Hoop Dreams (1994)- a poignant American documentary that chronicles five years of two teenagers from inner-city Chicago who dream of becoming professional basketball players.
On one mundane evening at University of Illinois, I found myself talking to an archetype African-American – burly, menacingly tall, sporting a braided hairdo. I was collaborating with him on a term paper for one of the required humanities classes. I learnt he was a college basketball player who was having trouble coping with academics. It was not difficult to understand how he would have got admitted. I had heard of that category before, mostly in grumbling, condescending breaths back in India – sports quota. I also learnt he was a communications major, a degree that prepares you for, in a parochial engineer’s lexicon – nothing. So I wanted to know his future plans. He told me he wanted to be a sports coach. I cast a furtive glance at him – he was about to graduate in a couple of months, four years earlier, he would have dreamt of being drafted into the NBA. With that dream flagging, he still wanted to grasp remnants of it. I forgot about him soon, but that evening visited me again, moments after I finished watching Hoop Dreams, a documentary that chronicles five years of two adolescent African-American NBA aspirants – William and Arthur.
Most great movies transcend their basic subject matter to unfold something rich and textured; similarly, Hoop Dreams is also just not about basketball and the boys’ aspirations. With a running time of 171 minutes, it reveals a lot about the American life. A majority may choose to call it a lesser lived American life. The ghetto where both the families live forms the movie’s backdrop and the reason for primary tension. The options to get out from the ghetto are minimal. In India, entrance exams are a potent ticket to bridge the social and economic inequity, in ghettos of Chicago, that panacea is making it to the professional basketball league. It is scary, the very thought, that the schism in making it to the NBA and not making it, is huge. It is quite a telling divide, either earning millions every year or languishing in the hoods – aspiring to earn minimum wage, if not already consumed by petty crimes or drug addiction. This social condition elevates basketball from being a mere game to becoming a symbol — harbinger of everything roseate. And it is common knowledge, how breaking into any professional sports is difficult. So, it feels scary when Arthur’s dad says, in one of his unusually somber moments, “I don’t even think about it, you know, if he don’t make it. You know, cause I am so…you know, I am so focusing on him making it. I just know he will make it.”
Both William and Arthur are given scholarships to attend St. Joseph High School, an uptown school that nurtured the renowned basketball player, Isiah Thomas. At St. Joseph High School boys’ milieu spring up as a major deterrent. Both the boys are sub-par in academics (both of them have a reading level of a fourth grader, while they are studying in ninth grade), and a respectable transcript is required to keep that scholarship. The school consists of predominantly white students, a different world that takes some time getting adapted to, especially for Arthur. It is here that they meet the school’s basketball coach, Pingatore – a fastidious teacher who is abrasive, insouciant and exacting most of the times. At St. Joseph, William begins climbing up the ladder, while Arthur struggles. In his sophomore year, his scholarship is cut off, sending him back to hood.
In a documentary, the relationship between a camera and the characters is profound. The characters open up in the hope of an implicit relationship that the camera would know its boundaries. While watching Hoop Dreams, I was disconcerted a few times, when the camera zoomed in to William’s or Arthur’s face and tried to milk their pathos, or a melodramatic music faithfully followed after one of the more dispiriting revelations by the characters about their lives. The camera in Hoop Dreams is guilty of that intrusion at times, but thankfully, this breach is more of an aberration than a rule.
The stories of William and Arthur’s family members are equally significant, because they say a lot about what would happen if the boys fail to make it. And it is not a pretty picture. We learn that Arthur Sr. (Arthur’s dad) is a conman who embroils himself in drug addiction and leaves the family. In what is one of the best scenes of the movie, Arthur Sr. comes back to visit his son and plays a game of basketball with him. Midway through the game, he veers to possibly negotiate a drug deal with someone standing at the edge of the court. The camera sees everything, and so does his son. Arthur’s mother’s story is so poignant that it could be a subject of a separate documentary alone — of a single mother demonstrating steely resolve to wade through abject poverty and nurturing a son who may or may not strike gold. On the other hand, the camera follows William going to meet his father once. As many times he met his dad in real life as he did on camera. We learn through newspaper clips that Curtis (William’s elder brother) was once as promising a basketball player as his younger brother is now. When Curtis looks at the camera, and says with a deadpan face, “All the basketball dreams I have are gone. All my dreams are in him. I want him to make it so bad I don’t know what to do,” you don’t know what to do with that snippet of information. Curtis’s academic incompetence robbed him of a chance to go to a renowned university. He works as a security guard, but soon loses that job too. And in another poignant moment, he tells the camera, “I find it tough to even get a job that pays me 7 dollars an hour.”
Both William and Arthur make for fascinating protagonists because besides their gut wrenching struggle, they are essentially teenagers who are still growing up and learning the truth. William, seemingly the more assured of the two, has a charming smile which manages to conceal more than reveal. In comparison, Arthur comes across as more frivolous, frequently choosing to evade his eyes from the camera while recounting. But in a scene, we see him confronting his dad who is supposedly cheating in a basketball game, “No con game going on anymore, Dad.” It is not difficult to realize that he is not talking just about the basketball game. We suddenly realize that Arthur has grown up. Not out of his own volition, but he had no other option.
For the majority who were crying hoarse on Slumdog Millionaire being poverty porn, and how Americans are enthralled with anything to do with lesser lives but turn timid on delineating their own pauper lives, Hoop Dreams is their own Slumdog Millionaire. As the movie draws to a close, you quit worrying whether Arthur or William will make it or not, contrary to conventional anticipation to any other sports movie. Because for many people who make it, there are countless others who don’t. And talent has nothing to do with it. It is strange, how in bigger machinations of life, sometimes talent can languish on the periphery. Hoop Dreams understands and respects this vagary.