The game is on the line and our hero, William Gates, has the ball as the final seconds tick off the clock. A year ago, William had a chance to sink two free throws with time running out, but he missed both and his team was out of the playoffs. But now it's payback time, now it's time to win. William drives to the hole, puts it up, the ball rattles off the rim and… clangs right out. Another big miss, another crushing loss. How could this be? This is the payoff, the money shot – this is where Rocky picks himself up off the mat after getting the tar beaten out of it and lands the killer blow. But this isn't "Rocky." This is "Hoop Dreams." This is real life.
"Hoop Dreams," a film by director Steve James, co-editor Fredrick Marx, and cinematographer Peter Gilbert, was released in 1994, but began several years before in 1986. In an early scene, the filmmakers follow local scout Earl Smith as he makes the rounds of all the neighborhood courts in inner-city Chicago. At this point, the crew was just doing some preliminary research, but fortunately they let the camera roll and captured a bit of movie magic. Smith points out a baby-faced kid on the court who has "the quickest first step I've ever seen." Even though he has no idea who he is, Smith bets a steak dinner the kid will be something big in four years. Earl Smith is a good scout.
The kid in question is 14 year-old Arthur Agee, who would become one of the two main subjects of the film. "Hoop Dreams" follows both William Gates and Arthur over nearly five years as they become high school phenoms, and eventually make it to college. Both William and Arthur are courted by St. Joseph's, an upscale Catholic high school a long way from home. Already, we get a sense of how early the recruitment process begins as Coach Ping (Gene Pingatore) promises Arthur and his family that he will get him into a good college.
Arthur and William quickly follow divergent paths. Unlike Arthur, William is already has the body of an adult and he starts as a freshman on the varsity team, something not even the school's superstar alumnus, Isiah Thomas, managed to do. Arthur scraps his way onto the freshman squad and plays well, but things turn sour for him when his parents can't pay the second semester tuition bill. The instant the money dries up, Arthur is out the door and St. Joseph's refuses even to release his transcript to Arthur's next school. So much for promises.
If "Hoop Dreams" was merely a story about two high school basketball players, it would have been interesting but unremarkable. The film becomes something special when it expands to tell the stories of the Agee and Gates families as well.
In the best scenes, basketball recedes into the background. Arthur has a lot to deal with at home, particularly his father "Bo" Agee who is an intermittent presence in his life. In the beginning of the film, Bo is still a part of the household but he struggles with drug addiction. In one scene, we actually see him buying drugs on a street corner while Arthur plays on the court. Soon, Bo leaves the family and spends seven months in jail, only to return a year later a changed man. He has kicked his drug habit and rededicated himself to the church. Another year passes and Bo is gone once again, this time after abusing his wife. It seems to be the final blow as far as Arthur is concerned, and he never forgives him. Yet Bo is hardly a villain, just a very flawed man who sometimes tries his best and often fails.
"Hoop Dreams" is a story of false starts, broken promises and, ultimately, of perseverance. William plays well, but luck is not on his side when he suffers a severe knee injury just before his junior year starts. He fights through it, but never plays quite the same. Still, the colleges are lining up at his door. He never adjusts well to academic life, but he takes the ACT over and over until he finally passes and qualifies for college scholarships.
"Hoop Dreams" is also the story of a recruitment process that is both impressive and frightening in its scope. The letters arrive almost daily for William, and the recruiters fight each other for the chance to be the first ones in the door. Marquette makes the strongest pitch and invites him to campus, leading to one of the most surreal seduction scenes I've ever watched. The school prepares mock-ups of newspaper headlines trumpeting William's all-star play. They even play a recording of an announcer describing William hitting the winning shot in the biggest game of the year. William is no dope; he knows it when he smells it. Yet he also knows Marquette may be his best ticket out of the projects, and he signs on, albeit reluctantly.
"Hoop Dreams" has more twists and turns than the most shameless of soap operas, a testament to the unpredictability of real life. At first, William is the star and Arthur lags behind. Then Arthur's star rises. He leads his public school to a third-place finish in the state tournament in his senior year; St. Joseph's never makes it that far. After the film, Arthur started for two years at Arkansas State.
The film shows many off-court victories as well. Arthur's mom Sheila finishes in the top of her class and becomes a nursing assistant, leaving welfare behind. Both William and Arthur become fathers. Sheila observes at one point that the biggest victory of all is that her beloved son lived to see his 18th birthday, something not all of his friends managed.
Roger Ebert was one of the movie's most outspoken supporters when it came out, and later named it his choice as the Best Film of the 1990s. I wouldn't go as far as that, but "Hoop Dreams" is a moving, unpredictable and eminently watchable film. The movie runs nearly three hours, but it never gets boring though the filmmakers can be accused of occasionally stretching out events to wring out every last drop of dramatic tension. The mournful jazz score also seems unnecessary. The events depicted are powerful enough, and don't need underscoring.
The film ultimately succeeds for one simple reason. William Gates and Arthur Agee are two of the most compelling lead characters you could possibly ask for, two likeable and flawed young men, who each pursued a dream with everything he had. Neither made it to the NBA, but they still beat the odds simply by surviving. If you can't respond to a story like this, you need to check your pulse.
"Hoop Dreams" was shot on analog video. For its theatrical run, it was blown up to a 35 mm print and reframed for a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The producers of the DVD have wisely chosen to restore the film to its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with this new high-definitional digital transfer. Now viewers can see the movie as the filmmakers intended it when shooting. The picture quality is generally good, particularly good considering the original video source. The quality of the footage varies in certain clips, and some scenes (such as the game footage) look a little washed out.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. The narration is not well-mixed and is frequently difficult to hear. The problem is most noticeable during the basketball sequences. The crowd noise is very loud, and it is often impossible to hear what the narrator is saying. I had to turn on the subtitles on several occasions during these sequences. Perhaps this explains why the DVD producers chose to include optional English language subtitles to support the audio.
The primary attractions are the two commentary tracks, one with the filmmakers (James, Marx, and Gilbert) and a separate one with the two stars, William Gates and Arthur Agee. Since "Hoop Dreams" runs at 171 minutes, these two full-length tracks are a considerable undertaking and should please the film's fans.
Another feature includes several segments (15 min. total running time) from "Siskel and Ebert" ranging from their initial glowing review of the film to their attack on the documentary branch of the Academy. Amazingly, the film did not even receive a nomination in the Documentary category, another in a long string of embarrassments for a committee that had failed to nominate "The Thin Blue Line" or "Roger and Me" in previous years. The committee announced changes in the nomination procedure after receiving much-deserved criticism for this ridiculous snub.
On a personal note, it was nice to see Gene Siskel again. He is sorely missed, and has never been replaced.
"Hoop Dreams" raked in eight million at the box office, making it the top grossing documentary of all-time until the record was broken by "Bowling for Columbine" in 2002. James, Marx and Gilbert originally intended to shoot a half-hour program for PBS. Instead, they produced an epic that will endure the test of time.