Slam dunk

Hoop Dreams is a thrilling gut check for sports fans and athletes alike

To know what basketball is, you must live, eat, drink, sleep, and sex it; let other people play it. For a select few, it isn't a game but a way of life, an identity, a dream of escape from abject poverty. Those who can realize this dream are the ones who can pat the rock, the pill, the stone in their sleep by the age of five or six. You see them on the court in the rain late at night, shooting free throws with their eyes closed. With each slapping swish of the net, they and all who watch them know that hoops is what they were put on earth to do.

This is the subject of Hoop Dreams, a stirring documentary about the lives of two 14-year-olds named William Gates and Arthur Agee--a couple of protean Isiah Thomases hell-bent on raining jump shots and dunks until somebody says "uncle" and gives them a ticket out of their Chicago ghetto. For both boys the trip becomes a crazy ride they'll pay dearly for accepting.

Basketball fans Steve James, Fred Marx, and Peter Gilbert filmed the pair from 1987 through 1991 for the Chicago-based documentary collective Kartemquin Films. What began as more than 250 hours of film and videotape has been distilled into a three-hour gut check for sports fans and young athletes alike--a remarkable true story of two dreamers from the underbelly of our society. Hoop Dreams is a brutal look at how real lives are affected by the pursuit of inner-city dreams in the '90s, when a lotto ticket can make you a millionaire and a pair of tennis shoes can get you killed. This film asks the questions, "What price fame?" and "Then what?" The answers, if taken to heart, should prompt disturbing inquiries into our fascination with creating tomorrow's sport's legends from today's high-school athletes.

It's a closed practice for returning varsity players at a Chicago high school. Enter William Gates, a lanky, smiling, unassuming black player among a team of whites.

Gates pats the rock. The crowd roars. With a slash-pass, pick-roll, he catches the lob and thunder dunks. He backpedal-skips onto defense and steals the ball, then launches into a crossover dribble, leaving his defender mumbling and shaking his head in disbelief, and then he lifts-lifts-lifts into a fadeaway jump shot that rips through the bottom of the net. Gates is in a zone, stoned on the aroma of sweat and leather sneakers melding with the shouts and whistles of a crowd gone wild.

It's obvious to everyone that Gates is gonna be in the trophy case like Zeke, the nickname Isiah Thomas won when he was performing similar feats of athletic magic in this very same gym at St. Joseph. Like Thomas and Michael Jordan, Gates is the kind of player who can turn a game at his whim: one shot, then another and another and he's brought his team back from the brink of defeat. On the court, Gates has few rivals and too many admirers. He bops through the hallways during school hours sporting a necktie and a toothy, getting-ready-for-the-NBA grin--more god than student. But his inner-city schooling has left Gates lazy and inattentive. His grades are borderline, and the attention paid to his skill on the court is interfering with his chances to improve academically.

St. Joseph's is out to recruit other raw talents from the 'hood. Enter independent talent scout and community outcast Earl Smith. He has been tracking Arthur Agee, a wiry, quick-stepping, Jordanlike leaper. Smith ingratiates himself with the boy and his family. In no time, they're off to St. Joseph's, where Agee is enticed by the promised spoils of a "white" education.

The school's gravelly-voiced head coach, Gene Pingatore, seems almost scolding in his big sales pitch to Agee, sounding the sinister cliche, "First comes your education. If you can't get your grades, we don't want you here. Basketball is second."

Then, almost as an afterthought, Pingatore hits the kid with the Isiah Thomas-is-God bit in a school hallway lined with life-sized cutouts, Olympic plaques, All-Star paraphernalia, and kid pics of Thomas. Agee and his family need little prodding. The family signs on the dotted line without even checking the fine print.

But Agee's St. Jo debut is less than stellar. His prowess on the court is surprisingly unspectacular. This, along with his inner-city attitude and just-getting-by academics soon prompt his expulsion; there's also a sinister suggestion that Agee's skills and growth projections aren't in line with St. Jo's Machiavellian timetable.

To make matters worse, because Agee's family is behind on tuition, the school withholds Agee's academic records, preventing him from going to any school anywhere to finish out his semester. He's in an awful bind. Although he's not good enough for St. Jo's, on another school's team he could shine. Yet circumstances prevent him from returning to school and sentence him to walk the heinous Chicago streets.

When does a chance become a bad thing for children of the inner city? That's the crux of this foray into the lives of Agee, Gates, their families, supporters, and detractors. Making the transition from the drug-infested courts of urban Chicago to St. Joseph's pristine environs is a challenge for all involved. The filmmakers were granted surprising access to their subjects--so much that at times you might wish the camera would blink. Its clear-eyed thoroughness helps you understand the arrogance that so often oozes from NBA superstars; in two revelatory scenes near the film's end, after suffering countless setbacks, indignities, and compromises, Agee and Gates express Jordan-like disdain for the game they love so well.

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