Hoop Dreams is a 1994 documentary directed by Steve James.
It is the story of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two young African-American children growing up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects of Chicago. At the beginning of the movie, a talent scout for an elite private school, St. Joseph out in Westchester, spots Gates and Agee playing on the basketball courts of Cabrini-Green. Gates and Agee, then 8th graders, both live in poverty and both have dreams of becoming NBA stars as a means of escape from the projects.
The film, which was shot over a period of five years, follows William and Arthur throughout high school and documents their life struggles. Both families are mired in poverty (at one point the power is turned out at Arthur's house). Both struggle to pay tuition at St. Joseph—a problem that has very different outcomes for the two kids. William winds up a father when he impregnates his girlfriend Catherine, while Arthur's father Bo abandons the family after developing a serious cocaine problem.
Hoop Dreams was at the center of one of the most famous Award Snubs in Oscar history. Despite being hailed as an instant classic, it was not even nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The ensuing uproar led to a revision of the nominating process in which actual documentarians voted on the nominees.
In Real Life, neither Gates nor Agee played in the NBA, and tragedy struck their personal lives, as Arthur's father Bo and William's brother Curtis, both seen in this film, were each later murdered. However, both did all right by themselves. Gates married his high school sweetheart Catherine (shown in the movie), had three more children, and became a Protestant minister. Agee has worked as a motivational speaker and run basketball camps.
- Awkward Father-Son Bonding Activity: Bo Agee departs from the family for a while due to a severe cocaine problem. When he shows up to support Arthur as Arthur's signing his letter-of-intent for junior college, it's despite Arthur's protests. Shortly thereafter father and son play a game of one-on-one in the park that gets very edgy and ill-tempered. (The film later shows Bo Agee reconciling with his family.)
- The Cameo: NBA star Isiah Thomas, a St. Joseph alumnus, gives a talk to the kids at a Nike basketball camp attended by William and Arthur. College coaches Bob Knight, Rick Pitino, Bobby Cremins, and Mike Krzyzewski scout William; Knight even talks to the camera for a bit. Dick Vitale of ESPN gives a motivational speech. Spike Lee pops up in one scene to tell young black basketball players that universities don't care about them for anything other than their basketball abilities.
- Disappeared Dad: William's father left when he was a baby. He appears in one scene where William meets him at his work at an auto-body shop. William rather sarcastically notes that his dad probably is only showing interest because he's heard talk about William's NBA prospects.
- Documentary: One that was originally supposed to be a 30-minute PBS show about the culture of street basketball in Chicago. The filmmakers quickly realized the potential of a bigger story in the lives of Gates and Agee, but for a long time struggled to raise funds. That's why the first two years of high school take up only the first 40 minutes of the film. Later, after the filmmakers received a grant, they shot more extensively during William and Arthur's junior and senior years.
- Fish out of Water: William and Arthur both have to go through some rapid adjustments after commuting from the Cabrini-Green slums to attend hoity-toity St. Joseph, filled with white people.
- Inner City School: Played with. Inner-city Marshall High is shown as a big step down from St. Joseph. However, the faculty at Marshall are shown to be dedicated and hard-working, and the implication is that they care about Arthur even more than the folks at St. Joseph did.
- The Ken Burns Effect: Used sporadically in the movie, like when the camera zooms in on the Spinning Paper newspaper headlines, or when it zooms in to a yearbook picture of Arthur in middle school.
- Kitchen Sink Drama: Two kids from the inner city trying to escape the cycle of poverty by becoming NBA stars.
- Narrator: Director Steve James also narrates the film.
- One-Gender School: St. Joseph is an all-male Catholic school. (It went coed a decade after the movie was released.)
- Overcrank: This tried-and-true sports film trope is used for shots of both William and Arthur shooting and dunking basketballs in the projects.
- Spinning Paper: Another traditional documentary trope used here to recount William and Arthur's high school basketball careers as recounted in Chicago media.
- Stage Mom: Stage Brother in the person of William's older brother Curtis, himself once a highly touted high school basketball project who flamed out in college. William in one scene complains about Curtis trying to live his dreams through Arthur. Towards the end of the film Curtis confesses that he regrets putting so much pressure on his little brother.
- Title Theme Tune: A rap called "Hoop Dreams" plays over the opening credits.
- The Unfavorite: Arthur, as far as St. Joseph is concerned. Both William's and Arthur's families wind up unable to afford their share of tuition for St. Joseph. William for his part has gotten off to a better start at basketball, being a freshman star for the varsity team, while Arthur struggles some more and winds up on the JV. A rich patron is found to pay for William's education at St. Joseph, while Arthur is kicked out of school. St. Joseph's even goes so far as to refuse to release Arthur's transcripts, thus causing his graduation from inner-city Marshall High School to be delayed. (St. Joseph and their head basketball coach Gene Pingatore later sued the filmmakers; a settlement involved the creation of an athletic scholarship at St. Joe's.)
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: A graphic at the end of the film notes that both William and Arthur played Division I basketball (William at Marquette and Arthur at Arkansas State after graduating junior college) and that William married his girlfriend Catherine.
- Young Future Famous People: Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, and Chris Webber, who were part of the "Fab Five" at Michigan and who all played in the NBA (with Howard still later becoming the Michigan head coach), can be spotted at the Nike basketball camp that William and Arthur attend.