hand to struggling young men like Arthur, but didn't seem upset at the many who slip through the cracks of a stressed inner-city school system.

Now, my opinions of the two men have virtually flip-flopped. Bedford becomes the voice of sanity and clarity, refusing to scour the city's playgrounds to recruit players for his program. He correctly assesses that if Arthur's play had panned out the way Pingatore had wanted, St. Joe's would've found a way to make his tuition problems disappear. Bedford is a realist who does the best he can with what he's got, which is why his team could go from an abysmal losing record to city champs in one year.

Bedford seems to exist in his own self-made no-bullshit bubble. When his players are playing scared on the court, he tells them so. If a white suburban school is stealing black city kids to improve their basketball team, he's not afraid to say so. It's not surprising to learn that at the time the film was being shot, Bedford had already been coaching boys at Marshall for 30 years. (He died in 2007.)

At his final post-season meeting with William, Pingatore doesn't spread the bull, either: William had a good career at St. Joe's, but not a great one. William was too nice of a kid who didn't have the killer instinct on the court of an Isiah Thomas. One kid walks out the door, another one walks in, Pingatore says. That's the way it goes.

I think that sums up the St. Joe's coach's approach pretty well: The boys who play for him are appreciated but not adored. They are chess pieces he recruits and moves around -- and sacrifices when necessary -- to achieve his goal of the greatest success possible, which he measures in wins and losses and championships. Players like William are a means to that end.

Say what you will about Bedford's caustic manner, but I think his priority was teaching young men to better themselves through sports -- at least those who would listen -- and the scorecard came second in his reckoning.

 William ended up attending Marquette University, where he had two decent seasons and then quit the basketball team and nearly school altogether during his junior season, before returning to hoops for his last (and mostly forgettable) senior year.

As usual, Arthur played catch-up with his fellow documentary subject. Because his grades and test scores were so bad, he ends up at a place in Missouri called Mineral Area Junior College -- depicted as a dreary place with a drearier name that, if we read it in a work of a fiction, would find laughable. He's stuck in an off-campus living quarters dubbed Basketball House, where six out of the school's seven black students reside.

But, Arthur transferred to Arkansas State for his junior and senior years, where he became a standout player -- but not enough to attract interest from any NBA teams.

(I've been trying unsuccessfully to find it, but there was a follow-up documentary of some kind -- possibly this TV special -- that tracked the finale of Arthur and William's college careers. There's a pain-inducing scene where Arthur, having signed with a low-rent agent, sits in his office while the guy calls NBA teams to assess his draft chances. So where about in the draft selection do you think Arthur might be taken, the guys queries. "Agee?" he says in response to the obvious question of, "Arthur who?" Which is all the answer necessary about Arthur's pro prospects.)

"Hoop Dreams" is a big movie about two small-time basketball players -- at least, as seen in relation to their early aspirations. Their story -- engrossing, joyful, painful, mesmerizing -- is much more than a pair of hoopster wannabes.

4 stars out of four

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