It's been twenty years since the world was introduced to Arthur Agee and William Gates, two teenagers in Chicago with a singular goal: the NBA or bust. Chronicled throughout their high school careers as part of filmmaker Steve James' film, 'Hoop Dreams', this week marks the 20th anniversary since the film's debut. We caught up with Arthur Agee to discuss his life now, his initial reactions to being chosen, and the current state of Chicago's West Side where the thump of a basketball is a welcome respite from that of gunshots.
“What do you want out of life? Do you have a dream? Are you scared to go for it? And if that dream doesn’t work out, are you going to let life depress you or eat you alive because you failed?” Arthur Agee, now 41, speaks with the same gravelly voice and West Side of Chicago cadence as he did when Steve James’s Hoop Dreams camera crew happened upon him at Delano Playground when he was just finishing up eighth grade and his high school plans were as up in the air as an Isaiah Thomas floater. Twenty years later, the film - at the time merely a PBS documentary with little to no funding about playground basketball spanning from Venice Beach in California to the famous Rucker Park in New York City – registers like a dusty championship ring we’ve all had the privilege of slipping over a finger. Roger Ebert, who named it the Best Film of 1994 wrote at the time, “[it] contains more actual information about life as it is lived in poor black city neighborhoods than any other film I have ever seen.” If sports provide a window into the human condition, then Hoop Dreams was the hawkish Chicago air that can give you chills, make it hard to breathe, and also invigorates the senses.
In the Beginning...
There's still no shortage of young boys in Chicago’s impoverished neighborhoods looking to use basketball as an escape from a city where 45 people were murdered in September alone (and 930 were killed in all of 1994 when the film was released). While the NBA was always there for everyone to strive for, for most, a Tim Hardaway-esque handle or a Ben Wilson-type first step meant a scholarship to a parochial school in neighborhoods with less gun violence than encountered in Chicago Public Schools in and around West Garfield Park where Agee lived. While a parochial school education may point toward divine intervention as it relates to life changing events, for Arthur, geography and Chicago’s legendary reputation of playground basketball was really at the core of his first meeting with filmmaker Steve James.
“It started with me and my guys on the Delano playground. We see three white guys pull up in a Volvo, and [they’re with] a fat, black guy, Earl Smith. We see them walking onto the court with cameras and tripods and expensive stuff so we’re like, ‘They’re gonna get robbed! We know they’re gonna get beat up and their money taken!’
As it turned out, Earl Smith was a “scout” of sorts for legendary coach Gene Pingatore at St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois - who over the course of his storied, 44-year career won over 900 games - putting him in an elite class with Bob Knight, Jim Boeheim and Marshall's Dorothy Gaters. Along the way, he produced players like Isaiah Thomas, Tony Freeman, Evan Turner, Daryl Thomas and Deryl Cunningham. Earl Smith made it clear to Steve James that, “In four years you’re going to be hearing from this guy.”
The second child and first son of Arthur "Bo" Agee Sr. and Sheila Agee – memorable characters themselves who certainly played a large role in the filming of Hoop Dreams – Sheila was initially skeptical of Arthur’s claims that Hollywood beckoned. “I went home that day and said, ‘Yo, mama. These dudes want to make a movie about me!’ She laughed at me and looked at me and said, ‘Boy get your ass out of here! Nobody wants to make a movie about you!’ The next day these three guys come with the cameras on, with the boom mic on, up the stairs. Mama comes to the door and she didn’t have her teeth in. Her top teeth were false. So she came to the door and saw the cameras and ran to the back and put her teeth in. So she comes back to the door like, ‘Hello! How are you guys doing!? Arthur told me you were coming!’ I’m like ‘mama stop lying, you didn’t even believe me!’”
In addition to Agee, James settled on William Gates as another subject of the film. Hailing from Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green Housing Project, Gates was a slashing ball player with a proven pedigree. His brother, Curtis, seen in the film, was dubbed by friends as "Pearly" Gates because of the flashy moves he displayed as a player at Wells High School where he played every minute of every game and averaged 39 points per contest - earning a scholarship to Marquette but ultimately attending Colby, a two-year college in western Kansas. Steve James probably reasoned that if Gates was cut from even the same fabric swatch - let alone the same cloth - as his brother, he'd have a film where he'd have Agee in the role of underdog, and Gates as the "sure thing." Gates recalled being selected for the film as part of the DVD commentary for the 2005 Criterion Collection, saying, "I was 14 years old and someone wanted to do something about my life."
As filming progressed, the narrative was starting to take shape given that both he and Agee were enrolling at St. Joe's. Yet, Arthur found himself completely in the dark when it came to the production. "They would film three times a week for that first year because they didn’t have any money. This is just a small production company on the North Side of Chicago. After the third and going into the fourth year, that was when I was like ‘damn, y'all ain’t through with this project yet?! When are you going to be done with it?’ Even through those years they didn’t tell me that the project is just on me and my family and Will and his family. I’m thinking for three or four years that they’re doing a film about different basketball players. They said we’re not going to be done with it until you graduate and go off to college.”
What started with a $2,000 USD grant from the Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in 1987 - and a scheduled six-month project - quickly morphed into a two-handed narrative: a creative crossover of sorts.
St. Joe’s to Marshall
The willingness of St. Joe's to participate in the film is what inevitably allowed the filmmakers to focus on more organized, structured aspects of Chicago basketball. It also served as one of the most pivotal and dynamic moments of the film when Agee is forced to transfer to Marshall after no longer being able afford the tuition - splintering he and William’s narrative from both a basketball and educational standpoint.
“I think things would have been different. Gene Pingatore at St. Joe’s and Luther Bedford (the coach of Marshall) had two different styles of playing. If I had stayed at St. Joe’s I think my play would have been better received by college recruiters. From an educational standpoint, I think I would have taken my studies a little bit more serious then.” Additionally, Agee assumed that his switch of schools would cost him the film, but Steve James had other plans. "I wasn’t coming from that scumbag documentary angle where every misfortune that happens to your subject is interesting," the director told The Dissolve in January of this year. "I felt really bad for him. I told him, 'We didn’t pick you to follow because we were convinced you were going to the NBA, we picked you because you have the dream. So we want to continue following you if you want us to.'”
In 1990, Arthur’s junior year at Marshall, the Commandos went 9-16. While there was no indication that they would turn it around his senior season, the public league competition would be an opportunity for Agee to face off with the best player he ever encountered: Jamie Brandon. “[Brandon was] 6-4 about 200 pounds, could shoot it from the three. Inside outside. He could post you up. He never got rattled. You could never take the ball from him. His hands were big. He could dunk the ball. He was just the best guy I ever saw play in high school. We just knew he was going to the pros.”
Brandon was a three-time All-Stater. He was Illinois's Mr. Basketball in 1990. He scored 3,157 points in his career, third most in state history. He was a freshman starter on King's 1987 Class AA runner-up that was led by Marcus Liberty. He led King to the Public League final in 1988, to third place in the 1989 Class AA tournament and to the 1990 title. He would later play alongside Shaquille O’Neal at LSU, but chances are that Jamie Brandon’s name is an unfamiliar one. After leaving school after his junior year and entering the NBA draft, his name was never called and he inevitably bounced around in France, Croatia, Finland and Honduras.
For Agee, he witnessed firsthand that "Hoop Dreams" do indeed deflate even when an ego and stat sheet is full.
Becoming a Target
"To grow up on the West Side of Chicago in West Garfield Park area or any West Side area for that matter can be summed in three words," Agee says. "You’ve got to be rough, tough, and you’ve got to be smart. If you can be those three things – and you’re going to need them to survive every day – cause if you don’t one of them is going to get chipped at. They get tested every day in the hood.” As word began to spread that Agee was the subject of a film with the tentative title Hoop Dreams, opponents both at the high school level and on the playground began to use his personal life as a sixth defender.
“That’s why your daddy’s a crackhead," Agee recalls.
Arthur and his father’s relationship is one that sticks out for many even after 20 years since they were introduced to a particularly complex father and son dynamic. In one instance, Bo shows up on a court where Arthur is playing, after months of only seeing him a handful of times. Like a son eager to impress a father he had always looked up to, Arthur throws down a thunderous dunk. “The moment when my dad came on the court, a lot of people think that was set up, but it wasn’t. I hadn’t seen my dad in two or three months. He didn’t even notice that cameras were there because he was so gone out of his mind.” Steve James recalled to The Dissolve, "When the film was nearly done, and we showed it to the families, I was really worried about that moment. I thought Bo was going to have a fit—by that point, he was off drugs and in a much better place. I was working up all the arguments of why it should be in the film. I was expecting a fight over it. When that scene ends Bo said, 'Stop the tape.' And I’m like, 'Oh, shit.' And he said, 'I need to see that again.' So we rewind it and watch the scene again, and then we watch it once more. We pause it, and he goes, 'Wow, I don’t even remember that. I can’t believe y’all got that.' I asked him if he’s cool with it, and he said 'Absolutely.' He was starting a church, and he said, 'This will be good for my ministry, for people to see where I was and where I am now.' It was just a huge sigh of relief."
In 2004, Bo Agee was shot and killed in an alley several garages from his own. It was 10 years since he had kicked a cocaine habit and was near a home that Arthur had purchased for him with proceeds from the film. “I always looked up to my dad," Agee recalls. "I wanted to be like him when I grew up. My dad was a positive role model for me AND a negative role model for me. And I’m glad he was.”
The Best Film of 1994... Sorta
"Roger Ebert is really the dude that blessed that film,” said Agee. “I love him to this day.” In his 1994 four-star review in the Chicago Tribune Ebert said, “A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and make us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”
When the Academy Awards rolled around, it was widely considered by most industry insiders that not only would Hoop Dreams be nominated for Best Documentary, but also nab a coveted Best Picture nomination at a time when only five films were bestowed the honor (whereas 10 films are nominated now for Best Picture). When the nominations for the 67th Academy Awards came out - including notable selections like Pulp Fiction, Forest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption - Steve James's film was notably absent. What left people aghast was that it wasn't even nominated in the documentary category.
I went home that day and said, ‘Yo, mama. These dudes want to make a movie about me!’
At the time, there wasn't a dedicated "documentary" branch of the Academy. Thus, members of other branches were left to sift through the 63 films that were eligible for the award and would submit votes if (some films were turned off before they were finished) and when they concluded. In his book The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards, author Steve Pond noted, "Following the snub, the Academy's Executive Director, Bruce Davis, took the unprecedented step of asking accounting firm Price Waterhouse to turn over the complete results of the voting, in which members of the committee had rated each of the 63 eligible documentaries on a scale of zero to 10. 'What I found,; said Davis, 'is that a small group of members gave zeros to every single film except the five they wanted to see nominated. And they gave tens to those five, which completely skewed the voting. There was one film that received more scores of ten than any other, but it wasn't nominated. It also got zeros from those few voters, and that was enough to push it to sixth place.'"
The gun violence in Chicago is quite staggering when you place it in a wartime context. In October of last year, there were 32 homicides. During that same time frame, there were nine U.S. troop casualties in Iraq. "The thing about the ‘80s and the ‘90s is there was a foundation and there were rules set for the game – for the underworld and street world," Agee says. "I graduated in 1991 and there was no problem going to school in Chicago. There was no killing kids. You had to be real tough and you had to have a discipline within yourself and leadership qualities to even be able to stand up to drug dealers and gang bangers and tell them, 'I ain’t kickin’ it with y'all like that.' In the neighborhood they knew I went to St. Joe’s so they said, 'He’s about his books or he can play basketball.' They kinda nurtured that. Now they try and tear you down. The whole thing was to go the same route Isiah Thomas went. He went to a high school [and] did good. He went to a college [and] did good. And tried to get into the pros. I just wanted to follow that same foundation. As I was going through it, year after year, I realized how hard it was going to be, even with a basketball movie out about my life. College was my main objective."
Agee would go on to attend Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Missouri before moving on to Division I Arkansas State University where he averaged 8.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists. Following college, he was drafted number 1 by the now defunct Florida Sharks of the U.S. Basketball League. At the time, Sharks President Andy Badolato said, "'Hoop Dreams' is now officially a reality."
Despite a serious knee injury in high school, William Gates got a scholarship from Marquette and graduated with a communications degree. In 2001, Gates got an urging to try out for the Washington Wizards by Michael Jordan who had enlisted Gates' help in providing tune-up games as he prepared to come out of retirement for a second time. Much like his high school career, an injury derailed his momentum. "That was my NBA dream," he told The Washington Post. "I never put that uniform on, but I knew I was good enough to play." That same year, Gates' brother, Curtis, was murdered in Chicago. "Curtis was the only one who knew about my comeback," William said. "He met Michael. He told me, 'If you make it, I'm quitting my job and travel where you travel.'" Gates was a pastor in Chicago before relocating his family to Texas where his son, William Gates Jr., averaged 23.6 points per game and received a basketball scholarship from Furman.
Today, Agee runs the Arthur Agee Role Model Foundation which he founded in 1995 whose main goal is to "educate parents and families that they are role models for their kids – and they shouldn’t be looking up to entertainers and athletes as a [outlet] to get out. The parents should be setting the morals and grounds for them to be successful. And it starts with education." When asked to reflect on his life 20 years since filming stopped, Agee says, "Just be fierce with that 'Hoop Dream' – whatever it is. And be encouraging. My father said no matter how much success you have in your life, if you don’t inspire and give back and it’s not about inspiring others, you won’t be happy. I don’t have the money, but I’m happy."
Illustrations by Ruudios for Highsnobiety.com