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Two tales of winning in sports and in life


The critically acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams" tells the story of two young black basketball players from Chicago's South Side who dream of one day starring in the National Basketball Association.

The movie introduces us to William Gates and Arthur Agee as talented eighth graders playing pickup games on inner city courts. We follow them through high school as they struggle against sports injuries, family problems and the dangerous lure of inner city crime. The movie ends as the two young men enter college for their freshmen year, no longer touted as future superstars but still clinging to their dreams.

Today Mr. Gates is a senior reserve guard at Marquette University. Mr. Agee is a senior guard at Arkansas State. Neither young man is considered a likely prospect for the NBA.

And so, the 1994 documentary "Hoop Dreams" is widely perceived to have been a movie about failure; about the insidious seduction of inner city youths into the meat market of high school and collegiate sports; about how hard it is to escape the crushing world of the inner city.

I happened to have seen "Hoop Dreams" in the theater at about the same time I caught a 1993 movie called "Rudy" on cable. The film is about a white youth from Joliet, Ill., who dreams of playing football for the Fightin' Irish of Notre Dame University. Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger barely has enough talent to make it onto Notre Dame's taxi squad. But he guts it out, earning the grudging respect of his more talented teammates. And finally, with the fans chanting his name, Rudy trots onto the field for the closing 27 seconds of the last game of his senior season.

The two movies offer an interesting contrast, suggesting that some people view working class white communities far differently than working class black communities; and those perceptions can include vastly differing standards of success for white kids and black kids.

"Rudy" is regarded as a movie about victory through perseverance and guts; how a kid uses the tenacity of his steel-mill roots to make up for his lack of brains and talent. Rudy is considered a winner simply because he made the most of what he had. Today, Mr. Ruettiger -- who once owned a janitorial service in Baltimore -- gives motivational speeches around the country.

The two kids in "Hoop Dreams" are very similar to Rudy in terms of their tenacity and ambition, though many people seem to regard them as also-rans because they are unlikely to become multimillionaires in the NBA. Yet, William Gates is scheduled to earn a degree in communications in December. Arthur Agee reportedly is struggling academically but is determined to stay in school, his coach has said.

So, are William and Arthur failures? Of course not. I find it just as inspirational that they, like Rudy, managed to stay in school; that they appear to be determined to make the most of what they have.

William and Arthur also hail from roots that are very similar to Rudy's, though the two communities seem worlds apart. All three come from impoverished neighborhoods where hard-working families struggle to remain intact and to make the most of meager financial resources.

Isn't it possible that William and Arthur -- like Rudy -- succeeded by tapping the reservoirs of strength from their struggling community?

But working class black communities often are characterized by their dysfunction. Comparable white communities often are celebrated for the way they struggle to overcome adversity.

One final note: Many were surprised that "Hoop Dreams" did not receive more Oscar nominations last month. Most critics expected the movie to be nominated for Best Picture or Best Documentary. It received only one nomination, for film editing.

I suspect Hollywood would have been more enthusiastic about the picture if it had ended in tragedy -- with one or both of the youths injured in a drive-by shooting perhaps, or succumbing to drug addiction or being sent to prison for armed robbery. Hollywood seems most comfortable with this view of black life. In contrast, I suspect a movie about Mr. Ruettiger would never have been made if his story had ended in a similar tragedy. Hollywood knows that audiences don't like to see such things.

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