Hoop Dreams (1994)
Directed by Steve James
Since the first African people were captured, sold through European markets, and forcibly transported to “The New World,” Black bodies have been commodified by white supremacy. African people were not the first slaves, but their subjugation under the institution of chattel slavery is a defining aspect of humanity in the Western world. To pretend that it “was a long time ago,” that we live in a “post-racial world” or any other white copium is just that. It’s a complete dismissal of material facts and accurate historical analysis. Today, Black people are still seen as white commodities in capitalism’s gaze. Instead of working the fields of cotton plantations, American society works Black men as gladiator figures, tossing them in arenas to destroy their bodies and damage their brains for our entertainment. The thought of what these men will do when natural aging & physical strain catch up to them is not even contemplated by most people.
Steve James set out to make a thirty-minute film for PBS about recruiting high school basketball players in Chicago. That turned into five years of filming and 250 hours of footage. Hoop Dreams is the story of two young men: William Gates and Arthur Agee. When the film starts, both are recruited to play for St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois, an upper-middle-class suburb outside of the city. Both young men come from impoverished backgrounds, which is seen as a rare opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty. But, of course, with all promises from wealthy white people, it is rife with lies & what does happen is that these two people are exploited until they are no more use to those in power.
St. Joseph’s claim to fame is that NBA superstar Isiah Thomas went there. This is a huge selling point for Arthur because Thomas is one of his idols. Unfortunately, the golden promise of this chance fades quickly for Arthur starting with the 90-minute commute both ways. St. Joseph’s provides zero transportation options as it is a private school and, therefore, is not legally obligated to do so. Tuition becomes another hurdle, with Arthur’s family getting so behind on payments that the school administration will only allow him to come to school once a considerable & unrealistic percentage is paid off.
It doesn’t help that Arthur’s father, Arthur Senior, is living in the wake of his own perceived ambitions of being a successful basketballer while also struggling with drug addiction. Senior disappears and reappears in his family’s lives multiple times throughout the filming. He doesn’t come across as a dummy, able to clearly talk about the complex emotions surrounding his own athletic career. Yet, Senior is also a transparent liar, pretending to be a dutiful father and drawing glares from his son. There’s a particularly interesting basketball match between the two near the end of Arthur’s high school career where age has caught up to the old man. It is quite cathartic to see this young man put his very arrogant father in his place, something Arthur’s mother cheers on. We see signs of physical abuse from Senior in her black eye and a missing tooth.
Arthur settles at John Marshall, a public high school close to his home in West Garfield Park. He doesn’t play his best at first and becomes friends with a guy who ends up going down a destructive path. Arthur turns it around and becomes part of an underdog team that tears through the city championships, securing a third-place finish. Arthur and his teammates celebrate the hell out of this as they weren’t expected to get much further than the first round. This moment of high school glory shines bright for a moment before the real world comes back into the picture. Arthur takes a scholarship to Mineral Area College, a 2-year institution in Missouri, with the idea he’ll transfer to a bigger school and maybe the NBA one day.
William’s story was the most fascinating to me because he is a young Black man trying to play by the white institutions’ rules. Eventually, the scales fall away, and he makes his life his own in surprising ways. Williams stayed with St. Joseph for all four high school years and became the smug coach Gene Pingatore’s jewel. This doesn’t stop Pingatore from blaming William for not single-handedly carrying the team through the city championships, something they have won year in and out. William’s rancor for this self-imposed father figure is palpable, especially in their final conversation post-senior season. William can barely hold back how much he despises this pompous ass as Pingatore tries to impart “wisdom” and promises they will “always stay in touch.” You can see how much William believes that.
Like Arthur, William has a man who is still nursing bruises from their failed athletic dreams. His brother Curtis carries a massive chip on his shoulder and is constantly lost in “woulda shoulda coulda” in front of the cameras. Despite that, Curtis is the voice of reason when, during the second round of city playoffs, Pingatore benches William as punishment for showing up a few minutes late to the game. Curtis points out that this game is not the moment you choose to teach a student a lesson about punctuality when Wiliam travels further than many of his peers at St. Joseph’s. If anything, benching William is a way in which Pingatore reminds this young Black man who he is in the hierarchy of white hegemony. St. Joseph’s loses this game, and of course, William is given the brunt of the blame, the expectation of white institutions to be supported by Black people they give no authentic support to when it doesn’t benefit them.
William ends up fathering a child near the end of high school. He and the mother are on good terms and pursuing a relationship not simply centered on the child’s presence. William gets an incredible offer from Marquette University. He attends a Nike-sponsored camp for prospective athletes at Princeton and is not very impressed by the fickle nature of the people in charge. After some struggles with the ACT, William raises his score right to the threshold needed to get a four-year full-ride at Marquette. They even tell William that if he doesn’t choose to continue with the basketball program, everything is still covered for him. It’s the best deal he’s likely to get, and William takes it. That doesn’t stop Pingatore from expressing his disappointment that William didn’t hold out for a more prestigious school because all this coach cares about is his bragging rights, as seen in the way he can’t stop talking about having coached Isaiah Thomas.
Hoop Dreams is the tiniest of slices of a system that crushes Black people daily. As a public school teacher, I met many elementary-aged Black boys with their hearts set on professional athletics as their path out of poverty. Many of their parents held the same belief because the avenues provided to Black people are narrow under white hegemony. The only way to hold onto your Blackness is to become an athlete and hope you get picked out of the crowd. But, if you go for white collar or work in the professional class, you are expected to erase the elements of your culture to conform to white standards. Like many of the documentaries in this series, Hoop Dreams is yet another close-up view of the ways capitalism & American institutions consume people like products. The husks left behind are discarded like so much trash. And we wonder why today, American society is crumbling before our eyes. The signs have been there since long before we entered the system.
I think it is important to point out that in both this film & Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, there is a crucial lackey on the ground, getting his hands dirty by exploiting & harming Black people who are also Black. In Roger & Me, it’s a man acting as a police officer and issuing eviction notices to Black families who have fallen behind on bills due to the closure of the General Motors factory. In Hoop Dreams, we have “Big Earl” Smith, a Black man in the employ of St. Joseph’s, rounding up potential players in places like Cabrini-Green. White supremacy will not hesitate to pit Black people against each other in this fashion. It adds just that extra layer of cruelty and creates cover for exploitation. Smith is just a “grandfatherly Black man” looking out for these kids’ “best interests” when he serves the meat grinder of St. Joseph’s basketball machine.
I was curious about what happened to William and Arthur post-Hoop Dreams and found some information. William played 80 games for Marquette and dropped from the basketball team after his third season. He graduated with a degree in communications. He followed that by getting a Bible degree from Moody University, and now his eldest son is a star basketball player with a full scholarship to Furman University in South Carolina. William worked in a faith outreach program in his home of Cabrini-Green and eventually relocated his family to San Antonio, Texas. The relationship between Black people and white American Christianity is another thing to unpack, so we shall leave it there for now. Arthur eventually transferred to Arkansas State on scholarship and played Division I ball. He never made it to the NBA. Arthur turned down an offer from the Continental Basketball Association and took a role in the film Passing Glory, directed by Hoop Dreams’ Steve James. Arthur Senior was shot & killed by a robber in 2004, another statistic in Chicago’s ongoing poverty-fueled violence epidemic. William & Arthur have both reconnected with Steve James, where both Black (now middle-aged) men share stories of other people fighting to survive across multiple industries.
Hoop Dreams remains evidence of the many ways Black exploitation happens all the time while showing us the strength of these men to make something of their lives juxtaposed against a system that has little value for them.