Friday, February 15, 2008

Movies: Hoop Dreams

I'm less a fan of basketball than the hair and fashion trends of the urban African American community in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Luckily, Hoop Dreams offers plenty of this (and enough basketball to entertain my movie-watching pal, who played high school basketball and lived in Chicago (though not simultaneous), and who was therefore very helpful to have at hand for real-time basketball and Chicago explanations); it came out in 1994, but follows two high school boys for more than four years. At the beginning of the movie, one is wearing teal and purple biker shorts. Don't deny that you owned teal and purple biker shorts in the 1980s. You did, and you thought they were hot.

The two boys, both middle school graduates at the beginning of the film, are recruited off the cracked neighborhood blacktop to attend a prestigious Catholic high school three hours away from their homes (one in the projects, the other in what appeared to be Section Eight housing) in the inner city—via public transportation, of course. One is skinny and lithe, and hasn't hit his growth spurt yet; he moves like a dancer on the court. He seems to come from a supportive family—mom, dad, sister, brother. The other clearly has hit his growth spurt; he looks like a linebacker and plays basketball like a bull. He doesn't have a father, but his older brother (who had also dreamed of playing for the NBA, but who now works as a security guard, and has put on some weight) is something of a mentor for him, at least on the court, where we see them playing together, and his mom seems quite involved in his life as well.

Although, as high school freshmen, they are working at a fourth-grade level, both boys are offered full scholarships to the prestigious "St. Joe's" (Joseph), where the basketball coach once coached Isiah Thompson (he won't let you or anyone forget that, either—the school hallways have an Isiah shrine; Isiah comes to speechify to the new students in the gym, and the coach constantly compares his new players to Isiah. My movie-watching pal made a point of cursing Isiah Thompson each time we had to see his image or hear his name; if we had been in a public place, onlookers might have thought she had Tourrette's). Unfortunately, after one year, the more slender of the two boys (who started on the junior varsity team, while the other went straight to varsity) still hasn't hit his growth spurt, and isn't playing well enough to warrant his scholarship. His parents can't afford the tuition (especially now that his father has walked out on the family thanks to a crack cocaine addiction, and his mother can't work because of (an invisible) back injury, and the welfare isn't enough to pay the bills, and the electrical company shuts off their lights and gas), and so he transfers to the local public school, and joins the team there.

So things might look up for one player and down for another, but by senior year (that is, by flat-tops with fades), the tables have turned—the St. Joe's player has sustained a knee injury (we get to watch a surgeon pull out his meniscus and throw it on the operating table), and his playing is suffering; the team doesn't win the championships (the coach huffs and puffs and looks like he's having a coronary every thirty seconds). Meanwhile, the other player has finally grown taller, and scores the winning points for his team's key game; his career is looking a lot more promising, and his father has meanwhile found Jesus and come back to the family, and mom has graduated from nursing school and will presumably be working again. Before graduation, the college recruitment gets hot and heavy (thought not ending up quite as well as the two players could have hoped (or as well as it went for Isiah)), but both end up getting accepted into college on scholarship (a massive feat in and of itself, considering the fact that one has to take the ACT five times to score the minimum score of 18 (out of possible 36—wikipedia places 18 in the 32nd percentile), and already has one baby and another on the way).

It's impossible not to watch this movie and see only race relations, and to shake your head in disgust to see a wealthy school, Catholic nonetheless—hypocrites!—toss a needy kid back into the ghetto they've just plucked him from once the investment appears to be paying poor returns. I myself attended a wealthy Catholic high school, and while the majority of the students were upper middle class, intellectually-inclined whites and asians, there were a handful of disturbingly tall black men in my class who, I noticed, were not the brightest kids in class (don't mark me as a racist—we also had a number of very white, very dumb men in my class, but they played sports as well—and, before you accuse me of being anti-jock, I will conclude by noting that there were a few very tall, very brainy men on our basketball team), and so this practice is not completely foreign to me (though it is completely distasteful). But race aside, I'm still uncertain as to why sports and schools are in any way related, and why there isn't simply a junior and pre-junior feeder league into the NBA that isn't NCAA (maybe I'm so anti-jock that I think there shouldn't be one) or high-school level basketball.

It's not any more frustrating to see thirteen-year-old boys dreaming about playing in the NBA (to the demise of their studies) than it is to see them dreaming about being actors or rock stars (also to the demise of their studies). And I don't think that schools shouldn't offer extra-curricular activities and have holistic admissions policies. But these admissions practices aren't holistic; and as we see, St. Joe's cares nothing for the whole person. I don't know who frustrated me more—the blustering coach, or the my-welfare-check-doesn't-cover-electricity mom; one is evil, and one is stupid. It's a dangerous combination, and it's stunning enough that the lithe young player made it out at all.

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