Bryson Edward Howe
Hoop Dreams: Sport or Art?
The greatest documentary of the last thirty years still continues to blur the lines between sport and art, inspiration and pain, success and failure.
The year is 2010, the black TV screen crackles to life and the room lights up purple and gold. My eyes focus on the number "24" donning the back of a jersey as it moves lightning-fast down the court, the hardwood seeming to shake under every dribble, my mouth dry, the figure stops on a dime – pulls up, ball in his hand, letting it go to soar through the air, his body hanging in the air for an extra moment, defying gravity – as the ball nears the basket, I watch agape.
Ever since I was a kid my two great loves have always been art and sport (above all: basketball). In my mind, there is very little difference between the two. I realise that sentence might inflame the school playground memories of some of the artists reading this whose lack of ability to throw a ball where you aimed it prompted seating intellectualism over athleticism, so I will grant you that sport and art aren’t exactly the same thing. But there is at least a confluence between the two. But I’m not talking about some pretentious academic distinction between purposive and aesthetic ideals in relation to Kant's considerations of beauty in the arts, because no one who watches sport gives a shit about any of that. And I'm sort of hoping no one who reads this site does either.
Because if you sit down and watch an entire basketball game, you can see this union: there's rhythm, there's movement, there's improvisation, creativity, imagination, passion and, at its core, there is an absolute struggle for perfection. Sound familiar? It's a game that, like a fine wine, is alive. The players are pushing their bodies to fight their natural instincts, sprinting forwards and backwards as quickly as they can with the scores going up and down faster than they can even get their bearings; like actors on a stage, where players have roles that they have to fully place their faith in and work together to control the game. It is this, a learned skill, as much as it is fundamentally a reactionary game, something spontaneous where the true talent of a player is their ability to understand the texture and the timing of their opponents, and to read the tempo and mood of the game; where the man is scrutinised, not for making or missing shots, or fumbling a pass, but for his blinding focus. Because there is a clear purpose on the court — or, at least, the best players possess this purpose — a drive toward a very pure and simple vision of a rubber orange ball soaring and falling effortlessly through the hoop; in a way, simply willing the ball through the basket. Do that enough times, and you win the game. Do that enough times, and you might win a championship. Purpose, as it is in life, is key, making this also the most visibly narrative-based sport, where there are characters and personalities and nuances like a Greek myth: the odds are against you, the world is watching, you, a kid, with all that pressure and all these adults who are – maybe only subconsciously – trying to take advantage of your growing body and talent, a talent you didn’t ask for, this weird thing that most people call a gift but maybe is actually a curse. It is a myth full of unfulfilled desire and unrealised ambition. This is the sort of soap opera / melodrama that you can become wrapped up in around sports, the gladiator story full of disappointment and triumph that only ramps up the suspense of the game itself – as thrilling as any piece of art, if even in the same league, and arguably professional basketball has had more impact on style, culture and music (I mean, you don't get Mo Bamba without Mo Bamba, need I say more?) than anything else in the last thirty years; Hoop Dreams was just the first nexus of my two interests.
Shot on VHS, with the filmmakers embedded into the lives of these two families (shooting some 250 hours of footage over 5 years), at moments it feels like a home video, at others, it transcends to something else: at points feeling like a dream, like the hopeful wish of a child's blown-out birthday candle pushed through fuzzy scan lines, looking back not with nostalgia but the crackle and haze of a memory of an abandoned dream. Except the problem with dreams, especially of the American kind, is that it isn’t always equitable and, sometimes, despite the innocent, gorgeous dreams of youth, the things we love can ruin us, maybe without us even knowing it. There are certainly a lot of good fictional sports films out there (basketball has White Men Can't Jump, He Got Game and even Uncut Gems, meanwhile, there's also Raging Bull, Point Break, and The Fighter), but Hoop Dreams crystallised documentaries as something other than just fluff for television or educational pieces. It set a new standard to be both built upon and challenged, carving out a space for smaller stories that use sports as a lens to explore broader issues – such as Minding the Gap, a brutally intimate doc that uses skateboarding as an entry point to explore the agonies and joys of impoverished young men growing up in America and carries the DNA of Hoop Dreams in the filmmaker's raw connection with his subjects (and is executive produced by Hoop Dreams director Steve James) – Hoop Dreams is one of the great American texts.
Essentially a coming-of-age story, it works as an American fantasy: selling dreams of dreams to young people way out of the realm of possibility. Focusing on two high school teens – Arthur Agee and William Gates, at an age where emotions are so full and vibrant and uncontrollable – who are plucked from the playgrounds of their inner-city Chicago neighbourhoods by a high school basketball talent scout from a private school ninety minutes away. Rising and falling in Dickensian twists over a whining jazz score, it paints the American dream as nothing but a cruel hoax. Because on one level, Hoop Dreams is a hopeful and inspirational story full of tenderness about the determination and resilience of two specific characters and their families who would otherwise normally be invisible to the world (or, worse, treated just as statistics instead of human beings), but on another level, it's about much larger subjects: about ambition, competition, and value structures of a culture; using the game of basketball almost just as a McGuffin, James spins the plot around and around until we have lost our bearings, unravelling the textural lived experience of these boys and their families: addiction, domestic violence, senseless shootings, and the city shutting off the Agee's power when they can’t afford their bills – the everyday agonies of life that sports occasionally help us forget – leading to a Kafkaesque bit of bureaucracy when Agee is forced to leave the private school and the school refuses to release Agee's transcripts, essentially holding his future hostage for a debt his parents clearly would never have contracted if the school's recruiters had not come scouting state school playgrounds for the boy. What does it say about the values involved when the pro-sports-machine trickles own to children's playgrounds? And what happens to those high school students in these neighbourhoods who aren't star basketball players? What happens to the girls, when even the most talented of boys are all vying for a prize that they are told they have only a 0.00005% chance of winning? They know this and try anyway. What other choices are left?
One must imagine Sisyphus happy. Because, you could even question the very idea of sport, not just as an art, but as an apparatus in itself: why do we compete in made-up games? Well, why do we put paint strokes on a canvas? Sport is just make-believe, where for four quarters we all pretend that this game matters and that this competition and these warriors are real, the same with boxing or football or tennis – just as we do with cinema and theatre and music. The difference is, for boys like Agee and Gates, it does matter. They are warriors, going out and fighting for a chance at making it out of their increasingly dire situations. Hoop Dreams' power is entirely predicated on this delicate balancing act between showing us the natural jeopardy of sport (you win some, you lose some) and just what influence sport can have, both good and bad, on the shape of a life, watching the societal and adult pressure that are buffeting Agee and Gates every which way and both striving to carve out a sense of self somewhere in the middle. The real tragedy of the story isn’t even captured in the film, being that neither Agee nor Gates ever made it to the NBA. They both found success elsewhere, both professional and personal, but the very connotation of "hoop dreams" suggests a very different definition of success, one that former 5x NBA MVP and 11x NBA champion Bill Russell puts into a larger context, stating that, as black men, there was "one right we never had in this country—we never had the right to be a failure."
So, to me, it seems that making the case that sport is an art, or that basketball provides a lens through which to view things, aren't different at all. This is especially regarding a story that is so often about black men. It's not easy for me as a white man to fully understand or totally accept the vision of a black man (yes, I suppose there is some ethical conundrum to Hoop Dreams being captured and edited by a white man's camera, one that maybe further muddies and complicates a challenging enough question), but Hoop Dreams formed a fundamental introduction to this experience to a young boywho simply adored the game of basketball. Because artists use different mediums as lenses through which to explore different ideas about the world all the time, just as the sport of basketball has reared ugly and complicated questions about class and race for decades (something that sadly hasn't visibly improved since Hoop Dreams' 1994 release) – sport and art are the two most universal languages we have. Both are expressions of the human spirit in its manifold forms. You see, because sport embodies a grand metaphysical struggle of the human spirit against the unruly and entropic forces of the material world; both are a fight against inertia. It is part of human nature to want to compete with and to challenge ourselves and push our limits. The sheer willpower of athletes – if you've ever seen LeBron chasing down a fast-break with the game on the line, you know – and the ability to bring body and mind towards such a sense of harmony is inhuman. It's an incredible high, to go beyond what you previously thought was possible. In many ways, art does the same.
Back in 2010, as the ball glides through the air, I see the game for what it is, equal parts magic, mathematics, and athletics because the ball isn't headed for the basket. It was never meant to be. The crowd thinks he's missed, but scoring was never his intention, as another man, all 7 feet and 1 inch of him, wearing number "16" comes out of nowhere, soaring higher than even the ball, catching it mid-air, effortlessly placing the ball into the hoop. My mind is reeling, a mental whiplash from disappointment to disbelief in a few short seconds, their bodies moving quicker than my mind can comprehend what I'd just seen, a moment of great clarity, to focus and be ready for a critical moment in a game, to be in control, to relax into the moment and to let the moment use you. Sport is art, just as art is just a game. These athletes burn with the same passion and ambition and mortality as the great artists, their canvas is just a different shape. The court, the game, the rules, it's all their version of an escape from the chaos of life (with just enough chaos to keep it fun), and an outlet for their emotion and their passion. It's a beautiful game. Poetry in motion.
"If I don't make it, don't you forget about me."