SPRING TRAINING MONTH #8: Hoop Dreams, by Steve James (1994)

ype of Media: Film

Going pro. It’s a dream that a lot of kids have, especially kids who are poor. Hoop Dreams, the 1994 documentary that follows two poor black teenagers through their high school basketball careers, makes the case that those dreams exist because they’re sold. Because they’re part of an industry. It’s an industry that operates at a lot of different levels, from high school to college to the NBA, but it always works the same way: hook them with the promise of a better life, then exploit their bodies and names for ticket and merchandise sales.

The stars of Hoop Dreams, William Gates and Arthur Agee, both start the documentary attending St. Joseph High School. It’s an upscale Catholic school located an hour-and-a-half from their homes in Cabrini-Green and West Garfield Park, two rough areas of Chicago, and they’re there because they can help boost St. Joseph’s prized basketball program. All over the school there are pictures of Detroit Pistons Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas, who went to St. Joseph in the 70s. Several times throughout the film William complains that he can’t talk to anyone at St. Joseph without someone mentioning Thomas, like they expect him to be Isaiah Thomas’ second coming.

It isn’t far into freshman year that Arthur’s parents run into financial trouble, and Arthur has to leave St. Joseph for a school with a terrible graduation rate and almost no funding. Later he has issues getting his transcript from St. Joseph, and loses credit for an entire semester of school. He joins his new school’s basketball team and still dreams of going pro. His room is covered in posters of Isaiah Thomas and Michael Jordan.

You really can’t help but root for William and Arthur while you’re watching Hoop Dreams. They just want to get out of their neighborhoods and help their families, who are betting everything on them making it into pro basketball. It seems like every other man in their lives, from fathers to cousins, claims they themselves would have made it into the NBA if it wasn’t for some reason or another, and they now live through the successes of their young relatives. Basketball can give William and Arthur a lot, but only at the cost of their complete devotion. The tournament game scenes are more nerve-wracking than thrilling because, divorced from the comforting fiction of a cheesy sports drama, you’ll realize that William’s future opportunities depending on if he can sink a free throw or not isn’t exciting. It’s an insane way for someone’s life to function.

If you agree with that previous statement, the glimpses that you get of high school and college-level sports as a business will probably disgust you. A camp for elite high school basketball players has college scouts swarming all over it, who judge players’ bodies as if they were draft animals and openly refer to the camp as a “meat market”. St Joseph’s basketball coach Gene Pingatore talks about how he’s there to make the kids on his team into better people, but the way he screams expletives at them during practice and mentions the churn of fresh new players into his ranks suggests that he really only cares about making the best basketball team possible. 

Pingatore actually winds up being one of the most intriguing aspects of Hoop Dreams, and he exemplifies its greatest quality as a documentary: the people in Hoop Dreams seem like both compelling characters and real people at the same time. They show just the right level of consistency and inconsistency that defines human behavior, while also having memorable appearances, voices, and tics that seal them into your mind. The editing is also impeccable, arranging the footage and cutting in B-roll to draw out the natural drama of the events so it creates a story without sacrificing realism.

Even if you don’t care at all about basketball, Hoop Dreams is a must-watch. Dealing with issues of social inequality, financial inequality, and American culture, Hoop Dreams succeeds as not just an incredible sports documentary, but as an amazing example of the documentary form.