Wednesday, August 21

‘Dreams’ reflects UCLA reality


‘Dreams’ reflects UCLA reality

Film documents American youths’ love of basketball

By Bernie Cook

Special to The Bruin

Kristaan Johnson. omm’A Givens. J.R. Henderson. Toby Bailey.
These are special names, hyped names, strange and yet already
familiar. While games are still a month away, practice has started
for these four "blue chip" freshman who joined the UCLA men’s
basketball team. Together with four returning starters, these
highly touted high schoolers have propelled UCLA to the pinnacle of
the pre-season rankings. Althon College Basketball has ranked the
Bruins No. 1, ahead of defending national champion Arkansas. This
is time to dream hoops in Westwood. Before a freshman scores a
basket that counts. Or turns the ball over.

Also debuting this month in Westwood is the engrossing
documentary Hoop Dreams, a humanist examination of America’s
fascination with hoops. Linking NBA All-Star games to asphalt
fantasies, Hoop Dreams adds history and dimension to the feverish
appeal of basketball. The film produces a narrative of the lives of
two young African American men whose identities and possibilities
are tied to the game.

Arthur Agee. William Gates. These names spark no recognition.
Unlike omm’A, these are common names, suggesting ordinariness and
regularity. However, the documentary provides not just names, but
stories, families and connections. The genius of the film is in the
details.

Hoop Dreams packs its nearly three-hour length with dynamic,
painful growth. The film introduces junior high schoolers Agee and
Gates as they watch an NBA All-Star game, enthralled by the
virtuosity of Michael Jordan flying to the rack. Immediately, the
spindly Agee and the solid Gates hit their home courts, emulating
and imagining. By the film’s end, the names Agee and Gates sound
more resonantly than Jordan. Hoop Dreams succeeds marvelously where
shoe company ad campaigns fail. It renders complexly the nuances of
life, both on and off the court.

Hoop Dreams is about the experience of life in contemporary
America. It is particularly, at times problematically, about race.
Former Marquette coach and current college hoops analyst Al McGuire
once said, "the only thing in this country that blacks really
dominate, except poverty, is basketball."

Like McGuire, the three filmmakers (Peter Gilbert, Frederick
Marx and Steve James) are white and well-intentioned. They set out
to dramatize a particular racial and class experience of life and a
game. However, their intentions may have blinded them to the
intrusiveness of utilizing the documentary form to construct a
tight narrative of the lives of two inner-city black men and their
families.

The film dramatizes b-ball, warts and all. Or, as ESPN
commentator Bill Raftery would exclaim, describing a basket made
despite a foul, "the hoop and the harm." Dreams of the NBA and
promise of release from need meet the realities of lives caught in
cycles of poverty, where opportunities seem nonexistent and
institutions uncaring.

Basketball is the latest incarnation of the American dream of
social mobility. The idea that talent in this sport cannot lead to
wealth and standing in America is not a lie, but that access to
these rewards is available to all comers. The dream of hoops is
ephemeral, often only a blown anterior cruciate ligament away from
a nightmare. Progress through each level of the sport is tortuous.
As the film demonstrates, to make it to the major college level is
an amazing achievement.

Even more amazing, Agee’s mom reminds the filmmakers, is making
it to your eighteenth birthday on the mean streets of Chicago. In
one of the film’s most revealing segments, Arthur’s mom is both
proud and thankful for her son’s continued survival: "He made it to
18, and that’s great. That is something." The film reminds viewers
to think beyond the court. Out of bounds lies rejection, poverty,
death. No wonder so many men (and women) seek the embrace of a
game.

Yet the game’s promise can easily betray. The film’s focus is
relentlessly masculine, poignantly depicting "failed" men ­
those who did not "make it" ­ projecting their dreams for self
onto little sons, brothers, others. The ideology of major,
competitive sports in America is intricately tied up with
constructions of successful, functioning masculinity. The film’s
father figures, former players Bo Agee and Curtis Gates, represent
the failure of hoops to guarantee security and identity. Reformed
crack addict and penitent father Bo challenges Arthur to
one-on-one, refusing to admit his son’s superior ability. After
showing highlights of Curtis throwing down dunks in high school,
the camera captures him on the blacktop failing to clear the
rim.

The presence of mothers, sisters, girlfriends and daughters in
the film is largely kept peripheral. As in the highest level of the
game, the NBA, women are kept on the sidelines, nurturing and
cheering, but not participating.

Hoop Dreams’ emphasis on struggle is perhaps its greatest lesson
for the UCLA community. For hoop fans, the tendency is to believe
the hype generated by the media-driven economy of the sport.
Athletes performing at the sport’s highest levels must always
combat unreal expectation. Success is not only expected, but
required. How many of UCLA’s faithful considered last season a
failure after a loss to underdog Tulsa in the NCAA’s first round?
How many demand a trip to the Final Four this season? The double
edge of expectation is the assumption that performance comes easy
for blue chip ballplayers. Driven by the meat market of high school
scouting, the mantra of basketball is talent. Talent gets you
there. Talent wins ball games. Talent makes you rich.

Lost amid the shuffling Nikes is the concept of effort. Hoop
Dreams is all about effort, struggle, setbacks. The accumulation of
detail, the portrait of young men’s lives, reminds the hoop fan of
sacrifice. The more gifted natural athlete, Gates powerfully jams
before beginning high school. Yet, after leading St. Joseph’s as a
freshman and sophomore, Gates suffers a tear in his knee ligament.
Before his heralded freshman season, on the cusp of glory like
Givens, Johnson, Henderson and Bailey, UCLA forward Ed O’Bannon
suffered a devastating knee injury. Both players endured several
surgeries and arduous rehabilitation.

Explosive talents before becoming injured, each had to face the
uncertainty of reaching previous heights with a body that has
already failed. Once the top-rated high school prospect in the
country, O’Bannon has pushed himself to the point of All-America
consideration in his senior season. He will likely be selected in
the next NBA draft. Gates returned to St. Joe’s and played well
enough to gain a scholarship to Marquette. All their talent could
not prevent their injuries. Only determination and effort returned
them to the court.

Effort and sacrifice are experiences deftly demonstrated in Hoop
Dreams. The hoop fans should not only fill Pauley Pavilion this
Fall, but should throng to the theaters as well. In all its
complexity, Hoop Dreams demands to be seen and discussed.

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