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Hoop Dreams [Movie Review]


Hoop Dreams is a classic 1994 documentary directed by Steve James about two boys growing up in Chicago and their dream of playing professional basketball in the NBA. In pursuit of that, they attempt to move through the basketball development and recruitment pipeline. While much of Hoop Dreams focuses on the triumphs and letdowns of their high school basketball years we also see the ups and downs of their lives off the court.


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Show Notes

The journey to the pros begins with most kids playing on local courts and in tournaments. As kids get older, they try out for their school’s team which can position them for college and then hopefully being drafted into the pros. In this case, William Gates and Arthur Agee are at the beginning of their high school basketball years as Hoop Dreams begins with Gates as a freshman and Agee in his last year of junior high school. Arthur’s family is comprised of both parents (Sheila and Bo) and his siblings while William’s family mostly consists of his mother (Emma) and older brother (Curtis).

Early in Hoop Dreams, both boys share their dreams of where they hope basketball will take them. Arthur wants to make it to the NBA so that he can earn money to buy his family nice stuff and give them more comfortable lives. William’s dream is to use basketball to hopefully get into a good college and make a good life for himself. No judgment on either dream but their reasons for playing basketball affects how they approach the sport.

They’re now at the point where adults and coaches are starting to get serious about these kids playing basketball. High school is typically when colleges start looking at athletes. There’s an effort to get them into the right school as it affects the high school team they play on which can then affect the college that they might attend.

St. Joseph’s High School is a prep school with a strong basketball program out in the suburbs. Arthurs is spotted by a scout playing basketball at one of the courts in his neighborhood and he’s invited to try out for the coach. Seeing some potential, they invite him to join William at the school. This is a big deal because the school is the alma mater of Isaiah Thomas, a player in the NBA. Hailing from Chicago, he’s a big deal at the school and in the city. The boys, Arthur in particular, feel like attending this school might set them on the path to following in Thomas’ footsteps.

Up to this point they’ve both lived in predominantly Black neighborhoods and attended predominantly Black schools. William is from the Cabrini-Green housing projects while Arthur is from the South Side. There are gangs and their areas look rough and rundown. Arthur’s mother is trying to push him out of the neighborhood in hopes that he’ll avoid some of these negative influences.

Attending this new school is a bit of a culture shock. These are two inner-city Black kids from what looks like fairly low-income neighborhoods. The school is predominantly White and located in what’s at least a middle-class neighborhood. During their daily three-hour round trip commute, the boys aren’t passing mansions but these are nice houses in what looks like a safe and well-maintained area.

This school as one of the kids explains is very different from the schools he was attending in elementary or even junior high school in the sense that this school is clean and has all kinds of resources. William shares that he was performing below grade level when he first entered the school. He was a ninth-grader performing at the level of what would be expected from a fourth or fifth-grader. But with some extra attention from a teacher after only one year he’s now performing at his grade level. Arthur is now in a similar situation but continues to struggle through the school year.

Some of this difference in performance is likely due in part to their different perspectives on school. William is engaged and raising his hand in class so he’s making progress. Meanwhile, Arthur is just going to school because it’s required. This is something that proves incredibly telling for me and is one of my pet peeves about student-athletes and sports.

I don’t have an issue with people playing sports because I like sports. Playing sports can teach kids a lot of life skills such as discipline and how to be team players. Not to mention, it’s incredibly important to a person’s health that they exercise and take good care of their body.

But where I take issue is with this tendency for adults to grab hold of these kids when they’re young and push them towards playing sports because of the potential to make money. I’m not saying that these specific kids were forced into playing basketball. Rather in general, I don’t like the limited options that are promoted as the paths to success for Black children.

For kids from particular areas, adults are often less concerned with the kids doing well in school or having other interests. There is less encouragement for kids from these backgrounds to get involved with computer science, writing, or math. But there is a push for them to play sports. There’s so much support for these Black kids to play sports and pursue their dream of making it to the pros. But the same level of encouragement and resources aren’t made available for them to be mathletes or participate in coding camps.

Often with Black kids, being an entertainer or athlete is presented as the only path to escaping poverty or becoming successful. It’s great if you play sports but there are so many other career paths beyond athlete or entertainer, even within the sports or entertainment industries. Kids are kids and they don’t know any better but what gives me pause is seeing adults feed into this rather than showing them there are other career paths to explore.

William explains that he was intimidated by this new environment. First, from the cultural standpoint of being a Black kid in a predominantly White environment. But also because he automatically assumed the kids would be smarter than him. He might have been performing at a lower level but this was because he hadn’t received the attention that he needed to thrive not because he was less intelligent.

I’ve noticed from other programs like “Last Chance U” the number of kids who feel they aren’t smart and their only chance at success is playing a sport. There’s seemingly less effort made to help keep these academically underperforming kids on the track to college if they don’t play a sport. Yet, exposing them to other career paths could help them on their journey to becoming financially stable if not comfortably middle class.

I’m not sure about elsewhere in the world but it seems like within American society so much attention is devoted to athletes and entertainers. It gives a warped perception of fame. When you think of wealthy Black people you rarely hear the stories about non-famous people who achieved high levels of success through a normal profession. Black doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, accountants, etc. are not really represented in the media.

When you look at the White community, in addition to White athletes and celebrities, there are also examples of entrepreneurs and other professionals. Sure, racism plays a part in this discrepancy. But representation shows a wide array of ways to be successful in life.

Arthur mentions that at his old school whether or not he was performing well didn’t matter as long as he showed up to class. He’s now in an environment where he’s expected to do well in school and play basketball. There was some improvement in his academic performance, but why did he have to switch schools to do better?

What about the kids that don’t have a jump shot that allows them to go to a different school? What are the options for them? Are they then just stuck wallowing away in dirty schools that lack resources?

And then when Arthur is just getting settled at the new school, there’s drama over the payment of his tuition. The school got William a sponsor to help pay his way through high school. It’s unclear why they were able to find a sponsor for one but not the other. The family needs $1,500 for Arthur to continue and that’s not money to sneeze at. But was there no one else that could help this kid? It’s not stated but I felt like maybe they thought William had more potential so were more willing to invest in him.

I felt for Arthur’s dad and the family as they were going through various hardships. His father had difficulty holding on to jobs which made it hard to provide for the family’s basic needs let alone for Arthur to attend a private school. If you’re having a hard time just putting food on the table for the family how would you come up with this kind of money to send one kid to school? I could only imagine how Arthur’s parents felt knowing that he had this possibly great opportunity but they couldn’t afford the tuition.

Sheila voiced her feelings of being hurt at Arthur having to leave the school in the middle of the school year. And before leaving he missed classes for weeks during periods when his parents were behind on payments. It’s a private school and thus a business but that felt a little bit cold-blooded. I felt like they thought Arthur wasn’t as good as they needed him to be at that point so he served no further purpose.

Bo was laid off from various jobs and Sheila lost her job due to medical issues. And all of this is occurring amid Arthur’s tuition drama. Dealing with these hardships results in his parents breaking up after 20 years of marriage. During these hard times is when you need each other the most and should draw closer together. Arthur is dealing with problems at school but also at home. It was cool watching the kids play basketball but I ended up taking more of an interest in their lives outside of basketball.

The scene that’s most memorable to me is Arthur playing basketball on a local court when his dad comes around. The narrator mentions that since the changes in the family, Arthur hasn’t been seeing his father much. He is so proud to show off his moves on the court for his dad. Bo takes a moment to try a little layup and they play for a bit.

It’s a nice little moment between father and son and points to what their relationship was probably like during better times. But then the moment is interrupted by Bo forgetting all about the game and Arthur as he leaves to go and buy drugs. Addiction is a terrible disease.

The documentary follows the boys as they play basketball and shows their home lives. Yet, there’s a lot of commentary on things in their community that were going on at that time and even in the present. Here’s a family dealing with multiple difficulties back to back and those hardships break up the family. Putting aside their finances, at one point this seemed like a relatively stable two-parent home where the mom and dad loved each other.

The dad leaves the house and not just his wife but also to a degree the children. Parents can separate or divorce while both remain active in the lives of the kids. But in this case, because the dad is involved with drugs and his addiction is all-consuming, that’s his main priority and focus.

Arthur is becoming a teen and is going through or getting ready to go through a pretty difficult time in his life during which he needs his father to provide guidance. But Bo is spending far less time with Arthur and likely the other kids as well. He’s preoccupied with this other thing that’s taking up all of his time.

Williams’ older brother, Curtis, was also a great basketball player. There were very high hopes for him possibly being good enough to make it to the pros. But Curtis thought that he’d made it already and didn’t want to listen to anyone. Wanting to do his own thing and being difficult cut his career short and he didn’t go as far as he should have.

A lot of teens are immature and lack life experience. Yet, they go through a period in their lives where they think they know everything. I know, because I was there.

Curtis not having someone in his ear who could get through to him and offer guidance that he would take resulted in him missing his shot to do more with basketball. But who’s to say that he couldn’t have made it with something else? His brother William has hopes of using basketball to at least get to college and obtain an education even if he doesn’t make it to the NBA.

Likely because he saw what his brother went through, William sees the situation a bit more clearly. Sure, he dreams of being successful with basketball but is also aware of how quickly his circumstances can change. You get the sense that he’s not pinning all of his hopes and dreams for success on making it to the pros.

Curtis is now older and more mature. Regardless of what he might have been in the past, he isn’t prideful to the point of believing himself too good to work a regular job. He’s not rich or famous but is living a regular decent life on the right side of the law. That is commendable and he should be proud of himself.

Yet, as the story progresses it’s sad to hear Curtis discuss the mounting difficulties in his life. He humbles himself to work as a security guard instead of being bitter about his past aspirations. Curtis is working an honest job that allows him to support himself. Only to then find himself laid off and unemployed for months as he is unable to find a job let alone a job that pays a livable wage. It seems like he might have gotten through high school but didn’t finish college so his job prospects are limited.

Hoop Dreams is in part a movie about basketball. But because these boys and their families also have to live everything can’t be about basketball. Thus we get some insight into the economic and social changes of the time.

One of the moms (I believe Sheila) says that basketball is nice but it’s important for each one of her kids to get a high school diploma because that’s a big thing. But then you hear the coach at school say some of the kids are just satisfied with a high school diploma. And the reality was that given the changing times, they should have been pushing for more. In the years since even a four-year college degree doesn’t seem like enough.

At the same time, the kids face so many difficulties on the way to getting even a high school diploma that they aren’t thinking about college. There was a point in time when not having a high school diploma or only having a high school diploma was not a problem. Unskilled workers could still get a job, earn a decent salary, and support themselves and their families.

The adults have jobs or more accurately, they had jobs. There was a point where it sounds like they weren’t rich but they were making ends meet. With their jobs going away, it collapses their lives and threatens to collapse their families as well.

Arthur’s family is just one example. But what his family was going through concerning employment instability and poverty applies to many other families. His dad lost multiple jobs due to being laid off and he then left the family. His mom was also having a hard time remaining employed and had to turn to welfare. There are additional difficulties that occur when you’re living in a house with no electricity and don’t have money for food.

It’s an example of what was going on in a lot of households and communities. I’m sure they weren’t the only family in their neighborhood dealing with these issues. But zooming in humanizes these problems. These adult responsibilities and difficulties play a tremendous role in the pressure on these kids making it to the NBA.

Between training, practice, and actual games athletes put a lot of stress on their bodies. From a physical standpoint, you typically have to make it through high school and college before getting a shot at being drafted to a pro league. Imagine the number of injuries an athlete might incur over those eight years. And that’s before you’re even being paid to play the sport.

What happens if you suffer a career-ending injury? You’re fine with regular tasks but can no longer play the sport at a high level. You have lingering effects that will last the rest of your life. How are you going to pay the associated bills?

Consider Arthur, he looked great playing locally but got to this elite high school and they felt he wasn’t performing at the level that they needed and he wasn’t growing enough. For whatever reason, he wasn’t able to get the same level of support as William. And then William suffers an injury. The hope is that with surgery and rehab he will have a successful recovery and return to playing. But what if he can’t? What happens then?

By the age of 15 or 16, an athlete might have been playing their sport for about five to ten years. Having shown some degree of aptitude, this is what everyone’s been telling you is what you’re good at and your future. Only to reach your teens and higher levels of competition where you find your skills and ability don’t measure up.

What happens when this has been a major part of your identity, from the time you were a little kid? This was going to be your thing and your ticket out. What does this do to a person when this thing that made you special and gave you hope suddenly goes away? How is a teen supposed to deal with regular teen issues like finding themselves in addition to carrying the burden of these very adult expectations?

I understood Arthur’s mom not necessarily discouraging him but trying to reel him in a bit. Sheila let him know that it’s fine to have this dream of playing basketball but don’t tell yourself that this is the only thing that you can do. Don’t limit yourself to this being your one thing. But when you look at the amount of time that these kids are spending commuting to and from school, attending class, practicing, and basketball games how much time would they have for anything else?

We continue to see the progression of the boys’ lives as they move through high school and are approaching senior year. William is still struggling with his knee as well as other issues in his personal life. Having transferred back to a local school, Arthur is still struggling academically and being impacted by his family’s hardships.

Williams’ knee remains a problem and creates a conflict between what’s best for him versus what’s best for his basketball interests. The best thing for the team and his future as a prospect is to be out on the court playing so that they can increase their chances of getting to the state championship. Yet, what is personally best for him would be to sit out the rest of the season and let his knee properly heal. The decision is somewhat left up to him and he chooses to return to playing. Unfortunately, he ends up reinjuring the knee.

This comes on the heels of him having his first child, a little girl. I’m not doubting that he would be a good father and partner from an emotional and psychological standpoint as he seems to be a decent young man. But he is still in high school and it seems like his mother and brother are taking care of him (his father’s financial role is unclear). He doesn’t have a job or any real means of taking care of himself much less a child.

Kids need more than love, how are you going to provide for this child? And putting aside the financial aspect, his life, in general, is complicated enough. How are you going to deal with this additional responsibility? And so he and the child’s mother decided to keep this information from everyone until the baby was about to be born.

Arthur is struggling in school likely due in part to him not taking things seriously. He has a friend Shannon and I understand the camaraderie between the two of them. They’re in similar circumstances where they’re both having issues with their families so they get each other. Shannon shares that there was domestic violence within his home. His dad was abusing his mom and we find out that this was the case in Arthur’s home as well.

Bo had not only left the home and was using drugs, but he was also being physically violent with Sheila. He began stealing to support his habit which led to him spending some time in jail. I’m completely sympathetic to the stuff that he was going through. But while drugs can make you volatile, you’re still responsible for your actions.

Bo was probably depressed and feeling desperate because he lost these jobs and was now caught up with drugs. It tends to harm not only the user but also their loved ones. Many people use drugs in hopes of escaping their problems but it often just makes things worse.

Arthur is a teen trying to deal with the various problems that life is throwing at him. He’s not doing well in school but has a lot of potential with basketball. Recruiters and his coaches think he is a good player but there’s just something missing. Part of it might be that he has too much going on in his life and is distracted.

How are you doing homework if you don’t have lights at your house? There’s a scene where they’re making a meal. I don’t shame anyone for what they eat but the food was based on what they could cobble together and didn’t look like a well-balanced meal. How are you supposed to perform as an athlete if you’re not getting proper nutrition? How are you cooking if you don’t have gas or electricity at your house to use the stove?

He’s a teen dealing with all of this life stuff that most people will never have to consider. What are the odds that he will be able to manage all of that while also getting good grades and performing well on the court? I felt for Arthur because things might have gone differently if he had more stability and resources.

Arthur like many teens gets a summer job and works at Pizza Hut. Meanwhile, William is offered the opportunity to go to a Nike basketball summer camp.

I think it was one of the coaches or scouts who compared the camp to a meat market, an astute observation with which I agreed. You have all of these guys being made to line off and present themselves basically for inspection. They’re warned to not frown and be sure to smile as the scouts are watching. While the athletes play, the scouts are gathered on the sidelines commenting on their height, shape, and physical abilities.

Spike Lee was on it for the little bit of commentary he offered the guys while visiting the camp. He advised them to be aware of the reality of the situation. Under normal circumstances, if you weren’t playing basketball, these people would not care about you. And the only reason they care about you is that they see the potential to make money off of you.

These people do not have any great love or consideration for you and your future. They want something from you so make sure that you’re getting something for it in return. That’s an honest assessment of what’s going on.

William gave a good showing at the camp until his knee started bothering him again. And in that split moment, the coaches and recruiters begin having doubts. William had been receiving letters and offers from colleges and is now having home visits from recruiters. These schools were so excited about him but a minor setback with his knee and some are now lukewarm.

Instead of them proceeding with the scouting and building this relationship they decided to take a wait-and-see approach. That lets you know where things stand. These schools will sell you all kinds of dreams but pull back the moment there’s even the hint of a problem.

That should let you know what they think about you and how they supposedly value you. You’re only valuable if you can make money. This is a business and all of these factors are things that you need to keep at the back of your mind. If they’re going to use you make sure you get something out of this. Before you even worry about getting to the pros make sure there are provisions to guarantee that at the very least you get a degree out of the process.

A recruiter from Marquette University explains to William that they are willing to offer him a four-year scholarship. William wisely asks if the scholarship is dependent on him playing basketball. To which the recruiter explained that any decent school would offer him a four-year scholarship but some might try to be shady by offering him a one-year scholarship that they assess on a year-by-year basis. He advised William to choose a situation that would benefit him long-term.

That’s incredibly honest advice and something that student-athletes need to have in mind. You need to have a plan and you need to have a backup plan. Know what you’re really in this for and what this situation is really about. These people are not courting you out of some great love or admiration for you as a person, it’s all about what you can do for their school and more specifically for their team. Don’t get it twisted.

In light of everything going on, I was proud of Sheila for sticking with her aspirations to become a nurse’s assistant. She was going through it but still found the time, dedication, and the drive to push herself. She mentioned that she previously had a desire to become a registered nurse but didn’t go into details about what happened. Life probably just happened.

She should serve as an incredible example to Arthur and the other kids. To everyone really. Even amid adversity you can still push and strive toward your goals. Hopefully, completing this program opened up new career options and helped her get a new job.

I did find it quite telling that William’s dad had been gone from the family home since he was a baby. And at one point he’d gone three years without seeing his father. Now suddenly his dad pops back up and wants to spend time with him. William is a kid and will make some mistakes but I like how perceptive he is. He’s able to look at what’s going on and figure out people’s true motives.

The situation of him missing the birth of his first child because the team was in the championship was off. Having children requires being there for them. What could be a more momentous occasion in a child’s life? It’s a life moment for which he should have been present. Regardless of the length of your career as an amateur and/or pro, your child will be your child for longer.

That speaks to how things are valued. You have this knee injury and many schools are no longer interested in him. I understood the insecurity about his future and his feeling like he had to play in the game to put on a good show.

William mentions seeking advice from his coach about some issues with his daughter’s mother’s family. What he needed was his dad in the sense of a responsible man who cares about him and that he could go to for advice. He reached out for help but the coach didn’t have much to say to him.

It’s kind of cold but the coach is there to coach him and seems to take no real personal interest in him outside of basketball. Who wouldn’t have at least a word or two to say to a young person dealing with difficulties, regardless of whatever they might be. That should give some indication that is a business relationship. This coach is not going to be your quasi-dad. He’s interested in you helping his team win a championship and in exchange he’ll try to help you get to the next level in your amateur career.

Maybe the honesty of his approach is best in comparison to some of these coaches who play a father figure role in the lives of their athletes. They play up the I’m here and I care for you dynamic. Yet, it probably hurts the players in the long run if they fall off and all of that care and consideration go away.

Some athletes make it to the pros and have successful careers. But because their entire life has been wrapped up in their sport, they retire and have no idea what to do with themselves. They have no idea who they are outside of the sport. Let’s say an athlete plays for 10 to 20 years and retires in their 30s. The average person lives until the age of 70 or 80 years old. What are you going to do with the rest of your life if you’ve just been fixated on this sport since you were 5 or 10 years old?

I was so happy to see them along their journey. They began as these boys playing basketball and by the end, they were young men. I was incredibly proud to see William go off to college you would have thought that he was my family member. Getting through college would likely be a challenge but the point is that he made it there.

Whether or not they made it to the league wasn’t the most important thing. I was more concerned with them getting an advanced education that would allow them to obtain jobs if needed. This would increase the likelihood that they’d be able to support themselves and their future families.

Using this skill to create more opportunities for yourself and to create a better life for yourself is incredible. It’s a great opportunity to see that there’s more out there beyond the limitations of your community. Having options for going on and doing something with your life is what I saw as being most important. I was incredibly happy for Arthur and William watching the families gather to see them off to college. It was heartwarming, especially knowing everything that they had been through.

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