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Black Guys Jump BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN HOOP DREAMS Directed by Steve James ANOTHER WILLIAM GATES, not the Microsoft mogul, grew up black and poor in West Garfield Park, among the mean streets of Chicago. An indifferent student, Gates tested at fourth-grade level as a high school freshman, but he excelled at basketball, the city game that lifts a very few black giants out of the inner city, Ogden Nash dismissed basketball as “a game which won’t be fit for people until they set the basket umbilicus high and return the giraffes to the zoo,” but the game made a prophet out of Isiah Thomas, the NBA star who started in the playgrounds of Chicago. William Gates venerates Thomas, and so does Arthur Agee, a youngster living in the Cabrini-Green Housing Project and dreaming of dribbling to riches and renown as an NBA athlete. Professional success in basketball is such an unlikely long shot that most inner-city boys are better off developing a layup. Hoop Dreams opens with parallel shots of 14-year-old Gates and 14-year-old Agee each gazing intently at a TV broadcast of the NBA All-Star Game. An extraordinary exercise in empathy, the nonfiction film traces five years in the adolescent lives of Gates and Agee as they pursue their goals of courtly glory. The finished product was honed to a little bit less than three hours, but filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert accumulated 250 hours of footage, in a project that required the epic patience of baseball, even cricket, rather than the frenetic intensity of basketball. Hoop Dreams offers thrilling sequences in crucial games, but, like Friday Night Lights, H. G. Bassinger’s study of football culture at Permian High School in Odessa,. Texas, this is vivid contemporary ethnography. High school basketball supplies the context for understanding how race, class and economics shape the lives of American urban blacks. After Earl Smith, a freelance scout, discovers Agee and Gates in separate pickup games, their lives are transformed utterly. They are taken for auditions at St. Joseph, a private high school intent on perpetuating Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative litera ture at the University of Texas at San Antonio. 18 NOVEMBER 11, 1994 7. -1 T its athletic prowess by stocking the basketball team with imported talent. A pitch from Isiah Thomas, an alumnus of St. Joseph, leaves Agee and Gates enthralled, and the two young men are soon spending three hours a day commuting to and from their new suburban school. Gates initially blossoms at St. Joseph; he is accepted onto the varsity team while only a freshman, and he even manages to raise his grade level to nine within a few months. Agee, however, flounders, disappointing both the school’s demanding coach, Gene Pingatore, and his academic teachers. “I just never been around a lot of white people,” says the boy about the alien environment into which he has been brought in order to produce. When Agee’s family, dependent on welfare, is unable to make reduced tuition payments, he is unceremoniously expelled. Gates seems more promising, and his costs are covered by a generous white angel, Patricia Weir, the president of Encyclopedia Britannica. Agee is thrust into Marshall Metro High School, a dreary public institution where guards search for weapons at the door. Hoop Dreams begins to take the shape of a prince-and-pauper melodrama, crosscutting between the privileged life at St. Joseph and the meager one at Marshall. While Gates munches pizza in a Princeton dormitory during the Nike summer camp where AllAmerican prospects are scouted by Bobby Knight, Joey Meyer and other eminent coaches, Agee is back in Chicago toiling for minimum wage at Pizza Hut. Until sidelined by a torn cartilage, Gates, courted by dozens of colleges, seems destined for grandeur, while Agee, failing Spanish and science, is lackluster on a losing Marshall team. But the plot thickens and twists, and Hoop Dreams becomes something other than Rocky with foul shots. Producers James, Marx and Gilbert no doubt hoped to document the rise of a new Isiah Thomas, but they stuck with the project even after basketball failed to beatify the two boys they bet on. Hoop Dreams records the consequences of ambition, not just for the principal dreamers. In fact, Arthur Agee and William Gates remain remarkably elusive for all the time they spend in front of the camera. It comes as a surprise when we learn that each is a father, since we did not have a clue that each had a lover. We gain a clearer idea of pugnacious Gene Pingatore than of the shy boys he coaches. But it is in its portraits of the Agee and Gates’ families that the film hits its buckets. William’s older brother Curtis is a former high school basketball star who is convinced that he could have been a pro if only his career had not gotten untracked at the University of Central Florida. When Curtis loses his job as a security guard, William’s benefactor finds him work at an Encyclopedia Britannica warehouse. But Curtis counts on the benefactions of William’s success to redeem him from his own failure. Also living vicariously through a promising young athlete is “Bo,” Arthur’s wayward father. He, too, is convinced that he could have made it in the NBA, though he has trouble coping with ordinary life in Chicago without resorting to drugs. Bo periodically deserts the family, and he spends time behind bars for burglary and battery. \(Willie Gates abandoned his family when mother Sheila is the most inspiring figure in the film. Struggling to pay the family’s debts, she nevertheless manages to complete a program to be a nurse’s assistant and earns the highest grades in her training group. Her modest graduation ceremony is one of the most moving scenes in a_ film that neither spurns nor sentimentalizes the lives of its hapless subjects. Except for occasional, unobtrusive narration, particularly to explicate the basketball games, Hoop Dreams allows its characters to speak for themselves. As if to confirm T. S. Eliot’s observation that mankind cannot bear too much reality, Spike Lee has announced that he intends to remake Hoop Dreams as a fictional feature to be broadcast at the time of the NBA finals. Even if Emilio Estevez and Keanu Reeves are not cast with cork in the leading roles, there is as much need for a fictionalization of this fascinating film as for a sequel to Gone with the Wind. Why tamper with the truth? Lee himself offers an answer, during a brief appearance at the Nike scouting camp that is included within Hoop Dreams. The diminutive director, a basketball junkie who is rabidly devoted to the New York Knicks, encourages the adolescent stars who are assembled at Princeton. But he warns them about a career in basketball: “This whole thing’s involved around money.” Money skews the lives of athletes, even at the high school level, even as it taints the making of movies. Hoop Dreams is an exceptional achievement. 111111111111MIMIEMIIIMINSI