Hoop Dreams

 

The documentary Hoop Dreams has the sprawling force of the best fiction. In fact, it’s the closest movie equivalent to the great American novel I’ve seen in years. If you’re wary of a nearly three-hour film about basketball, so was I, at first; sports bore me to tears. Yet I watched the movie in an absolute trance of fascination. Hoop Dreams is less about hoop than about dreams — dreams nurtured, dreams annihilated. In its understated, journalistic way, the movie is overwhelming in its cumulative impact. It’s both depressing and exhilarating; it’s truth and it’s life.

The film tracks two 14-year-old boys — Arthur Agee and William Gates, both from squalid sections of Chicago — whose one and only passion is basketball. Watching them sitting mesmerized and ecstatic in front of a game on TV, you realize you’re seeing the primal moment of awakening: This is what you were put on Earth to do, so go practice your jump shot. William, who is taller, and who develops a thick neck and imposing build as the years pass, is a dependable shooter with balletic moves. Arthur, a shorter boy with a quick, casual smile, is a more erratic player but also more electrifying; his are the kind of moves that look foolish when they don’t work but dazzle when they do work. The movie is a parallel study of these boys as they grow into young men, father children, and respond to various forms of crushing pressure.

Pressure. We often take sports stars for granted, mumbling about their astronomic salaries. Hoop Dreams implicitly challenges our perception of athletes as spoiled rock stars. For these boys, the question of whether they have the skills to make it to the NBA is the least of their worries. The film suggests that grabbing the gold ring in the pitiless world of sports requires inhuman persistence and resilience — the ability to weather constant blows to the body, the mind, the soul. William and Arthur are sent to the suburban school St. Joseph’s, alma mater of the legendary Isiah Thomas. Arthur, whose parents can’t come up with the tuition, is forced to drop out and enroll in a city school, where he keeps playing but sinks into a haze of disappointment. William, meanwhile, in his comfortable position on St. Joseph’s team, is nearly crippled by a knee injury. His knee becomes an almost metaphysical villain in the film’s second half; William’s frustration at being sidelined is so palpable you can feel the angry heat of his flesh.

Hoop Dreams makes the unsurprising point that the boys, who are both goof-offs in school, have been shaped into basketball machines — incomplete people, who worship the game to the exclusion of almost everything else. (By the end, one of them will have learned that there are other things in life.) Who can blame their parents for pushing them? This is the boys’ ticket out of the ghetto, and the film daringly focuses on family members — Arthur’s screw-up father and William’s disillusioned brother, both former high-school hoop stars — who hang over the boys’ careers, experiencing their triumphs vicariously. (The boys’ mothers, less sensuously obsessed with the game, encourage their sons but keep a hard eye on their grades. We come to love these women.)

The blame falls on the shoulders of the coaches and recruiters, themselves entrenched in the bizarre, punishing culture of high-school athletics. Gene Pingatore, the coach at St. Joseph’s (he resembles Mandy Patinkin in the cruel lines around his tight mouth), bullies his players towards greatness. When William’s knee gives him trouble during an important game, Pingatore takes him aside and says, “Of course, if your knee is bad, you shouldn’t be playing.” This is an innocuous remark on the face of it, but Pingatore’s tone gives him away; we know he’s trying to shame William into playing hurt. Pingatore emerges as a Dickensian figure, a remorseless man who never stops justifying his callousness and bursts of temper. Yet you also see that he’s powerless to be anything other than what he is. If his team doesn’t win, his ass is at stake, and so is St. Joseph’s. The culture of sports doesn’t respect, doesn’t even acknowledge, the concept of benevolence. The boys are in the rough hands of wrathful, insecure gods.

As Arthur bucks the odds and cracks the books, and William studies half-heartedly and grows disgusted with the game, Hoop Dreams pulls its themes together. The filmmakers — Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert — began this project as a study of playground hoop. What they came back with goes far beyond the usual sports movie. Passing awkwardly into manhood, the boys create themselves out of the rubble of their dreams. At the same time, the people who love them are either enjoying their own triumphs or destroying themselves. Watching this documentary about basketball (which I don’t care about, in and of itself), I kept brushing tears away. Hoop Dreams seems to encompass everything and resolve nothing. The metal hoops, so seductive and high, await the next generation of boys, ready to exalt or humble them.

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