Cast: William Gates, Arthur Agee
Oscar Nominations: Best Editing (Frederick Marx, Steve James, William Haugse)
SUMMARY: This is a documentary that follows two promising young African-American basketball players, William Gates and Arthur Agee, through their high school years. After finishing the eighth grade, both boys are recruited to play at the prestigious St. Joseph High School, the same school where NBA great Isiah Thomas went. As neither the Gates nor Agee family can afford tuition, both boys receive scholarships. However, the school is so far from their homes that both boys have to travel an hour and a half each way, just to attend. During their freshman year, Arthur becomes a starter on the freshman team, while William starts on the varsity. Both struggle with academics, as their previous education had left them with substandard skills (particularly reading). While William seems to flourish, Arthur struggles, and seems to have little desire to go to class. At the end of the year, both boys face scholarship issues. William gets a sponsor, the head of Encyclopedia Britannica, but Arthur, who already owes back tuition, has to transfer to a public high school, Marshall. In their sophomore year, William has an outstanding season, while Arthur continues to struggle with commitment, both to school and basketball. He is also facing trouble at home: his father has left the family, and falls into a drug habit; his mother is forced to take care of the family on her own meager salary. On one occasion, the family’s lights are cut off for several days. At the start of their junior season, William injures his right knee. Although it is initially believed to be a minor injury, it soon turns serious. William undergoes surgery to remove some of the cartilage in his knee, but when this doesn’t heal right, he has to have more surgeries. Eventually, he ends up missing most of the season. His love of basketball begins to diminish as he sits on the bench, and he also has family issues: he is now the father of a baby girl. William makes it back at the end of the season, when the team is in the playoffs. However, he is a markedly different player, and is less dominating on the court. Meanwhile, Arthur’s season is horrendous, as the team compiles one of the worst records in school history. Arthur is still struggling with school, and even though his father has returned, clean, their relationship is strained.
Before their senior year, William is invited to the Nike basketball camp, where he is seen by most of the major college coaches (including Bobby Knight and Coach K – other campers seen on film include future Fab Five members Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard). William is still rather disillusioned with basketball, and has a decent, though not outstanding, camp. That season, he frequently clashes with his coach over his lack of commitment and drive. However, he is recruited by several colleges, and decides to accept a scholarship to Marquette – as soon as he can get an 18 on the ACT, the required score for an athletic scholarship. The first time he takes the test, he gets only a 14. The end of William’s career at St. Joseph’s is disappointing: the team loses early in the playoffs, their earliest exit in six years. However, after a dismal junior season, Arthur’s Marshall team turns into a powerhouse. Under a renewed drive from Arthur, the team makes it into the public school playoffs, and is responsible for several huge upsets before finally losing in the championship game. During his senior year, Arthur has also been working harder academically, and is eventually able to accept a scholarship to a junior college. After five attempts, William is able to get a 17.5 on his ACTs, which rounds up to an 18, enabling him to accept his scholarship. An afterword notes that William went to Marquette, but quit the team in his junior year, and decided to drop out of school. However, people at Marquette were able to convince him to stay, as his scholarship stayed effective even if he didn’t play basketball. William agreed, and even rejoined the team in his senior season. He graduated with a degree in communications, but was not drafted into the NBA. Arthur got an associate’s degree from Mineral State Junior College, then transferred to Arkansas State, where he continued to play basketball; he also graduated, but was not drafted into the NBA.
MY TAKE: This is a bittersweet movie, because you watch two kids with big dreams (and talent) become disillusioned and beat down by reality. After his injury, William is not the same player that he was before, and it affects his head as well as his game: he no longer wants it so badly. Part of this is because of his daughter, which I respect, but it’s still sad to watch someone who was so passionate and talented become ambivalent. The thing that really irritated me, though, was the part about the ACT. To accept a scholarship to a DI school, he had to have an 18 (the max score is 36). On his first try, as a senior, he got a 14. He went on to take the test five times, with his highest score being a 17.5. I took the ACTs two times, once as a seventh grader and once as a high school junior. On the first attempt, I scored over 20; on the second attempt, I scored over 30. I was not offered a full-ride, or even a half scholarship, to any school in the country. Now, I realize that this movie came out twenty years before I went to college, but it absolutely burned my butt that because he played basketball, William could get a full ride on a score that was roughly half of mine. Athletics may make a lot of money, but something is flawed about this situation. Athletes get free educations, but the really smart kids have to pay. Arthur also frustrated me somewhat, because he really wanted to play basketball, but wasn’t willing to work at school. However, he had really matured by his senior year of high school, and ended up pulling things together. For quite a bit of the movie, it seems like William is going to have a much better career than Arthur, but the situation reverses by the end of the movie, when Arthur’s team goes all the way to the state finals. It was nice to learn that both got their college degrees, but sad to know that after everything they went through, neither made the NBA. It highlights just how hard it is (and how much luck is required) to become a pro.
RATING: Very good.