It seems appropriate to write about Hoop Dreams at the start of March Madness, especially when you live, like I do, in a town where basketball features prominently in local history (James Naismith coached here, and is buried here). We in Kansas idolize our basketball players. We think of them as superstar members of our extended family. But oddly enough, while we claim to care so much about the guys who work hard to win that Big 12 title every year, we don’t give much thought to their origins. Until watching Hoop Dreams, I knew nothing about the recruitment process, or kids commuting three hours to private schools, or the hidden catches that come with being scooped up by a high school scout.
This groundbreaking documentary is a revealing look at the lives of two inner city kids with their eyes on NBA stardom. Hoop Dreams follows talented teenagers William and Arthur, starting with their discovery by a scout, and continuing through four seasons playing high school ball. But be warned: anyone looking to see if director Steve James catches the Next Big Thing in pro basketball should prepare for disappointment.
This is as close as either of them come to playing with an NBA All-Star.
James gets lots of things right here, but the best thing he does is frame it in the context of sports movies like The Karate Kid and Hoosiers, where deserving underdogs emerge victorious. We learn about Arthur and William and their families. We see their eyes light up watching Isaiah Thomas and Michael Jordan, and the hope in their parents’ eyes when they learn their sons’ talent might get them the education they need for a better life. Because the consequences here are real, the audience genuinely cares about what happens.
This is especially true of the documentary’s basketball games. Now, like any good Jayhawk, I get plenty emotional when it comes to watching basketball. I’ve stood up and yelled, clenched my hands, and performed the weird little rituals to better the chances of Travis Releford sinking a freethrow. But I’ve never been as invested in a game as I was watching the matchups in Hoop Dreams. Because James introduces the stakes early on, and clearly communicates how much is on the line for Arthur and William, every game takes on life-or-death importance. Every shot the boys make is a triumph, every miss painful.
How I felt after every basketball game in the movie. No joke.
Of course, this is real life, and James reminds us that those cinematic victories don’t always happen, especially when you’ve got as much going against you as Arthur and William do. They deal with parents on welfare, absent fathers, and teen pregnancy, just to name a few factors. And those “life-changing” athletic scholarships to prestigious, mostly white private schools? Turns out they’re anything but guaranteed. The system seemingly meant to help boys like Arthur and William is horribly broken, and more than a little exploitative.
Hoop Dreams will change the way you think about basketball at every level. Whether you’re an NBA fan, or an NCAA devotee (or don’t even care that much about the game at all), Steve James’ classic exploration of the grueling process behind finding fresh athletic talent provides an additional dimension to the way the game is played. At three hours, it’s a big investment of time, but one that pays off immensely. And if it doesn’t break your heart a little, then you probably don’t have a heart to begin with.
Take a Drink: every time someone mentions Isaiah Thomas
Take a Drink: every time Arthur or William experiences soul-crushing disappointment
Do a Shot: every time you hear the word “underdog”
Shotgun a Beer: when Spike Lee appears