Hoop Dreams is a documentary that shows how young African American kids are used and abused by an athletic system that treats them as free labor whose only purpose is to play basketball so that schools can make money. The kids are told they will one day become millionaires playing in the NBA. They are not told that the chance of making the NBA is about the same as winning the Power Ball lottery.
Hoop Dreams takes place over a number of years and details the lives of two inner-city Chicago Kids who are recruited to play basketball for a wealthy suburban high school. St. Joseph High is a Catholic school that has a man scouting Chicago middle and grammar school playgrounds looking for good basketball players. He looks for kids who are athletic and who seem like they will become unusually tall. St. Joseph High then offers these kids a partial scholarship to play for St. Joseph.
Of course the officials at St. Joseph High talk about how much they are helping the community. In fact, they thought that Hoop Dreams was going to show how great the school is. It did not turn out that way. After Hoop Dreams premiered, various St. Joseph High officials tried to sue the film makers.
St. Joseph High is in an all-White suburb and the African American scholarship kids are seen as only there to play basketball. The first thing you notice is what St. Joseph’s does not have. It does not have anyone looking for inner-city kids with great math or reading or artistic skills. It does not have academic scholarships. The message to kids in the ghetto is clear. Sports is the only way out. Academic skill is not useful.
Hoop Dreams follows William Gates and Arthur Agee who are both recruited and given partial scholarships. They end up being treated very differently at the school, completely based on their athletic skill. William continues to grow very tall and his basketball skills improve. A supporter of the school gives William a part time job to supplement the partial scholarship.
Arthur, on the other hand is not so lucky. He does not grow as tall, and he suffers a knee injury. Coach Pingatore pressures William to play even though the knee is not quite healed. William re-injures the knee and needs a second operation. The injuries and intense pressure the kids are under seems like something from the pros, but you have to keep reminding yourself that these are unpaid high school kids.
When Arthur’s athletic performance becomes bad, the money starts to be a problem. Unlike William, the school does not find a wealthy supporter to help Arthur. This is when the school suddenly reminds Arthur that this is a partial scholarship, and that Arthur will not be able to stay at St. Joseph’s unless his family can pay the back tuition. They cannot come up with the money and Arthur is sent back to the public high school in the inner-city.
As a final insult to Arthur, St. Joseph’s high will not release his transcripts to the public high school, since the back tuition is not paid. This will keep Arthur from graduating high school unless his family comes up with the money.
Neither William or Arthur ever do make the NBA. Both did go to college but even there, the main function was just to play basketball. One went to a large rural college that only had 6 African American kids in the whole college. Five of those 6 kids were on the college basketball team.
Hoop Dreams shows the bad side of American sports that no one likes to talk about. For every one NBA star there are thousands of kids who made sacrifices for a high school or a college and got nothing in return. Supposedly the kids got an education in return, but many schools were never really interested in trying to educate any of them or give them any real help in life .
At one point in Hoop Dreams Arthur tells the story of when he had some very personal issues with his family that were upsetting him deeply and impacting his schoolwork . He still considered the coach his mentor, so Arthur went to Coach Pingatore to ask for advice. The coach’s “advice” was very simple. He told Arthur to completely cut ties with his family and girlfriend, since they were interfering with his ability to play basketball. Thanks coach. Way to help a kid in trouble.
In the 22 years since Hoop Dreams premiered, unfortunately not much has changed.
- We give Hoop Dreams Five Stars *****
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