Film The Visual

“Hoop Dreams” is right on time, even 25 years later

The documentary “Hoop Dreams” has called to me like a faint echo, growing louder throughout my life, reminding me about a central truth: Heroes are as selfless as they are relentless, and they will not allow the world to corrupt their goal. As “Hoop Dreams” makes its 25th anniversary this year, I consider the time ripe for a repeat viewing. When it appears that wealth and elitism are effectively able to buy their way into the highest offices in the land, it is refreshing to be reminded of how true heroes behave.

Heroes of the hoop

“Hoop Dreams,” released in 1994, chronicles the high school and college basketball careers of two African-American boys from Chicago. William Gates and Arthur Agee are only 14 years old at the time the documentary begins. They have been identified by “street scouts” who scavenge neighborhood basketball courts for young talent. Both boys, with their families’ blessings, decide to attend St. Joseph High School, an upscale school with an elite basketball program in the lush suburbs of Chicago. There, they know their tickets out of Chicago’s inner city — and, they hope, to the NBA — will be stamped and paid by playing basketball. The very title of “Hoop Dreams” is poignant for what it signals about America, and about the exit strategies available from poverty. A hoop cannot retain anything, dreams or otherwise, and when faced with systemic racism and instability, “Hoop Dreams” shows us how life can be a long set of jumping through hoops with nothing guaranteed on the other side. 

Early in the film, the viewer is brought into the Agees’ home, where the family is watching the Detroit Pistons. They are cheered to see the Pistons’ star, Isiah Thomas — also a product of St. Joe’s basketball program. “When I get to the NBA,” begins Agee, and he proceeds to list the purchases he will make for his family: a home for his mom, a Cadillac for his dad, and the knowledge that his brother and sister are “all set.” It’s this unabashed, unadulterated certitude in his own hero narrative that keeps the viewer rooting for Agee, who knows that his dream will only be realized by taking care of his family first. Gates echoes this sentiment — should he achieve fame and fortune, his first priority is taking care of his single mother. We see the landscape of Gates and Agee’s lives: they are making a three-hour round trip commute on buses and trains each day so that they can attend the prestigious high school. We want their dreams to come to fruition, for we know their heroism is about uplifting others as they climb. 

Heroism that uplifts others can also be a complicated business, as we see throughout the film. Gates must decide whether the voices that yell at him courtside will deafen the voices in his head. Gates’ older brother Curtis plays him one-on-one on the neighborhood court and says that all of his NBA dreams are now in his little brother. Further, Gates often absorbs his verbal abuse from his coach, Coach Pingatore, who is “possessed by basketball.” His team never plays for fun. The win is the only object. Gates must decide whether his love for basketball is about carrying a team for another man’s legacy — or his own. If man cannot serve two masters, we see Gates’ growth as a hero is about learning to answer to himself. He cannot win solely for his coach. He cannot fulfill the dreams that his older brother could not attain. He must shed the champion narrative assigned to him. When Gates unexpectedly fathers a child with his girlfriend during his sophomore year, we know what his resolution to his hero narrative will be. Gates is determined to be the father for his daughter that his absent father was not able to be for him. His resolve to care for his new young family, in spite of a lack of support from Coach Ping and pressure from his girlfriend’s family, shows that Gates is a hero answerable only to himself. 

Villains without faces

The vices endemic to poverty in America — violence, drugs, unemployment — are omnipresent in “Hoop Dreams.” Even without legs, these are the villains who can threaten to outrun Gates and Agee on the court. “Hoop Dreams” notes at one point that roughly three in 10,000 boys playing high school basketball will be drafted by the NBA. Although the film may have set out to iterate whether or not Gates and Agee would make it to the NBA, on a more granular level, the question in each scene is whether Gates and Agee have the stuff of champions, the makings of heroes on and off the court. 

During his sophomore year, Agee is forced to withdraw from St. Joseph because of his family’s inability to pay their portion of the tuition. Both of his parents are unemployed. The anguish of a young man being made to feel that he is unworthy of a first-rate education is palpable, even more than 25 years later, because this is still the inequity we see playing out for the poorest children in this country who must attend schools where overcrowding and underfunding are pervasive. Even the basketball court is not even a safe haven for Agee. After he leaves St. Joe’s, we see him hooping on an outside court with his father. Moments later, his father wanders off and scores drugs on the same court. While Agee cannot control or cure his father’s addiction, he knows that he must persist in (literally) shooting the shots he can. Even after he is rehabilitated, Agee’s father says there are seasons where Agee can barely look his father in the eye. Agee has been let down — by St. Joe’s, by his father, and no doubt by a world in which to dream seems a dangerous endeavor, because disappointment appears almost inevitable. Still, Agee returns to St. Joe’s during his senior year to visit with former teachers and classmates. He does not appear embittered, but positive about the turn his life has taken. He is particularly proud that he is leading the basketball team in the public school where he landed after St. Joe’s to the state championship. Ultimately, Agee returns to the court. It’s where he knows he can make a better choice for his life, despite all the forces that threaten to derail him. 

“Hoop Dreams” is committed to presenting the underbelly of life in urban poverty. Despite Agee’s plight with a crack-addicted father and an apartment that is occasionally without electricity, and despite Gates’ abandonment by his father and becoming a father himself in high school, the boys still cling to the dream to go pro. When Agee visits the junior college where he has received an offer of a basketball scholarship, we see his skepticism. He will live in a small house off-campus with five of the campus’s six black students. But Agee utters, “I just love basketball,” and we believe that perhaps it is this great love that will continue to propel him. The boys who have every reason not to hope are buoyed by it. They make no excuses for their inalienable rights to dream big.  

The audacity of hoops and hope

In every film, the question of what happens to the characters after the cameras stop rolling is resonant, but this can be the case even if we don’t care about the characters at all.  The merit of a great documentary leaves us not only thinking about the specific characters entrenched in a particular situation, but about ourselves, about every man and every woman given a similar set of circumstances. Achieving this in a documentary requires an uncompromising commitment to telling the whole story. This work is best left to the subjects of the documentary, rather than a well-rehearsed narrative offered by a gravelly Hollywood voice. “Hoop Dreams” focuses on two young boys who could be born anywhere, to anyone, and still cling to dreams of playing professional basketball. Because they were born into poverty, without generational ties to elite programs or even familial stability, the preciousness of their dreams is that much more rare and wild and beautiful. 

Rogert Ebert wrote, “A film like ‘Hoop Dreams’ is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.” Indeed, “Hoop Dreams” did allow me to touch a part of life that resides in each of us: the ability to nurture, abide, and cling to a dream. And these two boys, now men, whom I may never meet, changed my posture toward outsized dreams. If anything, having never experienced food or shelter instability, I believed the greatest villain was anything that might threaten this stability. Enter: The audacity of hoops and hope. 

I watched Gates and Agee, caught happily in their own hero worship and playing their guts out. I watched their mothers sacrificing everything for their sons’ dreams, exercising an unconditional (albeit tough) love, especially for their sons’ endeavors on the court. Gates and Agee are agents of a dream that we can understand more perfectly, that we ourselves can relate to, because of the honest, intimate portrayal of how they and their families kept hope alive. The ability of this film to capture these raw moments made an impression on me in the ninth grade when the film came out, around the same age as the boys were when filming began. What little I could gather that I had in common with Gates and Agee was that I had dribbled a basketball and that I attended a Catholic school. Beyond that, my heart broke to think how much was stacked against these young men, strikes with which I simply wouldn’t have to contend because of the arbitrary star under which I had been born: as a white girl in a middle class suburb to two working parents with advanced degrees. Dreaming is free, and I did a lot of it as a young person. My dreams to become a writer, to have a family, to maybe vacation at Myrtle Beach seemed pedestrian. Many people in my community had done these things. It struck me as terribly unfair that the one thing these boys, effectively my peers, wanted in life was statistically improbable. 

“Hoop Dreams” shows that hope is sometimes the fertilizer to our soil, and sometimes it is the very fertile soil of our story. It is as true today as it was then that the most malevolent villains are faceless and sometimes formless, among them: poverty, addiction, and hopelessness. I continue to go back and watch “Hoop Dreams” again and again, and in this particular moment when cynicism runs high, I may share the documentary with my own children — not because of something I couldn’t remember, but because of some heroes I don’t want to forget.