Here’s a not-so-fun fact: Back in the mid-’90s, after Hoop Dreams had become a critical and commercial sensation, William Gates and Arthur Agee nearly lost their college scholarships. Seems that director Steve James, who filmed the two athletes throughout their entire high-school career, wanted to give some of the film’s profits to its struggling stars. Unfortunately, that would have made them “professionals,” at least according to the NCAA, which was apparently as committed then as it is now to keeping money out of the pockets of student athletes. Here William and Arthur were, some two decades ago, discovering what everyone from John Oliver to Deadspin has been complaining about this entire season—namely, that for all but the luckiest of young players, basketball is an industry that chews kids up and spits them out.
That’s just one topical takeaway of James’ seminal sports documentary, which Criterion has upgraded to Blu-ray this week, just in time for the final rounds of March Madness. (Go Green!) Not that Hoop Dreams was conceived as a critique of the system, or even as a feature film: James and his producers, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx, originally intended to shoot for only three weeks, cobbling together enough material for a half-hour PBS special about a public basketball court. But the filmmakers were drawn to a couple of the regulars, two young men whose futures seemed bright. Eight years and hundreds of hours of footage later, they emerged with this heartbreaking coming-of-age story—a vision of the elation, but also the anxiety and disappointment, that can come from chasing a career in athletics.
The film begins hopefully enough. Two Chicago teenagers—the older and shyer William, from Cabrini-Green, and the younger and more rambunctious Arthur, from West Garfield Park—are recruited to play basketball at prestigious suburban high school St. Joseph. “I just know he’ll make it,” beams Arthur’s father, while everyone from the press to the head coach compares William to a famous alum of the school, Isiah Thomas. But as the weeks and then months and then years blow by, complications arise. Plunked down into a predominately white school, where he feels like an outsider, Arthur underperforms both academically and athletically; since he’s not an instant MVP, he loses his free ride, and is forced to drop out of St. Joseph. William, meanwhile, has a great first season, but is eventually sidelined by a torn ACL. Anxious to get back in the game, he exacerbates the injury; as his play time dwindles, so do his college prospects.
As a sports movie, Hoop Dreams is both stirring and wrenching: It revels in every display of prowess by William and Arthur, feeding off the excitement of their fans and family while also sticking close to both young men as they miss shots, fall short, and crack under the pressure. Most of the drama, though, occurs off the court. James is there to film everything: The three-hour daily commutes to the ’burbs and back; the invasive scoping of William’s shot knee; the meals and holidays the two share with their families, during times thick and thin. Roger Ebert, Hoop Dreams’ biggest and most influential champion, called it one of the greatest films ever made about American life. That it potentially earns such a glowing appraisal is thanks to James’ commitment to catching all the little day-to-day moments—the stuff that happens between the big wins and the crushing losses. The director didn’t set out to make a masterpiece. He just kept rolling, digging his heels in hard, as something meaningful transpired in front of his camera.
Multi-dimensional “characters” also emerge, as Hoop Dreams offers an ensemble portrait of black working-class Chicago. William’s family is haunted by the failures of his older brother, Curtis, who plays one-man ESPN from the bleachers, his own defunct basketball career a thing of the distant past. (When William goes under the knife, James is there in the waiting room with his mother, capturing her candid confession that she just really wants one of her kids to make it.) Meanwhile, Arthur’s mother copes with money problems, and the movie makes time to celebrate with her when she scores a new job. The long-term filming commitment helps shatter stereotypes: While we see Arthur’s dad leave the family, we also see him return shortly thereafter, having kicked his drug habit. (Knowledge that both he and Curtis will be shot and killed years later lends their scenes a retroactive melancholy.)
Most powerfully, Hoop Dreams operates as a corrective to one of America’s prevailing inspirational ideals, a belief in sports as the way out of a hardscrabble life. Early scenes depict William and Arthur glued to their televisions, in awe of hometown heroes like Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan. These superstars are shining examples for a younger generation, men who worked hard and fought their way to the NBA. Yet as the film progresses, it demonstrates how difficult, how damn near impossible, that path to success really is—how coaches pump up young hopefuls and then abandon them when they don’t pan out, and how a promising career can buckle under the weight of overinflated expectations. James doesn’t conform his footage to this thesis; it reveals itself organically, across three hours (and several years) of rising and falling fortunes. That’s the contradictory key to Hoop Dreams’ enduring brilliance: The director’s perseverance pays off, even if the same can’t be said, sadly, for the budding athletes he follows.
Hoop Dreams is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.