Hoop Dreams wades deep into the murky waters that surround basketball recruiting from high school to college. As Spike Lee informs a group of players at a basketball camp, they are a commodity to the recruiters and will only be valued as long as they are useful. To make it, in fact, a player has to be more than good or even great. They need to be aggressive, subservient to overbearing coaches, exceed academically, and be oblivious to life outside of basketball. It also helps to have a supportive family that is willing to sacrifice money, time, and personal needs to make sure you make it. That such devotion is a perversion of human nature, or that it coldly leaves the less than perfect behind, is beside the point. That’s the way it is.
One of the fascinating aspects of Hoop Dreams is the way it spontaneously unfolds, the viewer never quite sure what will happen next. The film follows two young basketball players, Arthur and William, at home, at school, and on the basketball court. The filmmakers have chosen two players who may go far, but no one can be sure. Director Steve James expresses a certain faith, nonetheless, that an interesting and meaningful story will develop. This approach gives the film an open structure: although the film stops when Arthur and William finish high school, it could have easily followed them through college and beyond.
The casual unfolding of the film also helps James achieve a great deal of depth, building layer after layer of meaning. Arthur attends St. Joseph’s High School on a partial scholarship, a school that offers him a better opportunity to develop as a ball player. Soon, however, his family can no longer afford even partial payments and Arthur is sent back to his neighborhood school. The viewer, at this point, probably makes a moral judgment about schools that toy with the lives of athletes when it is in their interest, only to drop them when it isn’t. This state of affairs, however, becomes cloudier due to the complications within Arthur’s family. His father leaves, and only later do we find out that he has developed a drug habit, explaining the lack of funds for St. Joseph’s. This comes as a surprise because the father is well-spoken, and seems to accurately understand the difficulty of his son’s potential success. This layering of meanings shatters stereotypes and assumptions.
While William’s family situation seems more stable, it is far from uncomplicated. His father, a car dealer who has left his family, attempts to renew his relationship with William in the wake of his success. His older brother, once a basketball player with potential, has taken the role of father and advice giver upon himself. His endless admonishments and recriminations toward William become overbearing, but he remains sympathetic because of his own dire plight. Basketball, his one hope to reach beyond his immediate environment, has left him psychologically scarred, and he now seems destined to live out a life filled with dead-end jobs. William, perhaps because of the pressures from those around him, seems to continually underachieve, perhaps afraid of risking too much, failing, and becoming a carbon copy of his brother.
Hoop Dreams lasts for three hours but it is doubtful that the viewer will notice the length. Instead, having developed strong ties to Arthur and William, viewers will probably find themselves wishing they could follow both young men into adulthood. This doesn’t mean that the viewer enjoys everything that happens in the film. The viewer would like both men to succeed, but their social handicaps and the cutthroat tactics of recruiting tinge the dream with dark shadows. Hoop Dreams is a complex film that deeply explores the hopes and pitfalls of inner-city life, leaving the viewer with a number of troubling questions about the future of thousands of young men like Arthur and William.
Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
Peter Gilbert—Producer/ Cinematography
Gordon Quinn—Executive Producer
Catherine Allan—Executive Producer
Ben Sidran—Music Composer