James corresponded with his film-school buddy Marx, who by that time was teaching English in China, and the two began to plan their film. In April 1987, James and Marx, who had returned to the States, pitched their idea to Kartemquin Films, a documentary film company in Chicago. Kartemquin agreed to help produce the work and gave James and Marx office space. Next they began researching Chicago's street basketball scene. It was also through Kartemquin that James and Marx were introduced to Gilbert.
Early in their research, they met the sweet-faced Arthur Agee on a court in West Garfield Park. "We knew once we'd found Arthur that he was someone we should follow because of his wide-eyed innocence and pure love for the game," says Gilbert. William Gates was chosen for the project, says James, "because we were enticed by the prospect of following a phenom we'd heard about. We expected a player like him to be cocky and outgoing, but he was shy and extremely smart."
Gilbert had worked on a variety of film projects before joining James and Marx. He had been the cameraman for Barbara Kopple's documentary about a meat packers' strike in Austin, Minn., American Dream, which had taken five years to complete and won the director an Oscar. "I knew what it was to follow someone for a long period." says Gilbert. "Ultimately it is that longitudinal narrative that allows you to sit through Hoop Dreams for three hours." The trio finished shooting the film in 1991, and then James and Marx, with editor Bill Haugse, spent 2� years editing 250 hours of film down to just under three.
Since the filming Agee and Gates have gone on to Division I schools—Agee to Arkansas State, Gates to Marquette—and continue to pursue their dreams of playing in the NBA and of providing better lives for their families. During the course of the project Gilbert's and James's wives had five children between them. The filmmakers have signed a deal with Turner Pictures to fictionalize the documentary, and Spike Lee has been named the project's executive producer.
What started out as a look at the basketball dreams of two inner-city boys turned out to be the three filmmakers' own dream come true.