February 3, 1995 in Seven

`Dreams’ Shows Price And Passion Of Growing Up

By The Spokesman-Review
 

I can still see Arthur Agee’s smile.

He’s barely 14 years old, just graduated from ninth grade, and there he is, standing in front of his idol, Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas.

Arthur is so thrilled he can’t figure out what to do with his hands. So he fiddles self-consciously with his shirt, as if preparing to undress himself.

And he smiles.

Welcome to “Hoop Dreams,” the film that some critics, the two-headed TV creation Siskel&Ebert; among them, have dubbed the Best Movie of 1994. And this time, at least, they aren’t just talking trash. “Hoop Dreams” may rate barely a mention come Oscar night, but that doesn’t change the fact it is as good as any film released last year.

Even if it is a near-three-hour-long documentary about high school basketball.

For many people, the word “documentary” is a five-syllable synonym for boredom. Never mind that the very best documentary films help us better understand this riddle we call life by exploring its various expressions. From “Nanook of the North” to “The Thin Blue Line,” documentaries have taken us to lands we’d never otherwise get to visit and shed light on mysteries that otherwise would remain cloaked in darkness.

If ever there was a film to end such prejudice, “Hoop Dreams” is it. Perhaps the greatest compliment that could be paid producer-director Steve James and his co-producers, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, is the fact a deal is already in the works to remake the film as Hollywood fiction.

Imagine, a documentary so inherently dramatic that it inspires make-believe.

There’s ample reason for this. On the most primary level, “Hoop Dreams” is a simple tale of boyhood fantasizing. The focus of James, Marx and Gilbert started out as the Chicago inner-city basketball scene.

Then they discovered two remarkable players, ninth-graders William Gates and Arthur Agee, both of whom had been recruited by St. Joseph’s, the esteemed Chicago-suburban prep basketball power, and the focus shifted. Instead of doing the intended short film about hoops in general, the coproducers decided to concentrate on the two boys and their struggles to realize a dream - playing in the NBA.

It was a gamble. James and Co. gave up a sure project on a gamble that something better would develop. They were fortunate. It surely did.

For while they must have had their doubts over the next five years, what they ended up with is nothing less than an American saga. It’s the story not only of two boys, but also their families, friends, schoolmates, teams, coaches and more dashed hopes and temporary triumphs than two short lives should have to handle.

We watch as William, the more mature of the two, becomes only the first freshman to start for St. Joseph’s and its taskmaster coach, Gene Pingatore. William plays in a big shadow, that of the school’s only true legend, the aforementioned Isiah Thomas. And the pressure of Thomas’ presence wears on him every moment.

Thomas is also important to Arthur, who starts for St. Joseph’s freshman team. The pro player’s picture graces the wall of Arthur’s inner-city apartment; his nickname, “Tuss,” graces Arthur’s shoes. But Arthur’s attempt to follow in Thomas’ footsteps will take a different route.

We watch as each boy experiences transitions through the years, enduring such indignities as a three-hour commute from their inner-city home to the posh suburban school. In the end, their faces reflect their evolution from sweet-faced freshmen to seasoned seniors; their education has had its price, both on the court and off.

And this is really what sets “Hoop Dreams” apart. Yes, there is plenty of basketball as each boy is forced to push his potential and confront his limitations. The cameras capture it all, from Arthur scoring the winning basket in what would be the beginning of his redemption, to William going to the free-throw line in the final seconds with his team’s playoff hopes resting in his hands.

But those same cameras capture the rest of their lives, too. James and Co. exposed some 250 hours of film over five years, which has been pared to just under three hours of running time. And so we see a number of mini-dramas play out through a superb supporting cast:

William’s brother, Curtis, a former prep star, struggles to hold down a job while acting as a resentful “coach” to his younger brother.

Arthur’s father Bo, who held his own dreams of basketball glory, battles with drugs and serves a prison term during the film’s five-year chronicle.

St. Joseph’s coach Pingatore, who along with the school is suing the filmmakers, comes across as a martinet whose concern for the boys seems driven only from what they can do for him.

Arthur’s mother Sheila and William’s mother Emma, both deserted by the men they married, prove to be the foundations of their children’s lives. One of the most profound of the film’s many high points is Sheila Agee, overcome with emotion, crying at her graduation from a nurse’s aide class.

The film’s most amazing accomplishment rests in the fact these characters are real people. Their reality makes it virtually impossible for us to dismiss them and their predicaments. When Sheila Agee loses her job, goes on welfare and, for one three-month period, lives with her family without heat or electricity, we experience it, too. When Arthur gestures with heartbreaking frustration as his father prances off to score some coke, we feel it, too. Just as we grimace when the surgeon’s knife cuts into William’s knee.

Whatever you do, though, try not to think of “Hoop Dreams” as something worthy only of, say, The Discovery Channel. Yes, it is a documentary, but it’s like no documentary you’ve ever seen.

This is real life. Check it out before it becomes mere fiction.

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with this story:

“Hoop Dreams” **** Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Cast: Directed by Steve James, starring William Gates and Arthur Agee Running time: 2:51 Rated PG-13

This is the second sidebar that appeared with this story: “Other views.” Here’s what other critics say about “Hoop Dreams:”

Hal Hinson/The Washington Post: “Hoop Dreams” is the most powerful movie about sports ever made.

Glenn Lovell/San Jose Mercury News: “Hoop Dreams” is, without a doubt, the most ambitious, intelligent and suspenseful basketball movie ever made.

John Anderson/Newsday: This isn’t any fairy tale; it leaves the fabled American Dream down-court and shoeless, and presents troubling questions about our priorities. But “Hoop Dreams” also resonates, like a final buzzer echoing in an empty arena.

Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: … even though it would have looked better on television, “Hoop Dreams” tells a story so much bigger than most feature films tell - imbued so much with life as it is both lived and dreamed - all the arenas in the world aren’t enough to contain it.

William Arnold/Seattle PostIntelligencer: I am not much of a basketball fan, but I haven’t seen a Hollywood fiction film all year that can touch “Hoop Dreams” for richness, complexity and compelling human drama.

Caryn James/New York Times: Despite all the drama on and off screen, a particularly quiet moment best captures the life lesson of “Hoop Dreams” and is the scene most likely to have audiences cheering. William, about to graduate from St. Joseph’s, tells Coach Pingatore of his college plans. “I’m going into communications,” he says, “so when you come asking for donations, I’ll know the right way to turn you down.”

Two sidebars appeared with this story:

“Hoop Dreams” **** Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Cast: Directed by Steve James, starring William Gates and Arthur Agee Running time: 2:51 Rated PG-13

This is the second sidebar that appeared with this story: “Other views.” Here’s what other critics say about “Hoop Dreams:”

Hal Hinson/The Washington Post: “Hoop Dreams” is the most powerful movie about sports ever made.

Glenn Lovell/San Jose Mercury News: “Hoop Dreams” is, without a doubt, the most ambitious, intelligent and suspenseful basketball movie ever made.

John Anderson/Newsday: This isn’t any fairy tale; it leaves the fabled American Dream down-court and shoeless, and presents troubling questions about our priorities. But “Hoop Dreams” also resonates, like a final buzzer echoing in an empty arena.

Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: … even though it would have looked better on television, “Hoop Dreams” tells a story so much bigger than most feature films tell - imbued so much with life as it is both lived and dreamed - all the arenas in the world aren’t enough to contain it.

William Arnold/Seattle PostIntelligencer: I am not much of a basketball fan, but I haven’t seen a Hollywood fiction film all year that can touch “Hoop Dreams” for richness, complexity and compelling human drama.

Caryn James/New York Times: Despite all the drama on and off screen, a particularly quiet moment best captures the life lesson of “Hoop Dreams” and is the scene most likely to have audiences cheering. William, about to graduate from St. Joseph’s, tells Coach Pingatore of his college plans. “I’m going into communications,” he says, “so when you come asking for donations, I’ll know the right way to turn you down.”


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