A prodigious achievement that conveys the fabric of modern American life in close-up and at length, "Hoop Dreams" is a documentary slam dunk. This intimate epic chronicles the lives of two black inner-city Chicago kids, both of whom harbor legitimate hopes of making it as professional basketball players, from neighborhood play at 14 to high school tournaments, college recruiting and their eventual departure from home.

A prodigious achievement that conveys the fabric of modern American life, aspirations and incidentally, sports, in close-up and at length, “Hoop Dreams” is a documentary slam dunk. This intimate epic chronicles 4 1/2 years in the lives of two black inner-city Chicago kids, both of whom harbor legitimate hopes of making it as professional basketball players, from neighborhood play at 14 to high school tournaments, college recruiting and their eventual departure from home. A dual approach of screenings at fests and for specially targeted urban audiences would trigger plenty of start-up word of mouth, and limited theatrical runs would seem warranted in advance of broadcast on public TV, where it could easily be positioned as a major event.

In its most specific sense, this film by Steve James, Fred Marx and Peter Gilbert follows teenage hoopmeisters William Gates and Arthur Agee as they go through the steps all prospects must take on the way to the National Basketball Assn.

Of the 500,000 kids who play high school basketball every year, only about 25 ever play as much as one season professionally, but it is clear that the dream of success motivates the lives, not only of the players themselves but of their families and much of the economically depressed communities in which they live.

By keeping their cameras in close over such a long period, however, the filmmakers have also rendered a remarkable portrait of growing up in the city today, of the fragility and resilience of the family, of the difficulty of escaping the ghettos and projects, of the negative pressures on decent people applied by society and criminality, of the perception of successful athletes as something other than normal human beings.

The three-hour running time makes for a long sit, and some will argue that sections could be lost without heavy damage, but the wide-ranging, comprehensive approach ultimately pays dividends that decidedly reward the investment of time.

High school scout Earl Smith leads the filmmakers to Gates and Agee, who, as 14-year-old eighth-graders, are already considered blue-chip prospects. Both are lured out of Chicago to attend St. Joseph’s, a suburban Catholic high school of which NBA superstar Isiah Thomas is the most illustrious alumnus. Both are offered financial support and perform well on the court during freshman year, but Agee is forced to leave for financial reasons.

Agee enrolls in the all-black public high school Marshall, where he becomes so despondent that both his academic and sports careers falter. Adding to his woes is the departure of his father, forcing the family onto welfare for the first time. One of the film’s most startling sidelights, which speaks volumes about the fatherhood problem in the inner cities, is the weaving in and out of Bo Agee; in a shocking scene, Arthur sees his father, now a crack-addicted street person, making a drug buy on the very playground where he’s shooting baskets.

The players’ high school careers progress in surprising ways: Agee, who seems on the verge of closing up and possibly turning bad, rebounds and helps lead unranked Marshall to the state championship tourney. Gates suffers the setback of a knee injury that ultimately requires two operations. Despite this, he is invited to the prestigious Nike Basketball Camp at Princeton, where the nation’s leading college coaches check out the season’s top prospects.

The pressures and personal aspects of college recruiting are seen in detail, as Gates, who is suddenly shown to have a girlfriend and baby, is induced to sign a scholarship with Marquette, while Agee is virtually ignored despite his great play. After the tension of their senior-year games, and especially after one of them is held up at gunpoint in the neighborhood, they are looking forward to getting out, although the future for both is questionable.

Few works in any medium have been able to show so concretely all the ways kids change during adolescence. The process is exaggerated here because of the tremendous pressure on all fronts, but the fact that it is real, not dramatized, makes the spectacle of the kids being worn down and forced so young to face life’s disappointments and realities so compelling.

Filmmakers shot some 250 hours of film (and, it would appear, video) to cover this saga. The fact that they always seem to have been on the spot when it counted speaks to their tenacious commitment, as well as to the tremendous cooperation of their subjects, who had to put up with the invasion of their lives (often at uncomfortable moments) for more than four years. Pic will provoke interesting comment from many different quarters for its innumerable artistic, sociological and sports-related qualities.

Hoop Dreams

Production

A Kartemquin Films/KCTA-TV production. (Sales: Iltis Sikich, Chicago.) Produced by Fred Marx, Steve James, Peter Gilbert. Executive producers, Gordon Quinn, Catherine Allan. Directed by James.

Crew

Camera (color), Gilbert; additional camera, Quinn, Ed Scott, Sid Lubitsch, Kevin McCarey, Mirko Popadic, Jim Morrissette, Jim Fetterley; editors, Marx, James, Bill Haugse; music producer, Ben Sidran; creative consultant, Quinn; sound, Adam Singer, Tom Yore. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Jan. 25, 1994. Running time: 174 min.

With

William Gates, Arthur Agee, Emma Gates, Curtis Gates, Sheila Agee, Arthur (Bo) Agee, Earl Smith, Gene Pingatore, Isiah Thomas, Patricia Weir, Luther Bedford, Shannon Johnson, Tomika Agee, Joe (Sweetie) Agee, Jazz Agee, Catherine Mines, Willie Gates, Dick Vitale, Kevin O'Neill, Bobby Knight, Spike Lee, Bo Ellis, Tim Gray, others.
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