Steve James (Director/Producer/Editor/Narrator): I played a lot of basketball in my life. I played organized ball up through one year of college, and when I was in grad school at Southern Illinois University in an MFA program in film, I would play a lot down at the rec center. I almost remember it like it was yesterday, I went down to the rec center on a Sunday in early 1985 for some reason—that’s the day I usually didn’t go. On that day, all three courts were used by African-American players. There were no white players on the floor. Instead of playing, I just sat there and watched. The gym seemed completely different that day. The rhythm of play. The energy. The camaraderie. I watched for a while, and it was there that I guess you can say I had an epiphany: It would be interesting to do a film about the culture of basketball in the black community.
Most of the players since junior high that I played with were African-American. But I had never been privy to the culture in any kind of real way. So that day in the rec center, I felt this strong vibe, and I remember thinking, “This must be what being on a playground in a black community would be like.” I thought it would be an interesting film, but I tabled the idea. This came relatively late in my grad career, and I was going to be moving. And I remember very distinctly thinking Chicago would be a great place to look into doing this film, because I knew the city had a very rich basketball tradition: Isiah Thomas was from there, and the Bulls were coming into their own as Michael Jordan was entering his second year in the NBA.
I reached out initially to my grad-school friend who left SIU before I did, Frederick Marx. He played high-school ball and was a big basketball fan. At the time, Frederick was living in China teaching English, so I reached out to him via letters about the idea.
Frederick Marx (Producer/Editor): Steve and I were best friends at SIU. Whenever we weren’t making films, we were down in the gym shooting hoops. We had never had a chance to work together on a film in grad school, but we would talk about projects for the future. I moved out to China in the fall of 1983, and that’s when we started exchanging mail about collaborating on a number of feature films—we were working on a comedy script, so we would send each other drafts.
I came back from China in the late summer/early fall of 1985, and I settled back in Champaign, Illinois. We kept things going via phone and mail, and then in April 1986, we formally grounded the basketball idea.
James: I almost had the title before I had anything else: Hoop Dreams. Hoop was slang for playing the game, and then there’s the dreams of kids. It just fit.
Marx: I remember the first meeting that was face-to-face was at my mom’s house, and suitably enough, I had a basketball injury. I had just blown out my knee playing hoops, and was on crutches. And I remember in that conversation saying, “I love Hoop Dreams, but can we call it something else? Because two of my previous films had the word ‘dreams’ in the title.”
James: For a minute, I had it called Hoopin’, but eventually we realized Hoop Dreams was much better.
Marx: We hoped it would be a half-hour piece that PBS might broadcast. It was not nearly as ambitious as it became.
James: The topic back then was to focus on a single playground, to do a film that looked at the culture from that court. We’d look at young dreamers, washed-up dreamers, and then maybe ideally a great college player or pro that came from that playground.
Marx: In those early conversations, we basically agreed that Steve and I would both produce, he would direct the film because the idea originated with him, and I’d edit. Then on the next film we’d do together, we would reverse the roles.
James: I got an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in 1987, which was $2,000. Soon after, Frederick and I got a meeting with Gordon Quinn at Kartemquin Films. I remembered back at SIU Gordon’s partner, Jerry Blumenthal, came down to talk about what the company was, and I thought it seemed cool.
Marx: On one hand, Kartemquin had this glorious reputation of vérité filmmaking, but we also talked about how we wanted to bring some narrative filmmaking standards to vérité. We had that notion from the beginning, putting a bit of narrative polish on it.
Gordon Quinn (Executive Producer/Co-Producer): In these kinds of meetings, I always looked for people who really had passion for the film they wanted to make. Steve and Frederick were just out of school, and they had what seemed like a really good idea for a film. But they also had a $2,000 grant, and that told me these guys were serious. So we got involved.
James: Originally, we were going to do the film in a total of six months, and we’d shoot for a couple of weeks on a playground. I was trying to be practical. Plus, we were going to shoot on film. People were just starting to shoot on video, but it hadn’t taken over yet. And Frederick and I were film-school guys, so that’s what we wanted to do. So we started raising money. But despite Kartemquin’s name, we didn’t get any money for a while. With only $2,000 from the Illinois grant, we decided we’d have to shoot on video—it was the only way we’d be able to shoot anything. So now we needed to find someone who not only could shoot it, but had their own gear, which back then, wasn’t easy to come by.
I was in the Kartemquin offices one day, and the office manager at the time said, “I know the person for you—Peter Gilbert.”
Quinn: He had an association with Kartemquin. It was the perfect match. Peter is obsessed with basketball.
Peter Gilbert: (Producer/Cinematographer): I had been working heavily with Barbara Kopple on American Dream. Jerry and Gordon called me and said, These guys came in and are doing this film about streetball.” I grew up in Chicago and played streetball my entire life, and the neighborhoods they were interested in, I knew.
James: I called Peter up, and the very first conversation I had with him, we talked for, like, three hours. I told him about the film and my experience with basketball, and he told me his, we talked about the NBA. We just had a total basketball-fan conversation. And he had a camera!
Gilbert: I had worked with Haskell Wexler, and he told me, “You’ll never lose money on gear.” I don’t think Barbara [Kopple] had seen anything I shot before she hired me. Same with Steve—but I had gear.
James: So the plan was to go out and shoot for a week. We were going to find a playground, and Peter would shoot it, and we’d worry about how to pay him later. Frederick and I set out to scout which playground to shoot on. I mentioned to Frederick that it would be cool to shoot on the court Isiah [Thomas] grew up on, because we wanted him in the movie, too.
Marx: I think through my research, I tracked down his high-school coach at St. Joseph’s High School, Gene Pingatore.
Peter Gilbert, "Big Earl" Smith, and Steve James
James: We went out to meet Pingatore and told him about the movie and that we’d love to get Isiah involved, and asked if he knew what playground he grew up on. And he said he knew just the guy to talk to. He introduced us to “Big Earl” Smith, who knew where Isiah played, and also knew every playground in the city.
So Earl, Frederick, Peter, and I over the course of a couple of days looked at playgrounds. We stopped at this one, and Earl eyes this one kid and goes, “This kid is interesting,” and we’re like, “Which kid?”
Marx: I just saw one scrappy little kid among millions when Earl pointed him out.
Gilbert: I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I was totally not blown away at all.
James: We weren’t seeing it, but Earl was like, “He’s got speed, he’s got some skills.” The kid was Arthur Agee.
Arthur Agee (Subject of Hoop Dreams): I’m over at the playground by my house and these three goofy white guys come out of, I think, a Volvo and started setting up cameras. I was just thinking, “I hope they don’t get robbed up here for their equipment.”
James: We showed up in a rusty old Mazda hatchback that Peter fondly dubbed “the Mazdaratti.” We went over with Earl and introduced ourselves to Arthur and said “We’re doing a film, and we’d like to meet with your parents about you possibly being in it.”
Agee: I was gung-ho! Once they explained it, I said I’d love to be part of that. I went home and told my mom—she knew I would do practical jokes, so when I told her these three white guys want to do a movie on me, she was like, “Man, get out of here. Don’t nobody want to do no movie on you.” Then the next day, when they came over, she didn’t have her teeth in, so she ran back and put them in and came back like, “Hello, Arthur told me you’d be coming by.” [Laughs.]
James: I went to Arthur’s house with Earl, and I told them what we were doing, and Earl talked to them about having Arthur go out to St. Joe’s for Ping’s summer camp. Isiah was going to be there, so we thought that was great: “We have to shoot this.” But it wasn’t what we had set out to do at all.
Gilbert: Suddenly we’ve moved off the outdoor court, and we never really went back.
James: We go to the camp with Arthur. Earl and Ping meet him and interview him with his family, and Ping says to Arthur—it’s in the movie—“If you work hard at your grades and you work hard at basketball, then I will help you as far as going to college.” And we thought, “What an extraordinary thing to say to this kid you just met.”
Gilbert: Where I was able to help [the film] the most was that I came from a background of shooting vérité in scenes. Working with Barbara Kopple, it was more about “How can we make these things into scenes rather than interviews?” For me, that scene in Pingatore’s office, that’s the moment. There’s the story.
James: Peter really pushed Frederick and me to not be satisfied with good interviews and B-roll. And he really knew how to shoot basketball scenes. After that meeting in the office, we interviewed Pingatore and asked him how skilled he thought Arthur was. He said, “It’s too early to tell. But I have this other kid coming in that could be the next Isiah Thomas.” He said his name was William Gates. We asked if he was at the camp, and Ping said he was, but he had twisted his ankle, so he wasn’t going to play. But we thought, “With that kind of endorsement, we have to meet him too.”
William Gates (Subject of Hoop Dreams; Gates declined to be interviewed for this piece. All quotes come from the credited sources): When Steve, Frederick and Peter came to [the Cabrini-Green housing project] and asked if I wanted to be in the film, they really earned my trust. I was 14 years old and someone wanted to do something about my life? Let’s do it.” [From a commentary track recorded for the 2005 Criterion Collection DVD.]
Gilbert: William was a man-child. He looked 18 years old. And his brother was famous in my neighborhood. I had been reading about Curtis for years—he was a phenomenon in Chicago basketball.
James: We didn’t film William that day because we didn’t have permission, but we did shoot Arthur playing Isiah. Pingatore helped us out by selecting Arthur to play Isiah among the kids.
Agee: I was in heaven! You see me walking out to him with a big grin. He gave me a pump fake and I went for it, I like jumped out of my drawers.
James: Isiah played a lot of kids, probably half a dozen, maybe more. We filmed them all, but for the movie, we just kept when Arthur played him.