Sunday, May 29, 2005

I finally got around to watching Hoop Dreams... I know, I know, eleven years late. I made the mistake of watching it at 11pm, which meant that I didn't finish till two in the morning and I didn't get enough the film out of my head to let me fall asleep until somewhere between four and five. Now, it's not like I care at all about basketball, but the filmmakers are so observant towards the ways race, class, and economics have conspired to screw these kids over — they're left in a position where if they miss a last-second free throw or three-pointer they'll have peaked before they graduated high school — that it's hard not to get into the game in a way that's just impossible otherwise, coming from a relatively upper-class suburban high school where nobody was betting all their chips on making it in the pros. I was also impressed by how aware William and Arthur, the two boys profiled, were of the system and how it used them.

Rich, white, suburban high schools send scouts — headhunters, really — out to the inner city to find these kids with basketball street smarts otherwise unheard of, as if everywhere along the American landscape there's either green spaces or basketball but never both. The schools invest, literally, in these urban basketball players. Near the end of the film, William comments that basketball at the suburban school, St. Joe's, wasn't a game so much as it's a job, although he says it like he imagines the NBA is different. When the basketball team does well, the sponsors start pouring their money into the school, and I doubt it's a coincidence that many of those sponsors are college recruiters looking for (surprise, surprise) tall black kids from the ghetto to play basketball.

I was impressed by how aware William and Arthur were, but I can't say I was particularly surprised. I've also been watching HBO's The Wire, focusing largely on another group of semi-ambitious kids, Baltimore drug dealers this time. There's so many tragedies — and this coming from an apathetic cynic — not the least of which is that these kids in the ghetto have so little optimism about their futures that they're reduced to dreaming about becoming basketball stars or drug lords or maybe rappers, and naturally most of them won't succeed at that. What piques my sympathy is that these kids are smart. They're businessmen. And as much as they've been excluded from the mainstream economy, they play the game as well as (and more ethically than, I might add) any MBA.

If Wallace, The Wire's first season protagonist (in my view) grew up in Fanwood, there'd be no question: He'd graduate from high school with above-modest grades, go to college, probably get a scholarship or two, graduate from college and be successful. I was touched when Shiela Agee, Arthur's mother, told the filmmakers what an accomplishment her son's graduating was because for me, it was a given. Even for the lazy-ass bumblefucks in my high school, graduation was a certainty. It's just a perk of growing up middle-class that you can graduate even if you don't really want to and don't really try.

For William and Arthur, for the Baltimore kids, the American promise is the exact opposite. Their dreams of making it to the NBA may be as far-fetched as my dream of becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, but barring cancer or getting clobbered by a frieght train, I'm going to live comfortably with relatively little effort while the kids who grew up poor, whether they went to St. Joseph's Prep or inner-city Marshall High, will struggle to just get by despite St. Joe's "promise" to get them into college.

Every Hoop Dreams review I've read mentions Mrs. Agee's frustration where, facing the camera but speaking to the man behind it, she asks, "Do you all wonder sometime how I am living? How my children survive, and how they're living? It's enough to really make people want to go out there and just lash out and hurt somebody."

It's surprising that the urban violence in The Wire, and in the real world too, is as self-contained as it is. It's rarely an expression of the anger that it should be: here's these kids living in some abandoned project houses, no heat, no electricity, making $3.30 an hour for an incredibly slim shot at making it... not even necessarily to the top, but just to a place where you don't have to worry on a daily basis about getting robbed at gunpoint. Unlike Sheila and the filmmakers, I don't blame the basketball subculture and I don't specifically blame the St. Joe's Preps of the world, even after Arthur is expelled from St. Joe's because he can't pay. (Both he and William were offered utterly insignificant scholarships to St. Joe's. William can't pay either, but as the better player he has no trouble finding a "friend" of St. Joe's willing to sponsor him.) I will admit what the St. Joe's administration won't — that their interest in William and Arthur
only lasts as long as the boys keep bringing in the bucks, and no matter how much of their income comes from students' tuition, holding Arthur's transcript for ransom so he can't graduate from public school is a bastard thing to do.

I blame the larger confluence of forces, what David Simon, Baltimore crime reporter turned writer/creator of The Wire calls "the institution" and what most of us call "the system" or "the Man." It starts at the top: Maybe take those millions of dollars Nike's spending on the next high-school sensation to go straight to the NBA and put that money into William's or Arthur's community instead. Maybe make it so the ninety-minute-away private school isn't a better choice than the local public school.

Maybe there's not much that can be done to really raise these kids' ambition. They'll still dream of going to the NBA without having to put in the tedious, tiresome hard work it takes to get there. But then again, maybe if they've got other options that seem viable, they might shoot for those too.