When I was younger, I had a hoop dream. My life-long love affair with the game of basketball started in 4th grade in the driveway of my neighbor Steven Davis. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first time I had actively tried to play the game; sure, there had been times in gym or during recess at school that I had flirted with the sport, but I had no earthly idea what I was doing. I do remember being rather embarrassed that everything I did involving movement resulted in my forfeiting the rock over to the other team or whomever was lucky enough to be playing me one-on-one. What the hell was traveling, I thought. Ditto for double dribbling. This pastime that I had been aware of only peripherally seemed more complicated than it should be.
Before too long, I was obsessed. Basketball had seeped into my consciousness in a way that, later in life, only film would be able to eclipse. If I was hanging out at the mall with friends, I was secretly coveting the new pair of Jordans, Barkleys, or Webbers (but never Ewings, those shoes were NAS-TAY) that were displayed in the front window at Foot Locker; I would hang out next to the jersey racks in Champs with the hope that a family member or some benevolent stranger would buy me that Jalen Rose, Denver Nuggets jersey I had my eye on (thanks Mom & Dad!), and I was even lucky enough to be so obsessed with basketball card collecting, that my Dad saw it as a bonding opportunity (it was) and willingly shuttled me to flea markets and card shops in the surrounding area, both of us being overwhelmingly giddy at the prospect of finding that last Michael Jordan insert card that had eluded us until that point.
Oh, I had grown into a pretty solid basketball player as well. I was told I had won the genetic lottery* and since I towered over most kids my age, it seemed their assessment was legitimate. I played in the best pickup games the school I attended had to offer and felt that my game improved on a daily basis. On average, I played ball around 4 hours a day; in the summer, this number probably doubled. My neighborhood friends and I regularly scheduled tournaments that would last until the street lights flickered and dusk settled in on another day. All my hard work started to pay off my freshman year, an AAU invite had come my way and elation instantaneously set in. Later that week I found out my family was moving to Asheville, making it rather hard for me to accept my long-awaited prize. Moving at any time is hard for a kid of 15 what with the loss of friends but this was the icing on the cake; I knew I would have to prove myself all over again.
For most high school athletes, there comes a time or situation in which you realize you aren’t as good as you think you are, that the dream you have had for a majority of your childhood, to play the professional sport of your choice, isn’t going to come to fruition. I was no different but I like to think that mine had a splash of irony that others’ situations may have been lacking. In high school, I was accepted into North Carolina basketball school, a week-long program where I would get to stay on the campus, play with athletes from all over the country, and meet current and former Carolina legends. I even got to play one on one with an all-time favorite player of mine, Rasheed Wallace. It was a dream come true for a life-long Carolina fan; without question, the Tarheels are the biggest sports obsession of my life—I bleed blue as they have come to say. Later in the week, in one of the evening sessions, I got repeatedly blistered guarding a small forward—who I later found out was one of the nation’s top underclassmen—resulting in a vicious dunk on the top of my crown. It was the type of throw down that got mentioned by players for the rest of the week. And it should have been, trust me, I saw it up close. My roommate even mentioned it to me that night upon my return to the dorm room that was serving as home, and he wasn’t even around when it happened. Word, it would appear, traveled fast at camp. This player, whom I had just met, had quickly managed to become my basketball nemesis. I wasn’t used to getting scorched on the basketball court all that often, and he was doing it to me on both ends of the court for the duration of the game. Considering the competitive makeup of my DNA, it would be fair of you to assume that I was pissed. Not that I got dunked on; that would be relegated to the realm of embarrassment. I was pissed that I couldn’t do anything about it. This guy was GOOD. Really good. What I found out that day was that while I may have been one of the best players in my respective middle school and high school, all that ultimately meant was I was a big fish in a small pond. In the grand scheme of things, I was an average high school player; no more, no less. It’s tough for anyone when they are confronted face to face with the very real possibility that a dream they’ve held close since childhood will not be coming a reality. I was no different from the rest; it took a prolonged amount of time for me to fully come to terms with this realization.
To me, this is what makes Steve James classic film Hoop Dreams so heart breaking. The viewer spends almost 3 hours with the documentary’s subjects—Arthur Agee and William Gates—as the film tracks these two talented hopefuls for 5 years, through high school and their entry into college. James originally intended Hoop Dreams to be a 30 minute short for PBS but it eventually grew into a 171 minute feature, cut from over 250 hours of footage. Basketball represents much more to these two young men than it ever did to me; it was their ticket out of poverty, a world that is punctuated with random and vicious violence, and rampant drug addiction. These two HAVE to make it for them and for their families to have a chance to live the life they wish they had, a life that doesn’t include worrying about which utility will be cut off today or being able to provide a better meal than ones consisting of nothing other than hot dogs. The decision to shoot as much footage as they did lead to two important factors in the level of impact Hoop Dreams would come to have on its audience. The first being that after a certain amount of time, the subjects stopped noticing the camera and all their pretenses and nervousness fell away allowing the viewer a rare and honest look at the film’s subjects. Hoop Dreams manages to stay unobtrusive and without editorial commentary; the documentary crew do a wonderful job of capturing this story while maintaining a “fly on the wall” perspective that translates to the same experience for the viewer. This leads into the second thing that Steve James was able to cast light on, a reality that had been rarely, if ever, seen in an American film—the day-to-day life of an inner city, disadvantaged African American family; one that, despite their economic standing and lack of father figures, stand strong no matter what issues life throws in their face with nothing more than the love and support they offer one another. To be able to present all of this to an audience without a whiff of judgment or grandstanding is an impressive cinematic feat indeed.
Over the course of the movie’s run time, it starts to become obvious that Arthur and William will fall just short of their dream, a tough bit of business for an audience to sit through. Even if you didn’t have dreams of playing a pro sport growing up, most of us had a dream that, for whatever reason, never came true, resulting in an identification process between the viewer and our two young hopefuls. Their pain becomes your pain; their reality may even become a cruel case of déjà vu, one that may closely mirror your own journey.
Now, being 31 years old, I have a hoop fantasy. I consume college and pro basketball with a voracious appetite and it would seem my fandom continues to reach new, epic heights with every new, exciting player that comes on the scene. When I stop and think about it, it’s sad that I have entered the spectator phase in my love affair with basketball. Sure, I still play when I can, but these opportunities come in sporadic bursts and my knees don’t allow me to get up and down the court and contest for rebounds the way I was able to 10 years ago. You can be sure of one thing though. Even though my body is on a slow decline, you can still expect to see me on my living room floor, pounding it without mercy and screaming at the television when my team is giving it their all or I feel they need my support in some intangible manner. I’m sure Arthur Agee and William Gates, wherever they are, are doing the same.
*The people telling me this were all less than 6 feet tall and family members so this point is up for debate.