By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com
The critical acclaim of the memorable and moving 1994 documentary, “Hoop Dreams” can speak for itself. When it premiered in Utah at the Sundance Film Festival, it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. Later it became an Academy Award nominee for Best Film Editing. Roger Ebert has gone on record calling it “The great American documentary.” High praise, especially for a film that was originally planned to be nothing more than a 30-minute PBS short.
We can all agree why the half-hour PBS project turned into must-see three hour marathon of heartache, triumph, and more heartache. It was raw, uncut and real. A happy ending was never guaranteed or even expected. It was completely up to the flawed characters on your screen to come through. Characters like Arthur Agee and William Gates. Teenagers trying to navigate the unforgiving streets of inner-city Chicago in the early 1990’s.
The amount of drama that unfolds in “Hoop Dreams” and the sheer improbability and jubilation with the Marshall Commandos 1991 playoff run “Downstate” sometimes makes the viewer forget how real the story actually was. As soon as Arthur and William turned in their respective high school jerseys and went off to college and the cameras stopped rolling, the struggle of real life in inner-city Chicago never slowed. And the stories related to the characters never stopped piling up. Arthur still lives in Chicago and attends Commandos games when he has the chance. William's coach, Gene Pingatore, is still leading St. Joseph’s, in his 45th season, at the age of 78. And that is just the beginning.
As perhaps you can imagine, hoop dreams still very much exist in Chicago. And for the lucky few, those dreams are realized. Just ask Derrick Rose, or Jabari Parker, or Jahlil Okafor, or even Marshall alum Patrick Beverley. All have made the NBA or are well on their way. And their path went through the Chicago Public School League. Last month, I paid a visit to Marshall Metro High School, 24 years after Arthur Agee took his team "Downstate."
The gym is still on the second floor of the school, discretely tucked in between classrooms and offices. There are still just five rows of bleachers on each side of the court. There are still un-retractable basketball hoops that hang over the stands that fans dance under to the rhythm of rap music during timeouts. The grand, church-like windows still overlook the court with the curtains open to let in the early evening light. There is still very little room for fans to walk along the sidelines. The passion for basketball remains just has high. The pace of the game still frenetic. Mom’s in the stands still cuss out the underpaid refs following every close call.
One of the only changes I can decipher inside the Commandos home gym is the court itself. It is clean and new-looking, with a glossy finish. “Luther Bedford Court” it reads. An ode to the Agee’s coach who died at the age of 69 following a long and distinguished career as the head coach at Marshall.
Beside that, it really did look no different that it appeared in 1991. Save for a collection of banners in the rafters that have been won in the last quarter century and a retired Patrick Beverley jersey; the former Marshall point guard who came years after Arthur and currently plays for the Houston Rockets.
The 2015 version of the Marshall Commandos are by no means a powerhouse, but they aren’t a pushover either. Just like the Agee era, they are right in the thick of things in their league. An unlikely participant in the state tournament, but athletic and aggressive enough to make an honest run come late February.
Tickets are $5 at the door to this particular Friday night Public League tilt between the Commandos and the Spartans of Orr High School. Orr was coming off a win over Whitney Young, a Chicago powerhouse where Michael Jordan’s son played, not to mention where Jahlil Okafor starred just last year before graduating to Duke.
As is tradition, the sophomore game comes first. The pace of the game blurring, the shooting leaving much to be desired. All ten kids on the floor can handle the ball and break down their defender to get to the rim. Rarely an offensive set is run. For each acrobatic layup made, a crucial free throw is missed. Among the footwear, Nike is still the king of the court. The Jordan emblem still omnipresent.
Standing with a current Marshall science teacher, she fills me in on the colorful backstories of the skinny freshman and sophomores sprinting up and down in front of me, hucking 3’s, loudly finishing And-1’s, diving for loose balls and trying to make the varsity and eventually the NBA. The brief stories are what you would expect. “The trouble maker,” “the lovable benchwarmer,” “the super-star in the making (if he gets his grades right).” It’s a list of characteristics that every high school team has but the stories become darker when she points out a man on the sidelines. He is at the end of the Marshall bench. The same area that Arthur’s dad Bo used to occupy during big Commandos games in 1991. The man’s name is Shawn Harrington. He was Agee’s teammate on the “Hoop Dreams” team. Today, he is paralyzed in a wheelchair.
In the middle of last year’s basketball season, on Thursday, January 30th to be exact, Shawn Harrington woke up to drive his 14-year old daughter to school. Harrington was the assistant basketball coach at Marshall, but he was driving his daughter to a more selective school. His car was in the shop getting repaired, so he was driving a rented white sedan instead. It was just him and his daughter in the car when the two were sitting at a Chicago stoplight at 7:45 in the morning. That’s when two men ran up to the car and opened fire. Allegedly, it was a case of mistaken identity. The worst kind of bad luck. Harrington leaned over to shield his daughter and was hit by a series of bullets. One of which paralyzed him. Less than a year later, he was back on the Marshall sidelines in his wheelchair, supporting the team he both played and coached for.
Sadly, Coach Harrington’s story of gruesome gun violence in Chicago is closer to the norm than the exception, especially when it pertains to the characters of “Hoop Dreams” and their families.
The year “Hoop Dreams” was released in ‘94, Arthur’s half-brother DeAntonio was shot and killed. In 2001, William Gates’ older brother Curtis was murdered. In 2003, Shawn Harrington’s mother was killed during a botched break-in. In 2004, Arthur’s father Bo was slain behind his house. In sum, it is a chilling laundry list of unnecessary violence.
There is a memorable quote toward the end of “Hoop Dreams” from Bo Agee when he asks the camera out of frustration, “Do you understand what is going on out here in these streets?” Fast forward twenty four years from that quote, and the question still deserves the same amount of contemplation. Shawn Harrington’s wheelchair on the Marshall sideline is the latest reminder.
Even despite “what is going on in the Chicago streets” today, if we learned anything from “Hoop Dreams,” it’s that there is always room for a redemption song of sorts.
Gun violence didn’t have much of a presence on screen in “Hoop Dreams” but plenty of other adversity did. Starting off with when Arthur was forced to leave St. Joseph’s after his freshman year because his parents, (his mother a nurse with a bad back and his father troubled by drugs), couldn’t afford to pay their son’s tuition. Or when William, a can’t miss NBA prospect suffered a career-altering knee injury. Or when Arthur works on his newfound dunking skills while he watches his strung-out dad sell drugs on the very same blacktop, right in front of him. Or when Arthur turns 18, and the family’s monthly government income drops from $368 a month to $268. Or William trying to raise a newborn baby stuffed inside a since demolished Cabrini-Green project building. Or the Agees having the lights shut off because they simply couldn’t pay the bill.
Of course, much to director Steve James’ delight, things miraculously come together at the end of “Hoop Dreams” in a very special way. Wearing his idol Isiah Thomas’ number 11, Arthur leads a team labeled as the “Giant Killers” to a Chicago City Title and a deep run into the state championship tournament, all the way down to Champaign and the University of Illinois. Complete with the bright lights of a BIG 10 arena, television coverage and spreads in the Chicago Tribune. There was no telling it would ever work out that well, but somehow it did.
The original premise of “Hoop Dreams” was to follow two Chicago teenagers as they navigated their quest to make the NBA. That happy ending never did materialize. Real life got in the way. William ended up quitting basketball at Marquette and Arthur’s dream simply ran out of steam, as it does for almost everyone. But on this night in January 2015, hoop dreams are still very much in tact.
The Marshall science teacher tells me the player to watch on the varsity is a kid by the name of Tyresse Williford, a junior point guard. Just like Agee, he has dreams of taking the team "Downstate." To Peoria, Illinois at Bradley University to be exact, the current site of the state playoffs.
Just like in the sophomore game, the pace of the varsity version of Orr and Marshall is just as fast, if not faster. And the shooting is better, but still not spectacular. Every opportunity to the drive the ball to the basket is taken and every long rebound results in an exciting fast break.
The crowd is smaller than it was in 1991. Unlike during the Agee years, the only people occupying the seats up above the west-end basket are the Orr cheerleaders and the science teacher filming the game.
The music played during timeouts is as explicit as a group of inner-city Chicago teenagers can manage. Including the catchy, yet gruesome top-40 rap hit, “Try Me” by DeJ Loaf. By halftime, I was half expecting Arthur to show up, or at least his mom Sheila, but I could spot neither.
As so often happens in City League games, when things got going in the second half, the teams started trading baskets and emotions ran hot. Security at Marshall games these days is always tight, but tonight was especially so, considering the two schools brawled in their earlier meeting at Orr this season. It was a fight that even spilled over to involve spectators. Marshall’s athletic director, Dorothy Gaters (owner of 1,000 wins as the current Marshall women’s coach) wasn’t about to let it happen again.
Following some fourth quarter drama, Marshall won this particular league game over Orr 61-59. Despite the upset win, the celebration was relatively subdued. It seemed the main focus was just getting all the people inside the gym down two flights of stairs and out the door without any dust up. Moreover, Marshall had a game versus Whitney Young the following week they were already appearing to focus on.
Surprisingly, save for a banner in the rafters for Arthur and Shawn Harrington’s 1991 “Downstate” team, there is no trace of any “Hoop Dreams” hype material. To be honest, it was tough to even find a photo of Arthur Agee anywhere in the building. In the end, it appears 1991 was just one success story in a long list of triumphs and tribulations Marshall Metro High School has gone through over the years. The time for reflection is minimal when there is always a new group of freshman walking through Marshall’s doors every year.
There is no telling what will happen with the 2015 versions of the St. Joseph’s Chargers and the Marshall Commandos. St. Joseph’s is ranked and “Ping” is still at the helm even in his late 70’s. Most people believe they have as good a shot as any of making it "Downstate."
Marshall is once again going into the playoffs as a team not expected to make it very far, but someone nobody wants to play. They are a team with only a flicker of hope of actually going downstate, but they have a gritty point guard with NBA aspirations.
Surely, it all sounds quite familiar. In the case of Chicago high school basketball some things do change, but mostly, they stay the same. And in the end, that’s just fine.