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Posted: Tuesday July 21, 2009 11:40AM; Updated: Tuesday July 21, 2009 4:09PM
Seth Davis Seth Davis >

Why 'Hoop Dreams' still matters

Story Highlights

Hoop Dreams chronicled Chicago basketball stars William Gates and Arthur Agee

It resonated with audiences because it was an authentic look at its characters

Since the movie, the recruiting scene has morphed from high schools to AAU

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'Hoop Dreams' star William Gates was a role player for Marquette. He now runs a ministry in his old neighborhood.
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Seth Davis will periodically answer questions from users in his Hoop Thoughts column.

The first clue that one of the greatest movies ever made had lost its relevance came when I asked the cashier at my local Blockbuster where I could find a DVD of the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams. The young lady, who was probably not even in grade school when the movie was released, pecked at her computer keyboard for a few seconds. "Sorry," she reported, "we don't carry it."

Don't carry it? The store had shelves upon shelves of trite action-hero movies, vapid romantic comedies (Jennifer Aniston, anyone?) and multiple seasons of shows that had already aired on TV. Hoop Dreams, alas, was nowhere to be found. Something was very, very wrong with this picture.

I knew better. After watching the movie at home a few nights later (thank goodness for Netflix), I realized that even though Hoop Dreams might not be as commercially viable as it once was, the years have done nothing to diminish its relevance -- or its quality. Hoop Dreams was, in effect, America's first reality show, but the zeitgeist the movie begat has predictably morphed into a celebrity-driven, attention-deficit culture which has relegated the film to its current obscurity. (The Apprentice was fun for a while, but then people got bored; ergo, The Celebrity Apprentice.)

Hoop Dreams, which chronicles five years in the lives of two high school basketball players from inner-city Chicago, resonated with audiences precisely because it wasn't about famous people. Unlike, say, Sebastian Telfair and Lance Stephenson, two New York City schoolboys who were the subject of recent documentaries, William Gates and Arthur Agee were not can't-miss prodigies. Gates eventually became a bit player at Marquette, while Agee played two years of junior college ball before suiting up for Arkansas State. Agee bounced around basketball's minor leagues for a few years after that, playing for teams eager to capitalize on his Hoop Dreams notoriety, but neither player ever sniffed the NBA.

No, these guys were just ordinary people, but the moments of trial and tribulation that were caught on film proved to be, well, extraordinary -- and America loved it. The 2-hour, 50-minute film won an Audience Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, scored a major distribution deal from Fine Line Cinema, became the first documentary to close down the prestigious New York Film festival and ended its theatrical run as the highest-grossing documentary in U.S. history.

Hoop Dreams resonated with audiences because it was indisputably authentic, that rare movie that unfolds in real time. The filmmakers, led by director Steve James, did not originally set out to make a documentary about these two players. Their aim was to explore the subject of inner-city basketball. So they latched on to an insurance salesman named Earl Smith, who fancied himself an expert bird dog of young talent. The directors discovered Agee at the very same moment that Smith did, as a spindly 14-year-old who was blowing by his slower classmates on a local playground. ("That's the best first step I've seen in about five years," Smith said.) The camera follows Smith and Agee on a visit to St. Joseph's, a tony private school with a prestigious basketball program located in the suburbs. When they get to the school, the coach, Gene Pingatore, encourages the filmmakers to check out another young prospect with even more potential. That's how James, and the audience, first meets William Gates.

If you haven't seen this movie, you might glean from the title that it details the dreams of these two aspiring players. It doesn't take long, however, to understand that the real dreams are the ones that are harbored by the youngsters' close friends and family members. "I don't even think about him not making it [to the NBA], 'cause I'm so focused on him making it," Bo Agee, Arthur's father, said in one early scene. When Gates injures his knee his sophomore year, his mother laments to the camera, "What do you think that will do to his career?" Gates also is subjected to withering pressure from his older brother, Curtis, who once had the talent, but not the discipline, to be a Division-I college player. As Curtis now bounces between unemployment and low-wage jobs, he has taken it upon himself to mentor his brother toward a life of professional riches. "All my dreams are in him now," Curtis said.

"I always felt that Curtis should not be living his dreams through me," William said during an interview. "Seems like everybody I know is my coach."

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