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Lives Forever Changed
L. Jon Wertheim
September 20, 1999
The costars of Hoop Dreams didn't make it to the NBA, but that's no tragedy
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September 20, 1999

Lives Forever Changed

The costars of Hoop Dreams didn't make it to the NBA, but that's no tragedy

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If there's a drawback common to most documentaries, it's the absence of closure, the lack of a sequel. No matter how engrossed an audience becomes in a subject, there is lingering curiosity. Take Hoop Dreams, the award-winning film that laid bare the myth of salvation through basketball. Neither William Gates nor Arthur Agee, the two Chicago hoops virtuosos whom the movie shadowed through their teenage years, ever made it to the NBA. That much most folks know. But five years after the release of the highly acclaimed film, what has happened to the two principals?

A hoop dreamer emeritus, Gates, 27, laughs self-effacingly when he recalls the intensity of his adolescent aspiration to make it to the pros. "Don't get me wrong, I still love basketball," he says. "But sometimes I can't believe how big a role it played in my life, how that guy in the movie was me."

As his well-upholstered midsection attests, basketball has slid precipitously on Gates's list of priorities. He is far more concerned with providing for his wife, Catherine—who was his high school girlfriend—and their three children, ages one, four and 10. Gates commutes 100 miles a day from the family's home in Wisconsin to Mt. Prospect, Ill., where he works for the Community Economic Development Association (CEDA). He plans to attend law school next fall. He is also on the board of directors of the fledgling Collegiate Professional Basketball League. "I'm just a normal, middle-class guy now," he says, "and that's fine with me."

At the end of Hoop Dreams, before Gates's freshman season in college, his basketball career had already peaked. Having never fully recovered from a knee injury he suffered in high school, Gates averaged less than eight points a game in his four years at Marquette. After taking a break from school to work full time, Gates received his degree in communications last spring. As the first member of his family to finish college, he had to approach the dean's office three times to ask for extra graduation tickets. "I had about 40 people cheering me on, including my three kids," he says. "Getting that piece of paper felt as good as any game-winning basket I ever made."

He doesn't want for anything, but William Gates will never be mistaken for Bill Gates. "Like most people," he admits, "I wish things were a little better for me financially." That said, does he resent that players such as the Washington Wizards' Juwan Howard and the Dallas Mavericks' Michael Finley, both of whom he lit up in high school, make millions in the pros? "Not at all," says Gates, surprised by the question. "I root like crazy for those guys, and one day I'll tell my kids, 'I was part of that class.' They just went in one direction, and I went in another."

Hoop dreams have lingered longer for Arthur Agee. In the middle-class Chicago suburb of Berwyn, Ill., where he lives with his parents, Agee wakes up early to lift weights and do sit-ups before going to shoot jumpers in an empty high school gym. Several times a week he plays in basketball leagues around the city, including one with NBA players at the Moody Bible Institute. After playing college ball at Arkansas State, Agee did hard time in the IBL, the CBA and the USBL but claims he never got a fair shake. At each stop, he says, the team was more interested in his familiar name—"I was always the guy who had to go to car dealerships and sponsor lunches"—than in his skills. Still, there's no extinguishing his flame. "I try to be realistic," he says, "but I've still got a lot of game left in me, and I'm just hoping to catch my break."

While Agee, 26, has yet to wean himself from basketball, it is no longer his exclusive passion. Trading on the publicity he received from Hoop Dreams, Agee has embarked on an acting career. Two years ago he was asked to read for the part of Jesus Shuttlesworth—which went to Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen—in Spike Lee's He Got Game; he instead landed a cameo. Earlier this year Agee played a prominent role in the TNT basketball movie Passing Glory. On the first day of shooting, Andr� Braugher, the movie's star, sought out Agee to tell him that he was a natural actor. "Maybe it was being in front of the camera so much when I was growing up," says Agee, "but taking on different roles and portraying different people comes easily to me."

True to the irrepressible personality he displayed on film as a teenager, Agee remains enormously sociable and is exploiting his quasicelebrity status to the hilt. He delivers motivational speeches to groups several times a month; he is planning to market a Hoop Dreams clothing line; and he has a consulting agreement with a Chicago health club. The unmarried father of three children, all of whom he sees regularly, Agee also runs the Arthur Agee Role Model Foundation, which provides scholarships and services to underprivileged kids. This fall the foundation has teamed with Chicago ophthalmologist Barry L. Seiller to provide visual performance testing and free contact lenses to athletes at Marshall High, Agee's alma mater. He spends the balance of his days "networking," as he puts it; his cell phone and pager play a constant symphony of beeps and buzzes.

The unexpected commercial success of Hoop Dreams brought Gates and Agee nearly $300,000 apiece in royalties. When Agee received his first check, he purchased a house in Berwyn for his parents. It's only a 10-minute drive from the family's previous, decrepit apartment in the West Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago—where their lights were once turned off when they couldn't pay their electric bill—but it may as well be in another country. The Agees' tree-lined street is quiet; they have a small pool in the backyard, and there are excellent public schools nearby. It has been years since the move, but Sheila Agee nearly implodes with pride when she gives visitors a tour of the house. "With all the tough times we went through," she says, struggling valiantly to restrain tears, "I still can't believe this is ours?

As for other epilogues, Curtis Gates, who got as far as junior college basketball but was living vicariously through his younger brother, works for FedEx. Arthur's father, Bo Agee, has kicked his cocaine habit and, after serving time in prison, has remarried Sheila. He is self-employed as a motivational speaker. Arthur Agee and William Gates both chuckle when they report that their crusty coach at St. Joseph High, Gene Pingatore, finally made it to the Promised Land "downstate" last season. Pingatore sued the filmmakers over his portrayal in Hoop Dreams and later dropped the suit in exchange for the filmmakers donating scholarship money for students at both St. Joseph and Marshall high schools.

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