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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.

Gene Pingatore

Gene Pingatore coached in the McDonald’s All-American Game in 2011. Photograph:AP

Pingatore went on to coach one of the nation’s top prep players, the Boston Celtics’ Evan Turner, and his current team features four potential Division I players – two of whom have signed with Big Ten schools – and a sophomore (Lavon Thomas) who is projected to be one of Illinois’ top high school players by the time he is a senior.

Sheila Agee

Arthur’s mother, Sheila, was an inspiring character. She overcame living on welfare, having her power and water shut off by the city, and a troubled, flighty husband to graduate from a nurse’s academy with the top GPA in her class. She worked as a private nurse with well to-do families after earning her degree in 1994.

Bo Agee

Arthur’s father. Arguably the film’s most troubled character, Bo Agee appeared to finally turn a corner toward the end of the film after struggling with a crack cocaine addiction and incidents of domestic violence. was an ordained minister for a local Chicago church, but was murdered in a robbery attempt in December 2004.

Arthur Agee

Arthur Agee stands at the site where his father was killed in 2004. Photograph: Jon Lee/AP

Curtis Gates

William’s notorious older brother. He was a former high school legend whose lack of coachability led him back to the streets of Chicago and a life spent living vicariously through William. He was murdered in 2001.

Emma Gates

The hopeful, if often forlorn single mother, Ms Gates eventually moved out of the troubled Cabrini-Green projects and has continued her work as a nurse’s assistant.

Luther Bedford

The Marshall head coach with a blunt demeanor but remarkable kindness, Bedford retired as the Marshall boys’ head coach in 1999 after 27 years in charge. He also spent 33 years as the Commandos athletic director before dying in 2006 at the age of 69. Bedford provides the film with some of its most illuminating and, at times, disheartening quotes.

He unequivocally accuses St Joseph’s and Pingatore of letting Agee go because they didn’t think he projected as a top basketball player – the school initially refused to release Agee’s transcript to Marshall because of a tuition imbalance – and eviscerates St Joseph’s and other Chicago high schools for recruiting around the city. Off-camera, however, Bedford was known for his kindness toward kids deemed unsalvageable. For instance, Bedford would routinely deliver groceries to the Agee family during their long bouts of financial hardship. Indiana director of basketball operations Rob Judson once called Bedford “the most respected coach in Chicago,” and helped appoint Bedford to the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association, which Bedford “tirelessly” worked for until his death.

Former Chicago public schools chief and current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke at Bedford’s funeral, claiming, “A coach can coach to satisfy his own ego or coach to shape the lives of young people. Luther Bedford always did it the right way.” Bedford was also close with current Houston Rockets standout Patrick Beverley, whose story was chronicled in the Hoop Dreams sequel, Hoop Reality.

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