By PJ Johnston
Sentinel Film Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel
I don’t know about you, but for me this is going to be Basketball Weekend. The Final Four begins Saturday afternoon – with Georgetown facing off against Ohio State, and UCLA taking on defending national champions Florida – and culminates with Monday night’s NCAA championship game.
It really ought to be a national holiday, because I know if my two picks (Georgetown and UCLA) are still in it, I’ll be far too nervous, and boastful, to do any work. Hell, when Georgetown came back from 10 down and won in overtime last Sunday – leaving me with all four correct picks in my Final Four pool – I spent the next 24 hours tracking down every one of my college buddies to remind them how mindnumbingly brilliant I am. If the Hoyas actually meet and take down the Bruins Monday night, I’ll immediately commence blowing my winnings by buying everyone at the Philosopher’s Club drinks.
Which should thrill my wife. So should the rest of my itinerary for the weekend: between basketball games, I’ll be sitting on the couch thinking about basketball, dreaming about basketball and watching basketball movies. And since I’m having such a great March Madness this year, I thought I’d take this opportunity to present to you the Final Four of basketball movies:
Western bracket: No. 1 see “White Men Can’t Jump,” with trash-talking Wesley Snipes and conman Woody Harrelson, easily blows underdog “Space Jam,” starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny, off court out in Hollywood, bringing edgy, profane comedy to the big dance.
Midwestern bracket: Perennial favorite “Hoosiers,” featuring Gene Hackman as the tough coach taking a tiny Indiana high school to the promised land, is given an unexpectedly tough time by “Drive, He Said,” Jack Nicholson’s 1972 directorial debut about an Ohio college kid forced to choose between basketball and activism.
Southern bracket: Spike Lee’s underappreciated “He Got Game” – starring Denzel as an ex-con trying to cultivate his basketball phenom son – easily crushes “Blue Chips” (Shaquille O’Neal eats Nick Nolte for lunch) after “Fast Break,” my all-time favorite basketball comedy starring Gabe Kaplan (that’s right – Mr. Kotter!), is disqualified: it’s not available on DVD or VHS, and Cinemax stopped showing it when Ronald Reagan left the White House.
Eastern bracket: Devastating real life trumps over-the-top comedy as “Hoop Dreams” wipes the floor with “The Fish that Saved Pittsburg,” the wild 1979 ensemble picture that featured the amazing Dr. J and the even-more-amazing Flip Wilson.
Semi-final games: Tough, athletic “White Men Can’t Jump” upsets sentimental favorite “Hoosiers” in a nailbiter. “He Got Game” hangs in admirably with the heartbreaking drama of “Hoop Dreams” but can’t really compete down the stretch.
Championship: A clash of completely different styles, “Hoop Dreams” and “White Men” offer fans two distinct visions of why we love the game so much. Writer-director Ron Shelton imbues “White Men” with all the razor wit and authenticity he brought to “Bull Durham,” but ultimately the remarkable span and sweep of “Hoop Dreams” reigns supreme.
So your Shining Moment goes to … “Hoop Dreams.”
The art of the documentary is a tricky, largely misunderstood one, and it’s rare that a real-life drama rises above the ranks of PBS or A&E to capture a large mainstream audience. But when one does, it’s usually because some gifted, persevering filmmaker has shown us that life, when seen through a carefully angled looking glass, can be infinitely more interesting than fiction.
Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams” is just such a film. Focusing on the lives of two aspiring high school basketball players and their families, the movie is a riveting portrayal of a dream deferred – a dream of playing in the NBA.
In spite of what might seem to be a lightweight subject – high school basketball – very few films are as emotionally taxing or intellectually compelling as “Hoop Dreams.” This is not just a sports movie, although it contains moments of high drama on the court; it’s an unflinching glimpse into the heart of the American dream, and the heartbreaks of urban American reality.
In what began as a modest short film about “street basketball,” James and co-producers Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert follow two boys from the Chicago ghetto, from eighth grade through high school graduation, in their relentless pursuit of NBA glory. What ensues between those two goal posts is nothing less than remarkable, the rich and often tragic story of two young men with talent to burn, and very little else.
Arthur Agee is a scrawny but amazingly graceful little boy when we first meet him, tearing up the competition on a playground court. He comes from a disheveled inner-city home, in which his hardworking mother struggles to provide for her children, and his father struggles with drug addiction. Arthur has the wild genius, the unpolished talent of an athletic diamond in the rough, the kind that rules on blacktop courts all over the country.
William Gates, on the other hand, is already refined and primed by the age of 13. He’s a B-ball virtuoso, the kind that comes along once in a blue moon and is coveted by coaches everywhere. He’s got a mother who instills hope and pride in him, and a rough-and-ready older brother who shows him the ropes – both of whom have placed all their eggs in William’s NBA basket.
Guards who rely on speed and ability, rather than height, Arthur and William are both recruited to a mostly white, suburban parochial school, St. Joseph’s, and given the opportunity to play for a legendary high school coach, Gene Pingatore. Pingatore coached NBA legend Isiah Thomas to a state title many years back, and that’s the carrot that leads both boys out of the ghetto on a long train ride to St. Joe’s every morning.
William, whose body is already strong and well-developed, becomes a freshman sensation almost immediately after joining the St. Joseph’s varsity squad. Arthur has a little more trouble – “Coach keeps asking me when I’m gonna grow … how should I know when I’m gonna grow?” – both on the court and in the classroom. He’s relegated to the junior varsity team, anguishes over his homework assignments, and lives in constant danger of not being able to meet his tuition payments.
Actually both boys’ families are unable to afford St. Joe’s, but Coach Pingatore finds a rich sponsor to cover William’s tuition. Arthur, whose exploits on the court haven’t come to sufficient fruition, isn’t so lucky. By the time his sophomore year is over, William is a full-fledged star, and Arthur suffers the humiliating fate of being sent back to the inner-city to attend a public school.
But life isn’t always predictable, and “Hoop Dreams” packs several wallops, the kind that only come about through patience on the filmmaker’s part, to allow events to unfold in their own time, and in their own way. There’s a Big Game all right – several in fact – but the outcome is determined by reality, not the demands of a script.
In “Hoop Dreams,” James places enough distance between himself and his subjects to allow the full picture to come into view, so that by the end we’re looking at two human beings rather than basketball players. We still want the best for them, but we’re no longer sure the Road to the Final Four is the primrose path.
In fact, it seems like a completely disastrous one, in which scores of adults – coaches, fans, college recruiters, sports writers, even parents – exploit the hopes and dreams of a few poverty-stricken young boys who possess genuine love for a streetyard game, and who are gifted enough to play it well. And they don’t play it quite well enough, these boys – who were too burdened down by the dreams of everyone around them to enjoy adolescence – are thrown by the wayside.
Generation after generation of urban Black youths see lives around them dead-end, and to many of them the only two roads out of the ghetto seem to be selling drugs and playing ball. And as Coach Pingatore demonstrates, if you can’t play ball, there’s no room for you in the suburbs.
(Pingatore and St. Joseph’s, by the way, sued the filmmakers over their portrayal in “Hoop Dreams.” Their outrage, I believe, must be the result of looking into a mirror and being shown something they didn’t want to see. Prep schools are cut-throat institutions, and St. Joe’s is but one example.)
Anyone who’s been on a blacktop court knows there are thousands of young prodigies out there – kids who can do amazing things with a basketball – but the road to the NBA is fraught with pressures and pitfalls. Thousands are out there, but only 464 men can play in the NBA.
Is this a dream or a nightmare?
PJ Johnston is president of the San Francisco Arts Commission and a former executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission. He served as Mayor Willie Brown’s press secretary and now runs his own communications consulting firm in San Francisco. A former journalist, he has written about movies for several publications, including the San Jose Mercury News and – long ago, in a galaxy far, far away – for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Email PJ at email@example.com.