James: When Hoop Dreams was still in theaters, Peter and I were thinking we should make a narrative movie. I didn’t have an idea for a doc, and our agent was getting us meetings left and right.
Gilbert: We were full of ourselves and we wanted to make a Hollywood feature, but we were in a place where Hoop Dreams had such critical acclaim, you want to make something good.
James: One was a project that had Robin Wright attached that was a drama about this tough, uneducated country woman, but it didn’t go anywhere. [Producer] Arnold Kopelson heard we were in town and ordered us a car to come to his office. I remember he had six different posters of Platoon hanging in his office.
Gilbert: I remember he said, “You get a story, sports story, kind of like Rocky. He goes through this and that, but at the end, he wins. We get an actor, boom you have a movie.” He told us we’d talk in a couple of weeks. Never heard from the dude again.
James: [Producer] David Heyman loved Hoop Dreams and said he had a script for us. He said the studio was really high on it. So Peter and I go to a meeting at Sony, and the decision-makers were in the room. They asked, “What do you think about the script?” And Peter and I said it needed work, and the characters were kind of a cliché. So we’re in the parking lot afterward and Heyman comes up and is like, “Guys, guys, what are you doing?” And I’m like, “It needs work.” And he said, “You don’t understand, they were ready to say ‘Go make the film,’ we can fix this stuff as we go.” He was completely beside himself. Needless to say, we didn’t get it. The film ended up getting made—it opened a few years ago. Gridiron Gang, starring The Rock.
Gilbert: My favorite was meeting [television executive] Brandon Tartikoff. He called us up to do a pitch for a documentary, and the whole time on the ride over he’s like, “You don’t get many chances like this. You have to give a compelling pitch. I’m counting on you.” We get to the meeting, and I think I said two words, Steve said maybe three. The meeting ends, we get back in the car, Brandon pats us on the backs and says, “Guys, you just sealed your first deal.” Never heard from him again. You can’t make this stuff up.
James: Prefontaine was offered to us through Disney via Hollywood Pictures. I wasn’t a Prefontaine fan, but we’d been in that circle for a while and got a reality check. We made it. Then I followed that with a few cable movies [Passing Glory, Joe And Max], but being flown out for meetings first-class, put up in hotels, all that shit ended very quickly.
Agee: I never thought Hoop Dreams would be shown all over the world. I just thought Chicago people would see it. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that people in the U.K. or China would see this. And the way they took to it. I mean, I’ll never forget, I was walking downtown and these two people walk past me and was like, “You’re Arthur Agee. I saw your movie.” They were stopping people walking by and going, “Do you know who this is?”
Gates: My kids have only seen the first two years of the movie. Primarily because I want them to see daddy’s glory years before seeing daddy’s declining years. But they keep asking. It’s probably more me, because especially for [my son] William, I don’t want it to be that when anything goes bad in his life, it’s supposed to be because things went bad in daddy’s life. [Criterion Collection commentary.]
Agee: I remember at Arkansas State, the coach put a gag order on me. I was like, “I can’t help if these people are calling or showing up.” Tom Brokaw came down to do a piece. Even Bill Clinton came to see me. He had a private screening of the film and then was coming down to dedicate our new library. He came to my door, and I was like, “Aw, Prez, what’s up?” I was walking with the Secret Service past everyone.
After college, I kept trying to make it to the NBA. I was trying out for a CBA team when Steve asked if I wanted to be in his film, Passing Glory. I asked, “How much does it pay?” He said $17,000, and I was like, “Hell yeah.” Once I got a taste of acting, I really liked it. I got a lot of commercials, Spike Lee put me in as a cameo for He Got Game. I just starred in Peter’s son’s thesis film.
In 2001, Gates was invited to try out with the NBA’s Washington Wizards through the pushing of Michael Jordan, who had come out of retirement to play for the team. Gates’ comeback was halted when he injured his foot. Shortly after, Gates got the news that his brother Curtis was murdered.
Gates: Curtis was the only one who knew about my comeback. He met Michael. He told me, “If you make it, I'm quitting my job and travel where you travel.” [Washington Post, 2004]
James: We always swore we’d never do a Hoop Dreams sequel, but when Criterion released the film for their collection [in 2005], they asked us to do an update, and we agreed. We did a lot of interviews with all of the principals, we started getting great stuff, and we thought, “Why waste it on just a Criterion extra?” We were convincing Criterion to go along with doing something bigger when Bo died.
In 2004, Arthur “Bo” Agee was murdered behind his home.
Agee: At the time of his death, he had his church, he’d turned his life over to the Lord and was doing real good. I had just had an argument with him on the phone right before getting on a plane to go back to Chicago. I get off the plane and got word and went straight to the hospital. He had already passed. My whole focus shifted to my mom. I said, “Fuck Hoop Dreams, fuck acting, fuck basketball.” Everything was on my mom for like, three or four months.
James: We did some additional shooting, but we realized it wasn’t going to happen, and we all walked away from it.
William Gates and Arthur Agee
Agee: Me and William stay in contact a lot. We are like brothers. I was there for him when Curtis died, when my dad passed he was there for me. We always say the film was a blessing and a curse. With the 20th anniversary of the film, it’s not like one of us is in jail—it turned out great for me. I’m doing a Hoop Dreams clothing line, I’m running the Arthur Agee Role Model Foundation, I do a Hoop Dreams curriculum and show the movie across the country to different schools. I use the movie as a life-skills teaching tool.
Gates: I’m glad I was a part of this. The bad side about the movie is that people have expectations that Hoop Dreams made us rich. “You’re William Gates, can you help me?” “Help you with what?” But I do appreciate that even to this day, I still walk down the street and people say, “Are you William Gates?” [Criterion Collection commentary. Ed. note: Gates currently lives in Texas.]
Gilbert: I have been filming in the sports world continually; I’m still obsessed with it. To me, the film is still the same cautionary tale. William saying, “If I don’t [get to the NBA], don’t you forget about me.” Sheila cooking for Arthur’s birthday and saying, “It’s great he made it to 18.” Those two things encapsulate America still. And the film has endured with NBA players, and I mean current NBA players, not just Jordan and Barkley and those guys. The current players don’t even know the history of the game, but they know this movie.
Marx: I don’t see Hoop Dreams in the stratosphere like other people do, I guess. It did accomplish a lot of the things Steve and I set out to do, to mix some kind of narrative tropes with documentary ones. But the thing that the film left me with were the questions of, “Who is there in our society that is supporting young men in particular across the threshold of young adolescence into young adulthood? Who’s not basically trying to exploit them for their own ends?” That question led me on the journey I’m still on. The next film I’m in production on is about the solutions to that set of questions.
One film defined the arc of my entire career. Being a babe in the woods just fresh out of film school and becoming, if you will, a “Hollywood insider,” that’s a huge growth. It’s pretty odd that it happened within the context of one film. It’s not an easy standard to be measured by. I think I make excellent films, and I don’t think Hoop Dreams is my best film. It’s just that my work doesn’t get seen much these days.
James: Who knows what career I would have had if it weren’t for Hoop Dreams? I didn’t start off with any expectations at all. I knew I liked documentaries, and I figured I could work at a TV station. I remember while making the film, thinking, “When this is done, I just hope it will get me another film, and I’m not just doing commercial work.” When it premièred at Sundance, I was 38, I had three kids and no money saved. I think after doing Prefontaine and the two cable movies, I realized I’m a much better documentary filmmaker. I love documentaries, and I started to find some grounding. The success of Hoop Dreams was so huge, anything I made next would expose me as a one-hit wonder. That weighed on me a lot, so when Prefontaine got mixed reviews, that was a very low point.
I look at Hoop Dreams as we were particularly blessed with incredible families, incredible stories, incredible drama, and a film that seemed to come out at the exact right time about the right topic. The films that I've made since then [Stevie, The Interrupters] were harder to make, and I’ve made my peace with the fact that I’m probably never going to make anything that’s ever seen as being as good as Hoop Dreams. I’m really happy when someone comes up and mentions another film I’ve done, but in a way, I’ve never been able to put Hoop Dreams behind me, and I probably never will. At least I have a body of work now, and I don’t feel like I was a one-hit wonder.