When I wrote up 1994 for the epic A.V. Club miniseries My Favorite Movie Year, I was almost forced to make an embarrassing public confession: I did not write about Hoop Dreams, the classic documentary that appeared on more top 10 lists that year than even the likes of Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, and the consensus choice for the greatest film ever made, The Shawshank Redemption, because I hadn’t seen it.

This lapse in my film and cultural education is inexcusable. If ever there was a film custom-made for my sensibilities, it’s Hoop Dreams. For starters, I fucking love documentaries. They’re all over the “best of the decade” list I just compiled for my A.V. Club bros and lady-bros. At the risk of looking like a cultural philistine, I almost never read fiction, because the best stories tend to be ripped from real life.

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I’m a die-hard documentary buff, but I am also a bleeding-heart liberal (or New Deal Democrat, as I like to think of myself) who can be counted upon to weep uncontrollably at the end of films about the savage iniquities of capitalism or good-hearted poor people crushed by the system. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that within half an hour of popping Hoop Dreams into my DVD player, I was sobbing like a baby who’d just been hit in the nuts and watched his favorite chess player lose the chess-person Super Bowl. I was so womanly in my shameful display of human emotions that I might as well have been suckling a newborn infant at my milky teat.

Hoop Dreams hit awfully close to where I live. It’s a film about underprivileged, Michael Jordan-obsessed Chicago high-school students that came out while I was an underprivileged, Michael Jordan-obsessed high-school student. Shit, the school bus to eighth grade used to pick up students from the Cabrini-Green housing projects where Hoop Dreams’ protagonists lived. Hoop Dreams was released at the height of my Chicago Bulls super-fandom, and it touches on pretty much all my favorite subjects—race, class, high school, adolescence, drugs, black life, entertainment (for what are high-school and college sports, if not entertainment?), sports, inner cities, racism, and the looming shadow of Jim Crow.

So why did it take me 15 years to see one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s? I certainly wasn’t too busy not getting laid during my high-school years to watch Hoop Dreams. I guess I just thought 170 minutes was an awful lot of time to invest in any film.

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Sweet blessed Lord, was I ever wrong. Hoop Dreams tells an intimate story on an epic scale. It needs to be 170 minutes long just to do justice to the depth and richness of its subject. Hoop Dreams only appears to be about a pair of basketball players from the Chicago projects; it’s really about everything. It’s less about hoop dreams than about the myriad soul-shattering ways the American Dream can fall apart. It’s less a sports movie than an American tragedy.

Hoop Dreams follows a pair of black teenagers from the mean streets of Chicago, plucked from pickup games and schoolyards to attend St. Joseph’s, an elite private school legendary for being Isiah Thomas’ alma mater. Arthur Agee is a skinny, manic goofball blessed with explosive speed, and hindered by poor grades and a wild streak that turns coaches off. His friend and teammate, William Gates, in sharp contrast, seems weighed down by the demands and expectations of the world. He’s serious and sad, and he harbors precious few delusions.

He also knows firsthand how devastating hoop dreams can be. Once upon a time, Gates’ brother Curtis was one of the top prospects in the country, a preternaturally gifted basketball player seemingly destined for the NBA. The “Player Of The Decade” award Curtis won from Colby Community College says everything about his career. He had to be a brilliant ballplayer to win best of the decade honors, but he still wasn’t good enough to get into a high-rated basketball college, the NBA, or even the European leagues. It was an award for being almost good enough. In the cutthroat world of professional basketball, almost good enough is never good enough.

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Curtis haunts the periphery of the film, mentoring his younger brother in a way that makes it agonizingly apparent how intent he is on living his abandoned dreams through a promising surrogate. Curtis is a shattered man. He seems dead on the inside, just another casualty of a system where the neighborhood superstar becomes the second guy cut from a shitty college team.

He’s a harrowing cautionary warning of what the future might hold for William if he lets the single-minded pursuit of NBA fame consume him. When your identity is entirely wrapped up in having been the subject of rapturous adulation during your teen years, being a guy with a 401K and decent health benefits doesn’t seem like such a triumph. Every frame of Hoop Dreams is suffused with the weary understanding that there is a tiny margin of error in professional basketball. A few breaks are all that separate the guy with the entourage and groupies from the high-school superstar at the end of the bar, boring potential conquests with tired tales of glory past.

William isn’t the only one with a tragic relative living through him. Arthur’s father Bo is a poignantly vulnerable ex-con who was a formidable basketball player back in the day, yet stumbled through an adulthood defined by crack addiction, domestic abuse, and habitual trips to prison. Bo desperately wants to be a good father, but he’s powerless in the face of his demons. In a scene of devastating power, Arthur watches helplessly as his dad ambles away from a pickup to score some cocaine from a nearby dealer. This is the world these fragile young men come from. It’s a world they’re desperate to leave behind.

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Fairly early in their stints at St. Joseph’s, Arthur and William both face debilitating setbacks. When Arthur underperforms academically and on the basketball court, and his parents can’t afford their chunk of his private-school tuition, he’s unceremoniously booted from the school and ends up matriculating at his local high school. William, meanwhile, tears his ligament and misses a series of games. He’s able to play basketball again, but coach Gene Pingatore thinks the injury has cost him essential confidence. Pingatore worries that William is too sweet of a kid, that he lacks the fire and monomaniacal focus that separate Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas from the rest of the pack. William is a nice young man; in the mad struggle to become an NBA star, that isn’t necessarily good.

Pingatore occupies a central, intriguingly ambiguous role in the film as a surrogate for an entire unnerving universe of ugly white men with ghastly ties, ghastlier dye jobs, and terrible toupees. These people make their living exploiting the bodies of young black men, from creepy high-school recruiters who talk fetishistically about lurking on sixth-grade schoolyards in search of promising talent to the people who run a Nike high-school basketball camp, where Spike Lee, in his role as well-compensated truth-teller, tells a coterie of prospects that they have no use to white America beyond their ability to win basketball games and put asses in seats.

Of course, the exploitation goes both ways; the basketball prospects certainly get a lot out of being wined and dined and recruited by colleges. But Hoop Dreams regularly veers into troubling racial territory. In a queasy-making sequence, Arthur, having exceeded expectations and led his scruffy underdog inner-city team to the finals, is recruited by a junior college in Missouri and introduced to the “Basketball House,” where six of the college’s seven black students live in segregated bliss in a shitty hovel in the middle of nowhere. Apparently “basketball” is another word for “black” in Missouri. And these are the winners, the kids who’ve made it out of the ghetto by virtue of their talent, hard work, and persistence.

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In perhaps the key moment in the film, Gates, who has a distant relationship with his own neglectful father, talks sadly of going to Pingatore for advice on how to deal with personal problems with his family and the family of his future wife, the mother of his children. For the first and last time, Gates is reaching out to Pingatore not as a coach or professional mentor, but as a man, as a father figure, as the voice of experience, as someone who can be trusted to lead him down the path of adulthood and responsibility.

What wisdom does Pingatore have to impart? In Hoop Dreams’ most heartbreaking line, Pingatore counsels his would-be protégé, “Write ’em off.” How callous can one man be? Yet Pingatore is able to not just survive, but thrive in an often cruel and arbitrary system because he’s willing, even eager to think of the sensitive, troubled young men on his team as athletes to be exploited or discarded, rather than human beings.

“Write ’em off” seems to be Pingatore’s overarching belief system. The family of a sweet young man can’t afford to send him to an expensive private school because dad is smoking crack and his mom can’t find a good job? Write ’em off. The kid doesn’t take to aggressive coaching? Write ’im off. Can’t learn the defense or show up late to practice? Write ’em off. And Pingatore isn’t the only person eager to follow this policy. Society has given up on generation upon generation of poor young people. It’s evident in the ways schools are underfunded and teachers underpaid, in bullet-riddled schoolyards and neighborhoods rife with liquor stores and check-cashing emporiums, but no libraries or teen rec centers. If they can’t improve your basketball team or fill seats, write ’em off.

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Not long after the “write ’em off” line, Pingatore reflects that Gates did well during his high-school career, but not as well as he could have if he hadn’t been injured. Striking a philosophical note, Pingatore says it doesn’t really matter, since there’ll be another kid in the door Gates is walking out of for the last time. Pingatore strikes a philosophical pose in his edict about the rich cycle of life renewing itself, but he comes off as unconscionably cold, even cruel. The system will survive no matter how many dreamers get crushed in its machinery.

Moments like this speak so powerfully to the film’s themes that it’s a goddamned shame the filmmakers feel the need to include clunky, superfluous narration from director Steve James, which underlines the film’s “great white documentarians venturing into Black Chicago in search of trenchant sociological truths” vibe. Granted, the great white documentarians succeeded in gleaning such truths, but that doesn’t make the cliché-addled narration seem like any less of a misstep.

The “write ’em off” line reminded me of my favorite line from Karrine Steffans’ second memoir, The Vixen Diaries. The author and accomplished blowjob artist was having difficulties with her friend Bobby Brown, who, it turns out, is apparently on the mercurial side. Steffans asks her ex-fiance Bill Maher for advice for dealing with Brown and Maher quotes a terse bit of wisdom from Joseph Stalin—“No person, no problem.” Incidentally, I hope Maher approvingly quotes Stalin whenever asked for advice. I know I do.

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No person, no problem. Write ’em off. That’s the way the system deals with so many young people. The words “the system” reappear over and over in Hoop Dreams, referring not just to individual basketball programs or colleges, but to capitalism itself. In Hoop Dreams, “the system” is inherently corrupt.

Watching Hoop Dreams a decade and a half on, I wanted to protect Gates and Agee from a system designed to chew them up and spit them out, to assure them that their worth as human beings was not inextricably wrapped up in their ability to hit a jump shot or play zone defense. It’s bitterly ironic that we tend to subject the most agonizing traumas, rejection, and disappointment on young people at the age when they’re least equipped to deal with them, when they have the least power and confidence. In Hoop Dreams, that means heaping the most painful life lessons on Gates and Agee while they’re still trying to make it through the harrowing gauntlet of adolescence.

In retrospect, it is entirely possible that I held off on seeing Hoop Dreams for 15 years because I sensed that watching “the system” wreak havoc on the fragile psyches of a pair of well-intentioned teenagers would break my heart, as I’m a fragile soul. It did. Oh sweet blessed Lord, did it ever break my heart. You don’t have to be a basketball fan to find Hoop Dreams shattering. You just have to be human.

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