Slam dunk

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.

Americans are fascinated by the zeal with which minority youth pursue athletics--specifically basketball. What's neverending about this sort of fanaticism--and the way it prods youngsters to satisfy it--is that these calls to glory are supremely self-interested, not to mention dehumanizing. In too many ways, they recall the fights staged between bulked-up male slaves of an earlier century. While the victor earns immediate spoils, the vanquished is discarded and forgotten. Nobody cares about a fallen sports prodigy. Gates and Agee aren't strangers to the notion of failure. They were both raised in homes lorded over by one-time heroes of the court. "Bo" Agee, Arthur Agee's father, once had NBA ambitions, but the sudden appearance of his first son derailed them. William Gates' older brother, Curtis, is a one-time "All Decade" Junior College player whose selfishness snuffed out his athletic potential.

On the surface, the way these men invade the lives of the film's protagonists and try to co-opt their dreams makes them seem like case studies in tragedy. Bo, for instance, seizes every opportunity to show his son (and the camera, and the world) that he can still rain jump shots. A shameless, "Boy, I coulda been..." is forever spilling from his lips. Curtis Gates is more subtle, hovering over his little brother's shoulder, offering tips, urging him on toward the greatness he himself never achieved. "Jordan, Magic, they can miss that shot, but not you," Curtis proclaims, watching the All-Star game with his kid brother. "If you do that, then you sittin' on the bench." The camera is the only eye quick enough to catch William's wince.

But where would these boys be without the early intervention and support of these older men? One of the film's most troubling flaws--and this is part and parcel of the documentary form, which stresses immediacy over history--is its unwillingness to consider the positive aspects of the pressure families place on young basketball players.

We see the downside of the older men's relentless pushing and prodding. We understand just from watching their interaction with the boys that they aren't simply proud of them; they are also thrilled to be living vicariously through their successes.

But we don't see a prepubescent William Gates crazily awed by his big brother's hoops antics, or an infant Agee dreaming of playing like his father on the neighborhood courts. We can't see it, because the camera arrived just in time to watch these players change from boys to men--and transform them from a repository of their elders' hopes into a reminder of their failures.

The most disturbingly successful aspect of Hoop Dreams is the keen-eyed way it explains the myths and realities of America's sports obsession--and the effects that obsession has on all involved. It is widely assumed that the inherent give-and-take among players, coaches, veterans, and "true" fans provides an undefiled example for young athletes. This movie blows the lid off that idea. Sports, we are reminded, is an industry based on competition. With that competition comes a loss of ethics. This is most obvious in the actions of St. Joseph's coaching staff. Faced with the prospect of a losing season, Coach Pingatore considers the effect it will have on next season's recruitment possibilities, then challenges every player to a gut check. Confronted with a slowly developing player, Pingatore chooses to drop him from the squad so his team can succeed in the short run. The idea that hard work breeds champions, and that perseverance is always rewarded, is lost on this man.

In the grinding gears of basketball's starmaking machinery, there are no winners. Everybody rides the ass of the next guy and sees any action undertaken in the name of winning, no matter how reprehensible, as the justified means to an end.

A startling scene in the film's final moments summarizes everything Hoop Dreams has been saying about the fantasies and realities of basketball. It pits Gates against his two fathers--his real one, and his imperious coach, Gene Pingatore. They're trying to talk Gates out of taking a guaranteed, four-year deal at Marquette University. Pingatore is coming on strong, warning Gates to pass on the offer, play the odds, hold out for something sweeter. There is ice in this man's blood. He hasn't won the big one since Isiah. He must continue to produce NBA superstars or his reputation will suffer.  

Gates, visibly steamed, leans forward. "Coach," he quips, "I'm going to study communication when I get to Marquette--so that when you ask me for a donation, I'll know the right words to turn you down."

Then he shakes his hand and slips into the sea of students in the hall. His rising, flaming star has diminished to a mere sparkle. His necktie and NBA smile are nowhere in sight.

"Hey," Pingatore sniffs at the the camera, utterly unmoved, "One kid goes out the door, and another comes in."

Hoop Dreams. Kartemquin Films/Miramax. A documentary by Steve James, Fred Marx, and Peter Gilbert. Now showing.

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