The Stuff of Dreams

updated 04/03/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/03/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

EVERYONE WHO SHOOTS HOOPS ON the playgrounds of Chicago's gritty inner city knows which kids are golden. Sure, most won't get the chance to become another Isiah Thomas, the West Side neighborhood hero who went on to stardom with the Detroit Pistons. But they all can dream.

And in 1987 two ninth-graders had reason to dream: Arthur Agee, all arms, legs and speed, and William Gates, a quiet kid who moved like silk. "Playing in the NBA," Gates told a friend back then, "is something I think about all the time."

Today, though, Agee and Gates are stars of a different kind—subjects of the extraordinary documentary Hoop Dreams. The 2-hour, 51-minute film follows them for 4 ½ years—from 1987 when they are recruited to play for mostly white St. Joseph High School, through their on-and off-court struggles to leave the ghetto and find the good life.

Made by Chicago filmmakers Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx, the movie has grossed more than $6 million since its Oct. 14 release—blockbuster numbers for a documentary—and was considered a sure bet for an Oscar nomination. Yet when Best Documentary contenders were announced in February, Hoop Dreams was ignored, and critics were outraged. Says Pulitzer Prize-winning Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times: "It was clear to me there was a major miscarriage of fairness and justice."

In the brouhaha that ensued, more than 200 filmmakers, including Woody Allen and Robert Redford, signed petitions demanding that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences overhaul its nominating procedures in the documentary category. At issue is the Academy's reliance on a panel of 47 mostly retired Academy members, including several in their 90s. In other categories, experts in each field vote for the nominees.

Hoop Dreams began inauspiciously as a low-budget, half-hour PBS documentary about street-basketball hopefuls. The filmmakers realized it might be something more, says director Steve James, 40, when he, Gilbert, 38, and Marx, 39, accompanied 14-year-old Agee to a basketball camp run by St. Joseph's coach Gene Pingatore. "It wasn't Arthur's skills that captivated us," says James. "It was his smile and naïveté." Pingatore also told them about a brilliant 15-year-old prospect, William Gates. "I was expecting a cocky ballplayer," James says. "Instead he was this quiet, shy, articulate kid."

In the Cabrini-Green housing project where Gates grew up, he was considered a superstar in the making. The youngest of six children born to Emma Gates, 51, a nurse's aide, and William Crawford, 56, a garage mechanic, he had been driven relentlessly by his older brother Curtis. A onetime high school star, Curtis had been dubbed the Player of the Decade at Colby Community College in Kansas before quitting the game after a clash with a coach.

The film traces Gates's years at St. Joseph High, where he at first excels, then injures his knee, then finally triumphs by earning a full athletic scholarship to Marquette University in Milwaukee. By the movie's end, he has said goodbye to Catherine Mines, his high school sweetheart, and their baby daughter Alicia, and is heading for college.

After the cameras stopped rolling, though, Gates struggled both academically and athletically at Marquette, and soon began feeling isolated at the overwhelmingly white, Jesuit-run university. ("You're going to feel out of place here if you're an African-American," he says now.) By the summer of 1993, he had married Mines, who transferred from Northern Illinois University to be with him; they now share his three-bedroom tri-level apartment with her and Alicia, now 6.

Soon the pressure of his studies, family responsibilities and sports began to mount, and Gates began rethinking his priorities. "I began to dread [basketball]. I used to come home from practice with headaches," says Gates, who eventually quit the team. In the end, the break proved invaluable. With time to study, "one of the things that Will found was that he actually enjoyed school," says Tom Ford, his academic adviser. "He's been a successful student ever since."

Last October, Gates attended the New York City premiere of Hoop Dreams, where he and Agee received a 10-minute standing ovation. "After the movie, I knew I wanted to play again," he says. "I felt I owed myself one last hurrah." Returning to the basketball lineup this year—for the first time as a reserve—Gates, who has become a minor celebrity on campus, has been averaging 10 minutes and 2.28 points a game. The dreams of NBA glory may be gone, but he has no regrets. "I got an education here," says Gates, a communications major. "I'm happy with that."

In December he will graduate as planned, and he says he has job offers in communications as a result of the film. His first payday may come as early as this summer when he and Agee expect to start work as consultants to director Spike Lee on a TV drama based on Hoop Dreams for a Turner network.

If Gates was the golden boy of St. Joe, Arthur Agee was the public school scrapper. The oldest of three, he is the son of Sheila Agee, 42, a rehabilitation technician, and Arthur "Bo" Agee Sr., 43, an unemployed construction worker with a drug past and a record of petty crime. "I always felt I was the underdog," says Agee. During the nearly five years it took to film the movie, the elder Agee landed in jail for burglary and battery, the family landed on welfare, and Arthur was forced to leave St. Joseph. (This was in part for lack of the partial-tuition money they owed, in part for poor grades and also because, as Agee says onscreen, he was too small.)

Yet Agee, too, rises to the occasion, and by the end of Hoop Dreams he has won a scholarship to Mineral Area Junior College in rural Park Hills, Mo. Two years ago he transferred to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Ark., where he led the Indians to an 8-20 record. This year, the 6'2" Agee just might see his own hoop dreams fulfilled with a U.S. pro team. "I'm not saying he's ready for the NBA," says Arkansas State coach Nelson Catalina, "but I think there will be some people interested in Arthur."

There are other options too. Though still a lackluster student (he has a 2.3 average), Agee has majored in radio and TV and vows, "I'm not going to school for four years and not get my degree." Like Gates, though, Agee has family obligations. Since Hoop Dreams, he has fathered two out-of-wedlock children—Anthony, 3, who often stays with Agee's parents back in Chicago, and Ashley, 2, who lives with her mother, Edonnya Merritt, also in Chicago. (Of his current involvements, Agee says simply, "I date, but I let them know I'm not looking for a committed relationship.")

If he and Gates have been changed by the experience of Hoop Dreams, so too have filmmakers James, Gilbert and Marx. "We developed relationships with [the Gates and Agee families] that went beyond making the film," says James. "The boundaries between being filmmakers and friends were crossed." He remembers being torn, as a documentarian, when the Agees' electricity and gas were cut off in the fall of 1989. Although reluctant to alter the normal flow of family life, "we felt we needed to help them," says James, who with his collaborators gave the Agees several hundred dollars. "We tried to not think of them just as subjects, but as friends. That's one reason the film has the power and intimacy it does."

James now says that he and his partners are working with the NCAA to see if the Gates and Agee families can be compensated when the players graduate. In the meantime he hopes that viewers will see the film as more than just a look at the business of sports. "These boys' futures are bright," he notes. "They have an opportunity to walk out of school and into great jobs."

Or, as Gates himself says, "after we're done here, some things are going to happen for us."

LUCHINA FISHER in Chicago
KAREN BRAILSFORD in Los Angeles

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