360. That is the number of the guaranteed roster spots for the 30 teams in the NBA today.
Accounting for the fact that there are over 300 NCAA Division I teams that participate in the sport of basketball today, let alone the number of high schools fielding a basketball program, you can easily see the incredible odds it takes to make it into the NBA. Not only does it take size, skill, and a little luck, but also the support you receive along the way. For Arthur Agee and William Gates in the documentary Hoop Dreams, they learn just how hard it is to possess all of these attributes.
Both Arthur and William appear on equal footing heading into high school at famed St. Joseph High, but while William awes, Arthur underwhelms. It was obvious from the beginning that the school only cared about them as basketball players. First, St. Joesph’s disregarded the boys’ academic entry requirements, even though both had the “comprehension level of a 4th or 5th grader” according to their teachers. Next was the sponsorship of William when he was struggling to find a way to pay his bills, and guaranteeing him a full ride. Another instance of St.Joesph’s assistance was the jobs they find not only for William but also his brother, Curtis Gates, a college dropout who floats from one minimum wage job to the next. St. Joe’s went out of its way to help William, but quickly left Arthur out to dry. Film critic Roger Ebert quickly summed up my examples with this statement: “The morality here is clear: St. Joseph’s wanted Arthur, recruited him, and would have found tuition funds for him if he had played up to expectations.”
I know the world is a competitive place, and college coach Kevin O’Neill says it best at the Nike Basketball camp midway through the documentary when he talks about that winning is essential to any successful program, and the head coach’s job tenure is to put fans in the stands. The head coach at St. Joe’s is called a “legend” and a “guru” by announcers, but is never really called out for what he truly is until William brings it up in the end: obsessed. All he really cared about was the sport of basketball and posting another W in the record column, not about not developing young men for later in life. While we see the film sessions and peek in on the practices, we never really see the bonding moments between coach and player that touch your heart.
Even Bob Knight, the volatile, loud mouth coach and eventual all-time leader in NCAA Division I wins of Indiana University, had compassion for his players as evidenced in the book Season on the Brink by John Feinstein. In the book, Coach Knight calls All-American guard Steve Alford into his office to talk about how much he appreciated his hard work and leadership on and off the court. Alford talked about that moment afterward with Feinstein and stated in so many words that how much a few kind words from his coach meant the world after all the verbal abuse he had taken from him.
St. Joesph’s head basketball coach, Coach Pingatore[TU1] , keeps hyping William with the comparisons to St. Joe’s alumnus Isiah Thomas constantly throughout the film. He talks about how disappointed he is in William, that Isiah had the overall personality, the “killer instinct” that William lacked. He goes on at the end of William’s senior banquet to say how William had a “good, not great career.” William got out of the mean streets of inner Chicago, is going to a good Division I school, and did all of this despite his background and constant injury woes. In my opinion, he did what so many kids fail to do and is tried to be a productive person in society, not take the easy way and become a gangbanger or as Arthur says later at the end of the film “hold up liquor stores.”
Comparing William to Isiah Thomas is the wrong thing to do by Coach Pingatore. Isiah is his own man, and is not just one of the few to make out of Chicago but also one of the few perennial All-Stars in the NBA. The bar was set so high that there was no possible way for William to jump over it. You wouldn’t compare the smartest kid in high school to Bill Gates would you? So why must we do it for athletes? Ebert shared my sentiment on this as well, stating “What does it say about the values involved, when the pro sports machine reaches right down to eighth-grade playgrounds?”
While I appreciated William’s brilliance in overcoming a knee injury, seeing the behind the scenes of things such as the exclusive Nike Basketball camp and his recruiting process made me enjoy Arthur’s story just as much. Arthur fought through tough times with his family when his dad physically abused his mom and spent time in jail, struggled to pull his grades up, and then finally broke through [TU2] his senior year during the high school playoffs. I thought Roger Ebert made an excellent point in his review of the documentary when he stated “Hoop Dreams is not simply about basketball. It is about the texture and reality of daily existence in a big American city.”
Overall, the ending, while not the way the main characters wanted it to play out, struck a chord with me. Sometimes things just don’t work out. For every NBA superstar such as Derrick Rose they are 100 William Gates[TU3] . Even Derrick Rose almost didn’t make it out of Chicago’s Simeon High. Rose didn’t have the grades but had the SAT score; although it was found out after he left college he had cheated according to the NCAA (Bleacher Report).
Could you imagine the effects on the basketball world and the quality of Derrick Rose’s life if he hadn’t gotten into Memphis? Memphis does not make it to the 2008 National Championship Game. Who do the Chicago Bulls take with the first overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft, and who wins the 2011 Most Valuable Player award? What about head coach John Calipari leaving Memphis after that 38 win season to coach the University of Kentucky and eventually winning the 2012 NCAA championship? What if Arthur paid off someone to take the ACT like Derrick Rose did for the SAT and got into a four year university instead of junior college? Does he catch a break and make it to the NBA? The possibilities are endless, and life is so uncertain, I can’t help but wonder what exact qualities makes the difference between ordinary and extraordinary, between William Gates the unknown basketball player and billionaire software creator Bill Gates. If somebody knew that, he or she could bottle it, sell it, and reach the fame and fortune that comes with playing in the NBA that two poor kids from inner streets of Chicago so desperately wanted to acquire.
Ebert, Roger. “Hoop Dreams :: Rogerebert.com :: Reviews.” Hoop Dreams :: Rogerebert.com :: Reviews. Chicago Sun Times, 21 Oct. 1994. Web. 01 Oct. 2012.
Feinstein, John. A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers. New York: Macmillan, 1986. Print.
“Memphis Tigers.” Bleacher Report. Seattle Sportsnet, 20 Aug. 2009. Web. 01 Oct. 2012.