March Madness and NCAA tournament blitz begins. Talk shows spend endless hours debating seeds and bubble teams. Yet the hype and hoopla hide another reality behind the minority basketball players who drive the NCAA teams.
Hoop Dreams is a superb 1994 documentary that follows five years in the lives of two black American adolescents pursuing their dreams of making the NBA. Every college fan should be required to see this film, one of the greatest sports documentaries.
Stories about kids overcoming poverty and adversity will leaven tournament mythology. Yet poverty is not about edifying stories, it hurts and drains and starts children off at incredible disadvantages. Hoop Dreams evokes a clear-eyed moral urgency to that world of poverty and despair that spawns the brilliant young athletes seeking to escape their world. One of the athletes William Gates says, “basketball is my way out.”
The documentary highlights the broken and resilient families who nurture, ride and exploit those dreams. The poverty and want peek out and glare at us despite the smiles and energy of the young men. We, the privileged fans, benefit from the excellence fostered by hoop dreams. We should never forget the reality behind their lives. Nor should we forget what our colleges owe in education and support to these young athletes.
The probabilities of a young black teenager becoming a professional basketball player remain 1 in 65,000 orders of magnitude larger than being a lawyer or doctor. Yet thousands of families press young players to seek the lottery and glamor of basketball over studies. Hoop Dreams reveals the moral costs of the distorted path that lure many minority males to practice sports rather than academics.
William Gates and Arthur Agee are superb young basketball players busting with talent and infectious energy. No one who sees the film ever forgets their smiles and pure joy at playing. Gates especially epitomizes an elegant and explosive style. They dream of making the NBA. They dream of saving their families. Arthur talks about how the first thing he will do is buy his mother a house.
Basketball beckons as their way out. A black middleman brings them to the attention of St. Joseph’s a wealthy white suburban Catholic school. The school offers them partial scholarships. When raised tuition makes it unlikely Gates can continue a good “Samaritan” pays for his schooling. Both families scrape to send them to the school.
The boys endure three hour round trip to arrive at the alien white world of St. Josephs. Both read at fifth grade levels and possess neither the clothes, language, study skills nor family support to succeed at a high performing suburban school.
This is not the fairy tale world of Blind Side. When Arthur does not develop as rapidly as hoped and his family cannot make the tuition increase, St. Joseph’s coach drops him from the team. The school then presents a tuition bill of 1800 dollars to a family that lives on welfare of 268 dollars a month.
The raw reality of poverty shoots through the film. The coiled violence, self-delusion and abuse of Arthur’s father poison his home. His father buys drugs behind the court where Arthur plays pickup ball. Drugs pervade the world, and Arthur’s best friend Shannon will succumb.
Yet despite it all, Arthur perseveres in basketball. His mother struggles to hold together the fragile household and give Arthur a center as well as a motive to escape. She achieves a nursing degree in one of the most powerful moments in the movie when she says in tears, "I didn't think I could do it. "And people told me I wasn't going to.”
Arthur’s school gym and primitive playing conditions do not matter. He plays and practices. He endures his father’s abuse and his mother’s illness. The entire time he can never bring himself to take studies seriously and ends up unable to attend college because of his grades and ACT. Ultimately Mineral Area College in Missouri offers him a basketball scholarship to build up academics and get noticed. Like St. Joseph’s, the community college uses him. Of the seven black players in the college, six are basketball players who live in in a small cabin miles from the school.
The bleak isolated cabin highlights how Arthur must fight for his dream. The schools use him. He has to use them to play and escape. Ultimately he wins a scholarship to Arkansas State and has a successful college career. Neither he nor Gates will ever see the NBA. But he leaves with an intact and almost credible education that permits him to work with kids. Today he gets by and founded the Arthur Agee Role Model Foundation that works with adolescents to support their dreams. He helped make a film called Hoop Realities that followed up the life he and Gates lived.
William Gates’ path is no less hard. He excels at basketball and acclimates to St. Josephs and earns a decent GPA. He plays with explosive elegance. Colleges court him with boxes of scholarship offers by sophomore year. His father tries to sneak back into his life after years of absence when the dad thinks he might have a future. His mother is haunted by the failure of his older brother Curtiss, a superb basketball player, who never developed the self-discipline and study habits to succeed at college. Curtis lurks in background out of shape, unemployed. He haunts William as a symbol of failure and spur.
His high school lionizes him, his coach relentlessly pushes him. But disaster strikes Gates. Like Boobie Miles in Friday Night Lights, he injures himself. During surgery his mother worries “I just want this one to make it.” Bearing the burden of his family’s dreams, like so many young athletes, William Gates comes back too soon and reinjures himself. Another surgery and rehab follows.
The injury causes coaches to back off scholarship, and Gates tries to prove his worth at the NIKE summer camp with the 100 best high school players in the country.
Spike Lee gets it right then an now. He tells them at the camp, “no one here cares about you…you are young male and black…they want you to play for their team to make money…that’s what it is money.” An independent scout summarizes the world where Gates struggles to impress celebrity coaches like Bobby Knight and Rick Pitino as a “meat market.”
Gates barely qualified for college after taking the ACT five times and enters Marquette. He had an OK college career, lost heart, quit the team but came back and graduated. During high school he fathered a child and stayed with the mother and married her. Thinking of his dad, he states, “I will not leave her.” Now he works as a minister in his old area of Chicago. Basketball helped him escape but did not provide him or his family salvation. At a certain point in the movie, both Gates and Agee stop smiling.
Everything and nothing has changed. Today these wonderful players would be recruited, culled and groomed from the age 12. Select teams and shoe-financed programs would feed them, coach them and have them travelling and playing a 100 games a year. Posses surround young players who get scholarship offers at age 13. The best are NBA ready at 18. Coaches and recruiting begin early, scholarship offers arrive at age 13. The corruption of college recruiting is more hidden but enticements of money, jobs to family clog the system. Young athletes are surrounded by intermediaries, on-the-take AAU coaches or bags of money like leeches.
The players still fight to escape the brutal poverty. Basketball not education gives them the focus and cache to escape the drugs and violence. NCAA rules force them to take more core classes and actually get reasonable grades. Graduation rates for black basketball players at Division I schools are improving but remain awful. Hoop Dreams reminds us of why. It cuts through the glitter of March Madness and reminds us of the moral cost and our school's moral obligation to get them the education they often do not achieve.
PS: William Gate’s brother Curtiss was shot do death in 2001. Arthur Agee’s father was murdered in 2004. For a fine complementary review see http://etheriel.wordpress.com/2009/11/10/hoop-dreams-the-struggle-and-the-triumph/