Hoop Dreams: where are the main figures now?

Gabriel Baumgaertner; The Guardian – Wednesday 18 February 2015 05.00 EST


Twenty years after the landmark documentary was cruelly snubbed at the Oscars, we take a look at where the principals are today

In 1986, filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert set out to film a 30-minute PBS documentary on playground basketball as a window into Chicago’s street culture. Some 300 hours of footage and three years of editing later, Hoop Dreams emerged overnight as a landmark documentary. Roger Ebert labeled it the best film of the 1990s (ahead of Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas and Fargo), and its exclusion from the Best Documentary category at the 1995 Academy Awards led to a restructuring of how the category was evaluated.

The parallel narratives of Arthur Agee and William Gates, two promising teenage players mired in the urban blight of inner-city Chicago, represented the common American dream of underprivileged youth seeking an escape through basketball. Both began as freshmen at the upscale St Joseph’s in Westchester, Illinois, the former high school of NBA Hall of Famer and Chicago folk hero Isiah Thomas. Because of an inability to meet tuition demands (and coach Gene Pingatore’s skepticism about his size), Agee would transfer to the public Marshall High School while Gates remained at St Joe’s all four years. Neither would win a state title or play in the NBA, but their legacies live on through what’s become the essential document on grassroots sports in America.

Twenty years after its infamous Oscar snub – it settled for a Best Editing nod, losing to Forrest Gump – Hoop Dreams remains one of the most influential American films ever released. Here’s what happened to the main players.

Arthur Agee

The spindly, smiley guard who starts the film going one-on-one with Thomas at a St Joe’s basketball camp and ends it captaining the underdog Marshall Commandos to the Illinois state tournament semi-finals, Agee would play two years at Mineral Area junior college in Park Hills, Missouri before playing two years at Division I Arkansas State. Agee never made the NBA, but played semi-professionally and briefly dabbled in Slamball. He passed up a tryout with the CBA’s Connecticut Pride to take a speaking role in the made-for-television film Passing Glory (which James directed), but later admitted that he regretted the decision.

Agee has said in interviews that the film served as both a “blessing and a curse” , but lauds it for helping him move his family out of the West Garfield projects and providing him opportunities after its release. He even started a Hoop Dreams clothing line in the mid-2000s with the slogan “Control Your Destiny”. Agee now has five children and still lives in the Chicago area. He started the Arthur Agee Jr foundation and works as a motivational speaker for inner-city youth.

William Gates

Dubbed the “next Isiah Thomas” by both his high school head coach and the famous Chicago sports talk program Sportswriters on TV, Gates’ impressive, but ultimately disappointing, high school career led him to Marquette, where he played two seasons before quitting and eventually rejoining the team.

Gates moved back to Chicago and worked a variety of odd jobs before a comeback in 2001. After a broken foot derailed his comeback attempt, Gates committed his life to preaching at a local Chicago church and worked at the Kids’ Club. He has four children and has since moved to San Antonio to escape Chicago’s inner-city violence. His son, William Jr, accepted a basketball scholarship to Furman last year, but recently announced his intentions to transfer to Houston Baptist.

Gene Pingatore

Now in his 45th season in charge of St Joseph’s, the 78-year old Pingatore is (by a wide margin) the leader in wins in Illinois Boys’ Basketball history. With a crusty demeanor and hot temper, Pingatore is presented as an antagonist throughout the film. Agee insists that the coach refused to help him stay at St Joseph’s because of his concerns that he wasn’t growing quickly enough. He frequently berates his team with expletive-laced rants and appears to pressure Gates to return from a debilitating knee injury before he is healthy. His final appearance in the film is an awkward exchange with Gates, one where the graduating senior claims, “I need to know your number so when you ask me for money, I can turn you down.” Those tensions would simmer down over time. Gates’ son, William Jr, played two years in the St Joseph’s program before transferring to another Chicago school and eventually moving to San Antonio, and Gates has spoken at St Joseph’s annual basketball camp.