Why I Love… Hoop Dreams

I don’t normally divulge in this personal requisite as it is altogether insignificant and self-centered but strictly for the benefit of this blog entry and to better understand the implication of Hoop Dreams here, I will quickly disclose several of my favorite films: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Rublev, Persona, Days of Heaven, and Stalker. The films listed, all of which are works of fiction, have had a profound impact on my life. So much so that they’ve not only stuck with me long term, through thick and thin, but have had a substantial philosophical, life-affirming or thought provoking entailment that I will often dig up from the trenches of the cerebral cortex to better understand myself and my surroundings. Each is endlessly pertinent and absolutely effective. And yet, with all that I’ve just said, as wonderfully rich works of fiction, they don’t hold a candle to the overwhelming emotions I feel while watching Hoop Dreams, a documentary about high school basketball.

It usually come as an astonishment to many when I confess that I’ve seen Hoop Dreams, a three hour documentary about high school basketball, more times than heavyweight favorites like The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, Fight Club, Scarface, and The Matrix combined. Admittedly, it comes as no surprise to me that I’ve probably seen Hoop Dreams more times than some of my all-time favorite films combined! But what is it about Hoop Dreams that overwrought my senses? What is it about Hoop Dreams that has me preaching to the choir? After all, it’s merely a documentary about high school basketball. Right?

Wrong. The common misconception the general moviegoing public has about Hoop Dreams, and why so many have yet to see it, is on the basis that it’s perceived to be an educational tool. Though I scorn the mindset, this irrational judgment about Hoop Dreams is apprehensible as it possibly stems from the film’s original intention to be nothing more than a half hour production for the Public Broadcast System (PBS). PBS, while indeed used an educational tool in classrooms, has a stringent negative connotation. I don’t think you can sell someone a film by namedropping a PBS affiliation, frankly it just doesn’t work like that. But if one of the most boring moments in all of professional sports, the free throw, can be as exciting as the infamous car chase sequence in The French Connection, Hoop Dreams is a must see no matter what the association.

Before I get off track, I suppose that’s a good segue to the meat of the entry and the conception behind it in the first place, as the title indications: why I love Hoop Dreams. Hoop Dreams is a film about real life, because that is what it’s exactly about, real life. I feel that I must put a stronger emphasis on the buzzword “real” to get my point across. This isn’t some hokey, Hollywood drama about living out a dream, but is about two aspiring young athletes rising out of the dredges of the Chicago inner city life and into the flash and glitter of the NBA. Sure, it’s educational but it’s also got more twists and turns in it that you wouldn’t believe to be in a fiction film. It’s riveting and keeps you completely on the edge of your seat throughout the three hours running time.

And just what a powerful and honest film it is. While fiction films with screenwriters and actors try so hard to fit in honesty while creating touching scenes and making you believe in the characters, Hoop Dreams does it better than any film I’ve seen with so little effort. While watching the film, all the hairs on my body stick up and I get tears in my eyes every time. I’ve never seen a more touching film about real people attempting to overcome the odds in my life. It’s because we know the reality lives beyond the camera. Unlike sports films like Rocky, Hoop Dreams actually follows underdogs who stay underdogs after the camera turns off making it even more touching and profound.

Growing up in Brooklyn, where basketball is a sort of unrecognized religion and the courts are the congregation, I spent many hours there channeling my inner spirituality. It’s somewhat easy for me to identify with the characters in Hoop Dreams; though our struggles are different only by unforeseeable social and political statuses, there are still firmly imbedded remnants of the universal human intricacies in which we share, those complex human labors everyone can relate to. When we fall, we fall together and when we triumph, we triumph as equals. As people. That is why I love the film’s exhilarating on-court action that is interspersed evenly with the incredible, gripping human drama. Whether you’re black or white, from the city or suburbs, interested in basketball or not, Hoop Dreams is a film that can be an experience for all walks of life.

Following the two main characters of the film, Arthur Agee and William Gates, Hoop Dreams begins when they’re young kids just playing basketball on the schoolyards. Scouts from prestigious, private high schools, ones their families only dream of affording, are sent there to find pure talent on the courts. A scout finds Arthur and presents him the opportunity to go to Saint Joseph’s with a basketball scholarship. Arthur is confident he will make it to the NBA. He even says so whenever he sees the basketball sneaker commercials and won’t let his mother or anyone else discourage him with the harsh reality around him.

Filmmakers Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx show an admirable dedication to their art and to the underprivileged, spending five years tracking the kids and their families and their dreams of basketball stardom. The two subjects and their families are simple and somewhat naive, in an endearing way. Their struggles, sometimes unflattering, are put forth for us to relate to, and like I said, we all can. Of course as mentioned, this is about two kids and their love for basketball, and about the “road to” that takes place as they try to get there, but it’s really about the way people in near-poverty live, the education system and its downfalls, the manipulation of organized sports and tendency for people to try and achieve their goals vicariously (Arthur’s father, William’s brother), and the situation between blacks and whites in America.

In one scene really great scene in the film, a young Arthur laments being around mainly white kids for the first time in his life, and says it’ll be difficult but he’ll manage. That kind of relaxed confidence is so rewarding to watch. Hoop Dreams has endless insights into the black urban experience. Of course not every family in the ghetto is in a position where a father is a criminal and drug user, but when two kids in the same story are in that situation, it’s got to be somewhat prevalent.

I can definitely see why the filmmakers spent five years with Arthur and William; they’re both absorbing personalities that have a serious knack for the camera as well as natural storytelling. While their families might be struggling financially, they are rich with content. It’s the kind of special film that’s sustaining, and there are so many transcendent, revealing moments that stand out: Arthur’s mother, such an inspirational woman to watch, as she gets her nurse certification; Arthur’s family talking to another family in a cafeteria, with his mother high-fiving an elderly white lady; the descent into and out of drug addiction; and a scene where the man who recruits the boys says that sometimes he has doubts about himself when he sees the pain that’s a part of these kids’ lives.

What sets Hoop Dreams apart from not only the fiction work, but hits that extra level other documentaries don’t as a complete piece of cinema, thanks to the ways the two main characters lives seem to resolve in perfect loops. Arthur Agee is the kid with all the potential in the world who ends up going farther (within the confines of high school basketball) than the much more physically gifted William Gates, and his path to redemption is the most satisfying part of the film. Despite that, William carries much of the film’s mid-section as he dances precariously on the edge of irrelevance from his sophomore season onward and Arthur seems lost in the wild. To see William simply make it to college is reward enough for me. Equal, if not more, credit is due to Arthur, though, for avoiding the drug game, finding immeasurable reserves of maturity his senior year and becoming the person the scouts from St. Joseph’s expected him to be and more.

If William Gates’ story is about his quest to realize basketball is merely his vehicle to a higher education, Arthur Agee’s is about his resolve to overcome his own demons and have a life for himself, period. Both are fascinating, and even ignoring all the sociopolitical arguments being made in the background of the film make Hoop Dreams a film deserving of all the praise it receives. It’s educational not because of the PBS attachment, but because it is a genuinely educational film in that it teaches you about a multitude of subjects without forcing anything down your throat.

At one moment near the end, William Gates’ coach says goodbye to him and as he walks out his coach mentions that that’s the system: one goes out, another comes in. It feels like we’re saying bye to a member of the family. This is a truly life-affirming experience, a family that should be visited again and again and again. Hoop Dreams is a documentary, a film, that brings emotion not by convention but by real truth.