A million kids, most of them black, are the uncontested basketball stars of their playground. Then they get to high school and find they are just one of many talented hoopsters. The best of these are enrolled in — really, hired as unpaid workers by — colleges and universities, where everyone on the team, including the bench sitters, used to be a phenom. And of this huge number of dreamers, pushing themselves to excel and often ignoring the studies that would win them a degree and a chance at a good job off the court, only a couple of dozen each year make their mark in the NBA. The other 99.9%: they’re the ones Steve James’ documentary Hoop Dreams is about.
At 14, William Gates and Arthur Agee are sports heroes and working stiffs — magicians on the high school basketball court who stagger under the burden of producing wins (and glory and revenue) for the Chicago high schools that have accepted them simply because they can play roundball. Imported from the projects to private academies, William and Arthur can make poetry of a jump shot, but to them algebra looks like Chinese. When they get on the court, they must perform under pressures that would break most adults. And there’s no do-gooder white lady to protect their blind side.
Hoop Dreams, which earned $8 million at the box office (more than $20 million at today’s ticket prices), won a slew of critics’ awards but was robbed by the Motion Picture Academy’s Oscar-nominating committee — the movie equivalent of NBA coaches’ telling LeBron James, “You’re not good enough to play in our league.” Well, no matter; in movies, quality trumps hardware. James and his colleagues Fred Marx and Peter Gilbert produced a docu-classic: an epic of love, betrayal, heartbreak, true grit.