Hoop Dreams (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
William Gates, from the Cabrini-Green Public Housing Project, and Arthur Agee, from West Garfield Park, both only fourteen years of age, are scouted by Earl Smith to attend St. Joseph High School, a place that many consider is able to foster the talents of its basketball players and thereby giving children a chance to make something of themselves. “Hoop Dreams,” directed by Steve James, follows William and Arthur from being fourteen-year-old dreamers with raw talent till they leave home to attend university.
Not all of us may have come from bad neighborhoods where violence, drugs, and death are commonplace and yet we are able to relate one way or another to the picture’s subjects because we all have or have had dreams big and small. While a few will achieve or have achieved it, most of us will not or did not. This is how you know there is a William and Arthur in all of us: When the ball is released from their hands and it is up in the air, we hold our breaths just a little and hope the ball makes it in the hoop. A ball in free throw is a great metaphor for a dream: We have control of it for a while but on its way to the hoop, many factors can change its course and prevent it from going in altogether.
Or a teammate might lend a hand to get that ball in. The documentary is also about the people who try to get Arthur and William to go where they want to be. Arthur’s mother is especially memorable because for some time she has found a way to raise her three children for less than three hundred dollars a month after having been fired from her job. When her son is running around the court, it is most obvious that she is his number one fan and I was very moved because it was like seeing my mother rooting for me.
The picture could not have been scripted any better. An image that will be ingrained in my memory is the moment when Bo paid his son a short visit at the neighborhood basketball court. They had not seen each other in a while because his parents had a separation. Arthur noticed his father walking off the court eventually to buy drugs just a few feet away. No word is needed to convey the disappointment Arthur felt. Some may say that it should have been the father setting an example for his son. But in a way he is: Arthur is observing and learning what not to do in his future.
One of William’s challenges was his bad knee. Only a freshman in high school, universities already had their eyes on him. But it all came crashing down when he was injured and for a while it seemed like that was it for him. His injury would heal but the real question was whether he could perform at the same level, or better, once he recovered.
Meanwhile, the film brings up the question of whether or not it is healthy to recruit someone—sometimes as young as age twelve—to play basketball. There are no easy answers. On one hand, education is important and should take precedence. On the other hand, some people are more interested in sports than school and if they happened to be living in a bad neighborhood, it just might be a golden ticket to get out and redirect their lives completely.
I admired that the picture shows what is and does not intend to make judgments. It shows the faults in the system when it comes to the poor. It shows the faults in parenting. It shows the faults in the mindsets of William and Arthur as young athletes with wonderful potential. But it also shows people, like Patricia Weir, who are willing to help. It shows guidance counselors who are willing to be direct about the importance of grades and standardized exams. It shows family being encouraging even when the chips are down. It shows that there is always a surprise around the corner. It is a film that is real but ultimately optimistic.
“Hoop Dreams” is not about basketball. It is about how basketball can serve as a metaphor for life. Because if you’re not willing to place your feet on the court, put in the hard work, be a team player, take risks once in a while, and play the game to the best of your abilities, you might as well be sitting on the bench and watching everyone else taking a shot.