By Marc S. Sanders

Hoop Dreams is not a simple documentary. It spans five years beginning in the late 80s through the early 90s capturing the lives of two young promising basketball prospects looking for a shot at the NBA, a million to one shot.

Arthur Agee and William Gates are two black youths from the ghetto areas of Chicago who are given an opportunity to attend St. Joseph’s High School and to participate on their prestigious basketball squad, the same team where Isaiah Thomas began his trek to the pros. The film, directed by Steve James, continuously shows how far reaching the accomplishments of Thomas really are with moments frequently focusing on the school’s hallway cabinet display dedicated to the legendary former student. Arthur and William are magnificently talented as top coaches and recruiters will attest, but are they that good? Do they have Thomas’ drive and ferociousness on the court. As well, are they capable to maintain their required minimum grades and ACT test scores for college scholarships? Can the boys overcome injury or tuition demands to stay at St Joseph’s?

Hoop Dreams explores these questions in its three-hour running time. Though it’s a documentary, the drama is undeniably intense.

For Arthur, his talents on the court can only go so far. A family life that has highs and lows make it challenging for him during his high school years. His father, Bo, has been in and out of prison and he’s a drug addict. Director Steve James is so attentive and unforgiving with using his camera that he shows fourteen-year-old Arthur playing on the neighborhood court with Bo, who eventually drifts off into the background where we actually see Bo purchasing drugs from a dealer, right in front of his son and right in front of the camera.

Arthur’s NBA dreams also become more fleeting in his sophomore year when his family can not come up with the necessary portion of his tuition to remain at St. Joseph’s. From there, I desperately wondered if he’d ever return to the school.

William’s story begins with much more promise. He’s a magnificent player and comes off very responsible beginning in his freshman year at age 14 while keeping a job, and a respectful and positive attitude with his teachers and peers. His scholarship to remain at St Joseph’s is backed by a top executive for Encyclopedia Britannica. He’s a dynamo on the court and he’s got tremendous support from legendary St Joseph’s Coach Eugene “Ping” Pingatore who started Isaiah Thomas on his road to success. However, a knee injury comes into play. William is given the best treatments available including numerous surgeries to remove cartilage and maintain repairs. The knee never seems to go back to what it once was for William but even worse, according to Ping, the injury is messing with William’s confidence on the court.

This is not only disappointing for William with various setbacks that keep him off the court, but also for his older brother, Curtis, who lost out on his own basketball dreams. Curtis lives through the potential success of William.

The Agee and Gates families have next to no money living in the projects of Chicago. They endure job layoffs, welfare and at times no means to put food on the table or cover the cost of electricity. The need to support families of multiple children while they make every effort to survive the streets laden with drugs and crime beyond these troubles. What they live for is the will of Arthur and William’s potential for athletic greatness. The families are these boys’ greatest cheerleaders.

James’ film puts the golden ticket for these young men front and center at the beginning of the film when Isaiah Thomas speaks at a session for many prospective talents with a shot to attend St. Joseph’s High School. There’s uplifting footage of young Arthur playing with Thomas, and you feel the drive to now follow the boy’s journey to maybe see the professional ball player again but maybe in an arena where Arthur is now wearing a Detroit Pistons uniform as an actual teammate. As a viewer I was truly believing this could work out and by the time I get to the end I’ll finally see that moment captured in real life footage.

Nevertheless, Hoop Dreams shows that exceptional talent is never a promise for a shot in the NBA. Surviving day to day with no money and even a challenge to maintain academics, stay healthy, and avoid drugs and crime are at least just as important factors along that path.

Hoop Dreams is a long film. It needs to be to truly depict the essence of what happens to William and Arthur from year to year in high school. It’s absolutely riveting and emotionally suspenseful. Amazingly enough is that Steve James could never know what would come of Arthur and William when he began covering their stories in freshman year. Unlike other celebrated documentaries, Hoop Dreams is not a recap of a historical moment in time with stock footage that’s been recovered for narrative use. Hoop Dreams is in the moment. It’s a continuous exploration of what direction life will spell out for these boys and their families once high school comes to an end. Steve James was intuitive in following the respective trajectories without really ever being fully aware of the conclusions for these two stories.

Siskel & Ebert declared this film the best picture of 1994, topping films like Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, and The Shawshank Redemption. I can’t decide yet if I agree with that ranking, but I will never deny that the film belongs in that company of greatness for sure.

Hoop Dreams is absolutely magnificent, and likely one of the best documentary films I’ll ever see.

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