It began with a guy named Steve James, then a graduate student at Southern Illinois. He was playing ball, the only white guy in the gym, when he experienced a flash, a moment of light, the genesis of an idea.
“I felt that as much ball as I had played in my life, this game was different for them, the black guys, than it was for me. It was more complicated. It was a culture.”
Eight years later, we can see what began with that surge of adrenaline. “Hoop Dreams” documents 4 1/2 years in the lives of two kids from Chicago, William Gates and Arthur Agee. The film is a work of art. It succeeds as art because the filmmakers - James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert - remained willfully ignorant of the risks. “Hoop Dreams” realizes its promise on all levels: story, nuance, truth. It’s original, and certainly the best movie about sports I’ve ever seen.
There had been a lot of talk of late that “Hoop Dreams” would be nominated for an Oscar as best picture. No documentary had ever been nominated for best picture.
“I started to think that we had as good a chance being nominated for best film as we did for best documentary,” said Marx. “And that proved to be true.”
Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Oscar nominations. Best picture nominees included “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” every bit as cute as its stars, Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell, and “Pulp Fiction,” which is slick and smart, but ultimately heartless and cruel. “Hoop Dreams,” an absolute original, was nowhere - not even in the documentary category. Which leads to the conclusion that Hollywood culture is every bit as barren as that of sports.
But that, above all else, is a reason to love this movie; it’s an antidote for all the crap. It stands alone against all these other sports productions: the ESPYs, the Super Bowl, the baseball strike, Nike ads, the selling of Grant Hill and, most recently, this insipid little debate over Charles Barkley’s All-Star weekend.
But “Hoop Dreams” is authentic and intimate. “Hoop Dreams” takes a chance. The filmmakers believed in themselves with as much disdain for the odds as their teenage subjects.
“We got $2,000 from the Illinois Arts Council and another $500 from a personal donor,” said Marx. “For two and a half years, that’s all the money we had. Everyone worked for nothing. You have to be pig-headed. You have to do it, to believe in it in the face of all common sense telling you you’re nuts.”
The film begins with Arthur Agee and William Gates, then 13 years old, and follows them through their high school careers. In an era of ready-made-for-TV nonsense, “Hoop Dreams” took 4 1/2 years to shoot. It shows.
The more the filmmakers shot, the more pigheaded and ambitious they became, until eight years from conception, they had produced a singular story of basketball and adolescence in urban America.
It is sweet and sad, capturing the desperate vanity of boys playing ball and adults who lead them around by their dreams. There are any number of moments that will break you down.
There’s Gates’ older brother, a security guard, a warehouse worker, an ex-player grown fat. He is relentless in pursuit of his brother’s dream. Only through the kid brother can he undo his own failure. Then there’s Sheila Agee, Arthur’s mom. For a time, her life is welfare checks, a junkie husband and unpaid bills. She weeps when she gets her diploma as a nurse’s aid, and you can’t help but weep with her.
And Arthur’s father, not a bad guy, but weak. The kid sees him walk past the court, watching his old man’s descent. The father also used to play ball, and late in the film, we see them together going one-on-one. What was supposed to be a nice afternoon in the park becomes almost primal, as the younger Agee commits the symbolic patricide of this drama, beating his old man for the first time.
“We called that the `Great Santini’ scene,” said James. “It was the first time Arthur really truly articulated to his dad that he was a man now, and that things would never be the same.”
Moments like that endow “Hoop Dreams” with its beauty and honesty. “The stuff we’re talking about,” said James, eight years removed from his moment of inspiration, “is of lasting value. It’s not packaged.”
“Hoop Dreams” won’t win an Oscar. Or an ESPY. But it will endure, apart from the culture of Hollywood and the culture of sports.