When Dwyane Wade was a 12-year-old shooting jumpers on the playgrounds of Chicago, a movie came out that would help navigate him through his future Hall of Fame career.
Released in 1994, “Hoop Dreams” shadowed the bumpy fortunes of Arthur Agee and William Gates, two inner-city Chicago youths dreaming of NBA stardom.
Wade’s path to the Final Four with Marquette and championships with the Miami Heat would be lined with the same challenges faced by Agee and Gates, including the pressures of injury and young parenting, and the avoidance of drugs and gun violence.
Twenty-five years since its premier, “Hoop Dreams” still impacts Wade. “I watched it many times, and it resonated with me because we all have hoop dreams,” the recently retired three-time NBA champion tells CNN.
“Growing up in Chicago you struggle,” he adds, “I look at “Hoop Dreams” and I can see myself in those individuals at the time.”
Film critics like the late Roger Ebert lauded the three-hour documentary for exposing a side of America rarely depicted at the time: A class system stacked against the poor, coinciding with rising corruption in youth basketball.
So what has changed since then?
College basketball is coming off a thrilling season, but faces intense scrutiny as a second corruption trial involving shady figures and illicit payments around the sport unravels in court. Meanwhile, Agee and Gates remain close – bonded not just by their fame from “Hoop Dreams,” but two devastating murders in their families.
“You can’t script this stuff,” says Gates, 47, a youth basketball coach in San Antonio, Texas, to CNN. “Our stories continue to (overlap) like that, because he lost Bo and we lost Curtis.”
Gates’ brother Curtis, a former high school star who flamed out, and Agee’s father Bo were both featured on screen. Curtis was shot in 2001, reportedly in a dispute over a woman, while Bo - whose redemption from crack addiction and jail time was a seminal part of the film - was killed in a robbery three years later.
“It was very heartbreaking,” adds Agee, who still lives in the West Side of Chicago, not far from where he grew up. “It’s so eerie that me and William always say “Hoop Dreams” was a gift and a curse, and we both lost people that played a big part of our lives.
“And then for both of us not to make the NBA, you know, that eeriness, that gift and a curse is there.”
Though neither athlete played in the NBA, both received college scholarships – no small feat coming from the dire housing projects they grew up in.
Agee, 46, who attended Arkansas State, went on to play professionally in the now-defunct USBL and had a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters. He then turned to acting, with small parts in a film and commercials.
Agee remains tied to “Hoop Dreams,” which provides his motivational speaking platform in schools, and still inspires viewers to send warm messages from places as far off as Australia and China. He also sells apparel inspired by the film, including a throwback jersey from his school days.
Gates was the more heralded of the two, receiving interest from top college basketball programs and a grant to attend the prestigious St. Joseph’s high school – the same school that is shown releasing Agee, seemingly for not playing well enough as a freshman.
But Gates blew out his knee at 16, then rushed back to the court after surgery and reinjured it. Though he played at Marquette University, the injury crippled his pro potential.
“For me, it’s bittersweet on many levels,” says Gates about the film which he has not watched in over 16 years. “It was a constant reminder of what could have been and what didn’t happen, and also a reminder that Curtis is no longer here to hear his voice.”
Nevertheless, he looks back on “Hoop Dreams” as a “life turning situation,” one that led to an allegiance with Michael Jordan, who invited him to pickup games before his comeback with the Washington Wizards. (An injury derailed Gates’ own tryout with the Wizards, however.)
“It has opened doors,” he says. “It has done things that I never thought would happen in my life.”
‘The first reality show’
What began as a short film idea from director Steve James and producer Frederick Marx to shoot Chicago playground basketball in 1987 with a budget of $2,000 quickly took on greater ambitions.
The pair hired Peter Gilbert as a cinematographer (later added as a producer), and the trio followed Gates and Agee on and off for nearly five years. With 250 hours of footage to edit, the production took seven years in total, eventually raising the $750,000 necessary for completion.
When it was finally released in 1994, “Hoop Dreams” went viral, though the term had not yet been coined. It was nominated for best film editing at the Oscars, but snubbed for best documentary and picture, which had critics like Ebert up in arms.
“I’ve actually gotten way more mileage personally as a filmmaker out of not being nominated than I ever would have by getting nominated,” says James, who stays in contact with Agee and Gates. “Over the years a lot more people seem to be upset on our behalf than I was personally.”
By the time it ended its theatrical run, “Hoop Dreams” became the then-highest grossing documentary of all time, paving the way for hundreds of sports documentaries and streaming series currently on air.
“I call it the first reality show,” says Gates. “I think it was groundbreaking.”
Gates’ enrollment in Marquette was mirrored exactly