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Note: This post contains spoilers.
A memorable sport documentary requires two things: goosebumps and a good story.
Hoop Dreams has both, in spades.
The story behind Hoop Dreams shows the power of long-term documentary making. The arc follows William Gates and Arthur Agee for five years, from their entry into high school through their first year of college. As high school freshmen, both boys get recruited from Chicago city schools to play basketball for St. Joseph’s High School in suburban Westchester, IL, where NBA great Isiah Thomas got his start.
Both boys experience highs and lows during these periods as they pursue their hoop dreams of getting to the state championships, of landing a college scholarship, and ultimately of getting into the NBA. Gates has full tuition support, but he still faces issues with knee injuries and academic performance. Agee has only partial sponsorship, and because of financial struggles, he ends up back in a Chicago public high school.
But their stories focus more on just their dreams of playing pro ball. Both boys face pressures and challenges at home. Gates becomes a father to a baby girl, Alicia. Agee and his family face tough issues both at home and outside it. Father “Bo” Agee takes drugs, beats his wife, steals, and serves time. Both parents lose their jobs and struggle to get another. Violence in their neighborhood finds Agree and another family member held at gunpoint.
The goosebumps come from the competitions unfolding. Both boys play on teams that reach quarter final rounds, with tough competitors coming between them and the next bracket. Sometimes, the game comes down to that last free throw or that jump shot. Will he make it? Will he miss? (Please, please, don’t miss!)
Cast as the underdogs, Agee’s team, the Marshall Commandos, takes down two very tough teams during his senior year. After one tense game, the team realizes that it needs to prevent the other team from scoring for a brief period to secure a win. That moment when Agee waits out the timer courtside is almost as exciting as waiting for that free throw.
In the end both boys, now young men, earn scholarships to colleges. Gates signs with Marquette University in Milwaukee, while Agee signs with Mineral Area College in Missouri.
As Hoop Dreams shows in its almost three-hour run, the sport itself is never the full picture. The competition, the goose bumps, is just a small, albeit exciting, part. It is the story that shows what the sport really means, the dreams it inspires, and the reality in which it plays out.