Hoop Dreams, 15 Years Later
Arthur Agee and William Gates share passion for empowering at-risk youth.
by Ben York
“People always say to me, ‘when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me’. Well, I should’ve said back, ‘if I don’t make it to the NBA, don’t you forget about me’.”—William Gates, Hoop Dreams
We haven’t forgotten.
Fifteen years ago, a landmark documentary changed the way we viewed the proverbial dream many children have of playing professional basketball. As with millions of youth across the globe, Arthur Agee and William Gates dreamt of one day playing in the NBA; the only difference with them and others is they were actually gifted enough to make it there. Growing up in the inner-city of Chicago, Agee and Gates were recruited early on to play high school basketball at a suburban prep school. Immediately, they found that their dreams of playing in the NBA would come at a much higher price than they originally thought. Academics, money, family troubles, and politics were just some of the newfound barriers they would have to face. Throughout it all, they never lost faith in basketball, and in doing so captured the collective hearts of moviegoers everywhere. Never before had a film given us a glimpse of this journey as it was actually occurring.
In Hoop Dreams, Arthur Agee and William Gates used basketball as a conduit to rise above difficult social, economic, and societal barriers. Widely known as one of the best sports films (and documentaries) ever made, Hoop Dreams provided a personal glimpse into the life of these teenagers, as they struggle to find their identity, maintain their integrity, and persevere through countless hardships. The film wasn’t about basketball as much as it was about education, values, and morals facing today’s youth.
The film’s stars have utilized the success of the documentary to promote the importance of education, mentoring, and beating the odds. As part of the 15th anniversary of Hoop Dreams, Arthur Agee and William Gates attended a special screening of the film in Tucson, Arizona in conjunction with the Tucson Urban League. Open to the public, guests were invited to view the film and take part in a panel discussion afterwards with Agee and Gates. Surprisingly, this was only the fifth time Gates had viewed the film.
Today, Agee and Gates are exactly how you would imagine them and are an extension of what they were in the film. Arthur Agee’s kind-hearted nature and friendly personality is both unmistakable and infectious. His passion for inspiring kids to make the most out of life is refreshing and awe-inspiring at the same time. William Gates is still soft-spoken, but his genuineness and warmth translates very well into his current career – pastor at Living Faith Community Church in Chicago. The bond they shared many years ago is still evident today, perhaps even stronger.
Even after all this time, the film still resonated with the audience in a way few movies do. You could identify with the struggles they were going through. Your heart still felt for Agee and Gates as they experienced such continual adversity. You could hear gasps when Arthur Agee’s father took a break from playing basketball with his son to go buy drugs from a dealer just a few feet away. When Gates injures his knee for the second time, you could still feel the pain and sadness he went through like it was your own family. You want to root for both of these young men. They’re innocent, they’re driven, and they’re real. To this day, the film tugs at your heartstrings, and brings a difficult reality to the forefront — basketball isn’t a fail-safe option for struggling youth to escape their current surroundings. But a glaring issue remains, how can youth in the inner-city receive a solid education when it isn’t even safe to step outside their own home?
“There is a section in Chicago where gangs completely rule everything,” Agee said at the screening. “Kids are getting shot on their way to school. Even for the kids who place school as a priority, they don’t feel safe to go outside. It’s like they need a police escort just to get to class.”
That’s exactly what Agee is trying to change through his foundation. Agee travels the nation as part of a program he developed entitled, Hoop Dreams: Control Your Destiny Curriculum. Arthur never made it to the pro ranks, and the vast majority of young athlete’s won’t either. There is no shame in this, and Agee’s program places an emphasis on choices and academics to help youth better themselves.
“Your life has to be about more than basketball,” Agee said. “The ball is going to stop bouncing one day. What are you going to do then?”
Agee is living proof that there are many ways to change and improve your life when basketball doesn’t work out. In Hoop Dreams, Agee never took school very seriously, but learned later on it was the only way he was going to create a better life for himself and his family.
“I was always a clown in school,” Agee said about his reliance on education. “You see in the movie when I said if school was canceled for good, there wouldn’t be a single kid who would care. It wasn’t until later on when I realized how important it was. All you kids out there, learn from my mistake. I know it’s not easy to keep school in the front of your mind at a young age, but trust me, it will be worth it in the end.”
William Gates, now a pastor in Chicago, also serves as the perfect example of the need for a back-up plan. Drawing comparisons to Isiah Thomas in high school, Gates injured his right knee during his junior year and ended up doing more damage by returning to the court too quickly. Everything was going right for him, until the knee injury put a damper on his progress.
“It’s all about choices,” said Gates. “That’s what I try to get across to my own kids and the kids we serve at my church. It’s about empowerment and choices. Instead of a basketball scholarship, get an academic scholarship. Broaden your horizons.”
Gates now has a son who plays at St. Joseph High School, and is still married to the young woman he had a child with in the film. Education is the No. 1 priority for Gates as he continues to set a better example for his children than his father did.
Agee is returning to Tucson in a couple months to screen his follow-up to Hoop Dreams called Hoop Reality. This time, Agee serves as a mentor to a young prodigy at his former high school. The film’s tone and message remains the same – youth with dreams of playing professional basketball have to develop a back-up plan.
Although Agee and Gates never made it to the NBA, their story has caused millions of people to take a second look at their own life. What happens if I get injured before getting a college scholarship? What if I don’t make it? How can I best position myself for success?
The simple fact of the matter is Arthur Agee and William Gates are focused on improving lives. They were fortunate enough to be successful in life in ways other than basketball. And as Hoop Dreams so gracefully depicted, not everyone is that lucky.