#273) Hoop Dreams (1994)


#273) Hoop Dreams (1994)

OR “Rebound for Glory”

Directed by Steve James

Written by James and Frederick Marx

Class of 2005

The Plot: William Gates and Arthur Agee are two African-American teenagers from inner-city Chicago with dreams of playing professional basketball. Both are recruited by the predominantly white St. Joseph High School: William on the varsity team, Arthur on the freshman team. William excels initially, thanks to encouragement from his mother Emma and brother Curtis (a former NBA hopeful himself) as well as the coaching of Gene Pingatore, but a knee injury causes him to falter athletically and academically. Arthur is unable to continue at St. Joseph following some financial hardships for his parents Sheila and Bo, but blossoms once he is transferred to John Marshall High. All of this, however, just scratches the surface of a movie that examines socio and economic struggles, race-relations, and the price that comes with dreaming big.

Why It Matters: The NFR can’t throw enough superlatives at “Hoop Dreams”: “groundbreaking”, “intimate and comprehensive”, “complex and ultimately rewarding”.

But Does It Really?: Okay you got me: “Hoop Dreams” is amazing. I can’t remember the last time I was so moved by a documentary. “Hoop Dreams” is an emotionally draining ride, but man is it worth it. Almost instantly I was rooting for William and Arthur, and I watched them literally grow up before my eyes. When done correctly, documentaries are an exhilarating amplification of life: the victories are sweeter and the setbacks more discouraging, because we know it’s real and it can happen to anyone. The world of “Hoop Dreams” is fueled by the kind of hope and sheer determination that we all strive for in the face of everyday adversity. And any movie that can bring all of that out is unquestionably worthy of preservation.

Shout Outs:  Arthur listens to “Turn Off the Radio”, which samples dialogue from “Do the Right Thing”.

Everybody Gets One: Born in Virginia, Steve James went to school at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Most of James’ films deal with the Chicago area and its economic and class struggles. “Hoop Dreams” was originally intended to be a half hour PBS special, but James realized this was a larger story, and filmed over 250 hours of footage over the course of five years.

Take a Shot: I was not expecting this film to have a title song. But then again, I don’t expect that from any documentary on this list.

Seriously, Oscars?: Settle in: this movie’s the reason I have a “Seriously, Oscars?” section.

“Hoop Dreams” was a hit with both critics and audiences in 1994. It was named the #1 film of the year by both Siskel and Ebert, and was a shoo-in to win Best Documentary at the Oscars, possibly even receiving a Best Picture nod. The film garnered one nomination: for Editing. The uproar over the film’s omission from Best Documentary was unprecedented, and the Academy launched an investigation. The results were disheartening to say the least. Most of the voters for Best Documentary would turn off “Hoop Dreams” (and countless other documentaries) during screenings because they had lost interest. These voters also skewed the rankings to purposefully bump “Hoop Dreams” down to sixth place. This investigation led to a complete overhaul of the Documentary Branch and the nomination process.

For the curious, “Hoop Dreams” lost Editing to “Forrest Gump”, while Best Documentary went to “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision”. Steve James wouldn’t be nominated in the Documentary category until 2018 with “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”.

Other notes

  • This film covers a lot of topics I am vastly under-qualified to tackle. But I will ask this: how much pressure is too much pressure? A little bit can be a good motivator, but we as a culture put a lot a pressure on our athletes, both amateur and professional. William’s story is a good example of being pushed a little too far in pursuit of your dream.
  • Allegedly, Oscar voters turned off “Hoop Dreams” about 15 minutes in. Who hurt you?
  • Gene Pingatore is an Al Pacino HBO movie waiting to happen. Just slap on some of that Big Boy Caprice makeup and he’s ready to go.
  • I don’t follow basketball, but I am on the edge of my seat watching these games. I have never been more emotionally invested in a sporting event, and it’s from 30 years ago!
  • When did we decide ass-slapping our athletes was okay?
  • After being laid off from them, Bo Agee may be the first person in history that doesn’t like Sara Lee.
  • Arthur is sporting the Dwayne Wayne flip-up sunglasses! I thought those were so cool when I was a kid!
  • Why would you continue to deal drugs when you know there’s a camera crew nearby?
  • And now some detailed footage of William’s knee surgery. It makes the operation in “All That Jazz” look like a makeup tutorial.
  • Wow, this Nike All-American Camp is bringing out the big guns. Dick Vitale! Bobby Knight! Spike Lee! Wait, Spike Lee? I guess being a lifelong Knicks fan qualifies you to speak at these things.
  • Everyone please stop saying “blacks”! It’s the PC ‘90s, the phrase “African-American” definitely was a thing back now!
  • Sheila’s graduation from the nursing program is the moment that finally brought me to tears.
  • Do William and Arthur not share any screen time? When did this become “Heat”?


  • St. Joseph sued the makers of “Hoop Dreams”, expecting the film to be a non-profit TV program, not a for-profit feature. The Hoop Dreams Fund was launched at St. Joseph as part of the settlement, and continued through 2009.
  • In 1999, Roger Ebert named “Hoop Dreams” the best film of the decade. Steve James returned the compliment by directing the 2014 Ebert documentary “Life Itself”, a title taken from Ebert’s initial “Hoop Dreams” review.
  • Gene Pingatore is still coaching at St. Joseph after 48 years. He recently coached his 1,000th winning game, the first basketball coach in Illinois to do so.
  • Arthur Agee played basketball at Arkansas State for two years, but turned down a chance to play with the Connecticut Pride, opting instead to appear in the movie “Passing Glory”, directed by Steve James! Agee is also the subject of the 2007 documentary “Hoop Reality”, examining his life in the decade since “Hoop Dreams” was released.
  • William Gates graduated from Marquette with a communications degree. Although he never played professional basketball, he did train with Michael Jordan for his 2001 comeback. Gates’ son, William Gates Jr., received a basketball scholarship from Furman University. Sequel?

3 thoughts on “#273) Hoop Dreams (1994)”

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