Basketball is the doorway to dreams, bearer of hard truths in 'Hoop Dreams'

Great American movies are, these days especially, few and far between, so let's everybody take a deep breath and mark the moment: "Hoop Dreams," all three hours' worth, is a great American movie. It's got the sting of drama and the ache of truth; it's even got the sting of truth and the ache of drama.

It's a story of American boys and what they are capable of. For Arthur Agee and William Gates, on the brink of manhood at the age of 14 in the cruel inner city of Chicago, the field of dreams is a patch of gritty asphalt, bounded at either end by a rusty gallows-like construction from which is suspended, 10 feet above the surface of the Earth, a metal circle known in the colloquial as a basketball hoop. When they pull up, ball floating on their fingertips, and begin to rise for a long jumper, or when they drive dervish-like and dance-pure, shielding the ball until they can lay it softly off the backboard, William and Arthur have a common goal -- that hoop.


In the quest, their imaginations are set free: They see moves, possibilities, passages; they see money and pleasures and respect; they see the real StarGate. But it'll only happen on one savage condition: if the ball goes through the hoop, which sometimes happens and sometimes doesn't.

That, in fact, is the theme of "Hoop Dreams": Sometimes the ball goes through the hoop, and sometimes it doesn't. Like an epic, "Hoop Dreams," the labor-of-much-love-and-not-much-money by three Chicago-area filmmakers and hoop freaks, follows the two young men, identified early as scholarship-potential athletes. We travel with them through their young manhood, the warfare of prep basketball, and on to college. It's quite an odyssey, five long years' worth, and so unbelievably penetrative and intimate that it's quite easy to overlook the occasional technical crudity.


Patiently, over those years, director Steve James and producers Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert kept going back; they followed as the boys made it big or failed catastrophically, rose, fought through injury and academic difficulties, fell, and rose again. They tracked what turned out to be two intensely dramatic and vividly ironic sports careers, proving, if nothing else, that while truth may not always be stranger than fiction, it is frequently a much better scriptwriter.

What gives the movie its greatness isn't the sheer brilliance of their journalism, but the hugeness of their hearts: They penetrate inner-city life and with delicacy and fairness probe the economic pressures upon the young men and their families, and they chronicle the resilience, the hope and the sheer bold courage that is to be found there. And the unfairness. And the tragedy. And the danger.

But it also implicitly asks tough questions about the value of sports, particularly to inner city kids. In a sense, basketball seems almost like a drug: It's the stuff of dreams and offers the highest high there is. But it's also the stuff of bitter delusion, it feeds off hungry young men and it spits them out when they turn out not to be the one in 10,000 with the true NBA stuff. Men !! waste their lives on it, and end up with nothing but memories of jump shots taken decades ago.

But at the beginning, that melancholy truth is inconceivable to Arthur or William. Both boys were noticed early by a free-lance scout and touted to a private suburban basketball power, St. Joseph's, run by a no-nonsense disciplinarian named Gene Pingatore, who was still animated by dreams of his last great black hope, Isiah Thomas. Thomas even shows up to give the new recruits a pep talk after both have signed -- these are 14-year-olds, remember -- with St. Joe's.

No doubt about it, "Hoop Dreams" takes us as far into jock culture as we are likely to get without a dead-solid-perfect jump shot ourselves. Evidently, by their sheer persistence, the filmmakers soon achieved the condition of invisibility, and they got everywhere: into the practices where the coach screamed viciously, into classrooms where Arthur and William struggled to keep up, and at home, where their fathers' absences led to a whole new set of problems.

The first big wrinkle comes at the end of freshman year. William, a natural star, is the first freshman to start for St. Joe's varsity since Thomas and has a stellar season. When he runs into money problems, a corporate sponsor is found for him. But Arthur, uncomfortable with Pingatore's system -- Gene's way or the highway -- and not performing well academically, is hounded by another problem: His parents can't keep up with even the half-tuition they have to pay. He has to drop out. He's off the team and must return to an unruly south-side public school, Marshall High.

Freeze the moment and remember it: Arthur has failed utterly; William is on the way to the top. It won't last; the years that follow are so rife with plot developments you sometimes feel Dickens is figuring them out, not life, its own spontaneous self. Just when William has it all, he suffers an injury, and it begins to slip away on him. Meanwhile, Arthur, chronically callow and underdeveloped, always the goof-up, spurts about a foot and finally finds the grace and maturity to make the big shot when the big shot must be made.

The filmmakers are there when William blows two free throws that cost his team a trip to the state tournament downstate -- the goal of all Illinois schoolboy basketball teams -- and they're there when Arthur's father goes to jail. They're there when, after a half-dozen attempts, William finally gets a scholarship-eligible score on college admission tests. They're there -- this is unbelievable -- when Arthur's parents have to go out to St. Joe's and pay the tuition debt (with interest) in order to get Arthur's grades released to get him eligible for the one college that is interested in him, the estimable Mineral Area Junior College, of Flat River, Mo., the last stop between himself and basketball oblivion. But . . . don't count Arthur out. He can play.


And so can "Hoop Dreams." It goes all the way.

"Hoop Dreams"


Directed by Steve James

Released by Fine Line