Hoop Dreams


Hoop Dreams. Kartemquin FIlms 1994.
Hoop Dreams. Kartemquin FIlms 1994.

Before watching the movie:

This is one of those movies I’ve heard the title bandied about and little else. Perhaps the phrase predated the movie, since I’ve always known it as an idiom rather than a title.

Unfortunately, that gives me very little to go on for comment in this section. It apparently has an incredibly positive reputation, but yet I only came across it by specifically researching documentaries to consider for this month. I know it follows two inner city kids who are trying to get basketball scholarships to lift them out of where they are. Do they compete, or simply run parallel? I couldn’t say. There must be plenty of athletic scholarships out there, but they might be both scouted by one school for one spot. I can see the potential for a powerful portrait of their lives and potential, but I couldn’t guess at much more.

Unrelatedly, anyone who wishes to can now support this blog on Patreon. I promise not to have obtrusive reminders about it, whether it works out or not.

After watching the movie:

William Gates and Arthur Agee are two kids in the Chicago area with skills on the basketball court that they hope to take professional. They both get accepted to St. Joseph’s prestigious private school basketball program, which they hope will get their profiles high enough to get into the best colleges where they can have a chance to get noticed by the NBA. But Arthur only has a partial scholarship and his family’s financial hardships can’t make up the rest, so he’s forced to drop out and transfer to Marshall, the public school. Meanwhile, William, who has better basketball skills, has a sponsor covering what his scholarship doesn’t, but gets sidelined for over a year due to a knee injury. Both of them have trouble keeping their grades high enough to earn college scholarships, so basketball or not, neither of their hoop dreams might live past graduation.

The surprise reversals of fortune along the way feel so perfectly plotted at times it might be easy to believe this was actually scripted, or at least outlined in advance. But then, with four years of documentary footage of two hard-working people with troubles at home, a good documentarian would probably be able to craft a strong narrative out of anything that came along. It’s just so perfectly out of the blue that the one who got to stay at the good school ultimately has the more damaging setback. They both, to a degree, fight past their problems and wind up in a good place, if not what they hoped.

On the one hand, four years of two lives and families is a lot of material to cover. On the other, this is three hours long, and doesn’t feel as tight as it could be. Episodes that don’t really affect the narrative and sometimes don’t even do much for the themes come up and take time. It makes sense that each year would progressively unfold over a larger portion of the movie, because the farther into high school, the more important every development is, but the breeze through freshman year sets an expectation of pace that makes the last half of the movie feel like even more of a slog than a three hour movie normally would.

On the one hand, the central point is that these two young men are pinning all their hopes on turning their proficiency on the playground into an NBA career, so it seems like a bit of a letdown that the movie ends with them only just getting into college. It seems like it would have been a more complete story to take them to the end of their college careers and the aftermath of that as well. But on the other hand, this is already covering four years, and continuing to college would take at least four more. I can’t imagine sorting together a single film from four years of footage, let alone eight plus. Additionally, the titular dreams are already starting to fade by the end, and it would be even more of a downer to continue on to watch them continue on learning that the one thing they built their lives around isn’t going to be what they hoped it would. The rest of the story is a matter of record, and there’s even a followup film telling it.  Best then to leave the story where it is, with the possibilities left to explore.

More than the story, the themes are the real takeaway. Life is hard if you’re born into the wrong circumstances, but is there only one ticket out? And who’s really being served by it? All anybody can really do is their best, and hope their best is at least good enough to get by. If it takes three hours to paint that picture, that’s still a picture worth painting.

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