Hoop Dreams - made by the Chicago collaborative of Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert - runs fast to follow these basketball talents up and down the courts, down and up in school, over five extraordinary years. What begins as a modest film about Chicago youths who hope their jump shots will help them out of the projects builds into an epic drama about the hoax of achieving this particular American Dream.
Yes, it is a documentary, but one more gripping, heartbreaking and hopeful than any drama in recent memory.
That string bean with a bounce is Arthur, he of the fast smile and faster
break. That stealth bomber with pecs is William, so silent you don't immediately notice how intelligent he is.
From their freshman year in high school to their freshman year in college, Hoop Dreams tracks the two young men: William, spoken of - in reference to the Detroit Pistons legend - as "the next Isiah," and Arthur, who sports Thomas' lucky number, 11.
William lives in the Cabrini-Green Housing Projects with his mother, Emma, and his brother, Curtis, whose own dreams of a pro basketball career have been dashed. Arthur lives with his parents, Sheila and Bo, in the West Garfield Park neighborhood. Both are spotted by Earl Smith, full-time insurance salesman and weekend scout, who casts his net wide for promising talent.
Smith delivers the young men to Gene Pingatore, legendary basketball coach at St. Joseph, the suburban Chicago parochial school where Thomas first soared and scored. At St. Joseph, the gleaming hardwood floors contrast with the pocked-asphalt street courts that William and Arthur are accustomed to playing on.
The hopefuls are thrilled to be offered financial aid to St. Joe, even though it means getting up at 5 a.m. to make the 90-minute commute in time for daily 7 a.m. basketball practice.
Though selected for their ability to shoot hoops, William and Arthur must also learn to jump through them. They compete scholastically with a mostly Caucasian student body that has enjoyed the advantages of parochial schooling. And while facing typical high school pressures - compounded by the fact that school is so far from home - they have to handle the pressure put on them by the coach and the student body. They may be kids, but they're expected to act like adults.
William swiftly distinguishes himself on the varsity while working hard academically. The late-blooming Arthur, too short for varsity and only a passing student, is frustrated. Convinced that Arthur will never grow tall enough, coach Pingatore tosses him back into the rough sea of an inner-city public school.
In its three brief hours, Hoop Dreams quietly exposes the inequities in the American educational system and penetratingly charts the impact of domestic discord on a teen's development. (Arthur's parents separate, reconcile and separate again during the documentary's course.)
Although at the film's beginning, Hoop Dreams revels in the sheer joy of the game, it also illustrates how carrying the dreams of your coach and family can be a burden that slows your game. Imagine the pressure of playing when every free throw means today's scholarship and tomorrow's career. Hoop Dreams does not shrink from showing the eerie similarities between slave auctions and those summer camps where college basketball coaches recruit the stars of tomorrow.
The most moving aspect of this indelible documentary is that it chronicles its subjects' growth from instinctively going for the goal to deciding which goals are worth shooting for. As she smears icing on his just-baked birthday cake, Arthur's mother notes to the omnipresent camera that Arthur has achieved a more important goal than making the NBA: He has lived to see his 18th birthday.
William, today a senior at Marquette University, puts it all into perspective: "People always say to me, 'When you get to the NBA, don't forget me.' Well, if I don't get into the NBA, you don't forget about me."
No one who sees Hoop Dreams will ever forget William or Arthur.
HOOP DREAMS * * * *
Produced by Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert and Kartemquin Films, Chicago; directed by James; edited by Marx, James and Bill Haugse; photography by Gilbert, narrated by James; distributed by Fine Line Features.
Featuring William Gates, Arthur Agee, Sheila Agee, Emma Gates, Earl Smith and Gene Pingatore.
Running time: 2 hrs., 51 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, drug deals)
Showing at: the Ritz Five