Last week marked some of the last days in the history of the Cabrini-Green housing development.
Perhaps the most infamous of the Chicago Housing Authority’s projects-Mayor Jane Byrne moved there temporarily in the early 80s as a publicity stunt to illustrate the perils of public housing-at this point Cabrini has but two families living in one of the buildings.
Despite the adverse conditions in the project, there existed for many a sense of community and home. Sudhir Venkatesh chronicled a similar feeling in the Robert Taylor Homes, another of Chicago’s most notorious developments, in American Project, a book that grew out of his doctoral research at the University of Chicago.
Cabrini-Green is where, during the 80s, William Gates grew up. A basketball prodigy who attended the same St. Joseph high school that Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas did in the previous decade, Gates and his turbulent high schools are depicted in the classic film, Hoop Dreams.
I loved the film the first time I saw it in 1994, and have watched it a couple of times since then. I took another look yesterday after finishing Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s documentary film about the inaugural Elite 24 basketball tournament in Harlem’s legendary Rucker Park.
In terms of high school basketball, what struck me most about the two films was how professionalized the game became during the nearly 20 years from the time Hoop Dreams began in 1988, when William and co-protagonist Arthur Agree were in eighth grade, and 2006, when Yauch followed eight players like Tyreke Evans, Kevin Love, Michael Beasley and Jerryd Bayless, all of whom now play in the pros.
In both films, young men, primarily black boys, strive to realize their dreams of fame, fortune and glory through the basketball court. Yet while in the earlier film, William spends a summer shelving films in the Encyclopedia Brittanica work site of his high school sponsor, the players in Gunnin’ would spend their breaks touring the country with their AAU teams.
Arthur is shown throughout the movie playing on the asphalt courts near his home; the players in Gunnin’ talk about hesitating to play a game outside for the wear and tear it will give to their bodies.
Make no mistake about it. I am not romanticizing the Hoop Dreams era. One of the most painful moments in the film occurs when William, in the flush of excelling at an All-America camp for the nation’s top 100 players, re-injures his balky knee that had already been operated on twice. As he hobbles alone to the side like a wounded animal, the coaches who had been considering offering him a scholarship not only do not help, but almost seem relieved to have not blown one of their few free rides on a risky prospect.
I am saying, though, that the eras are different. Gunnin’ was made after a decade of many players like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant declaring for the pros after their senior year in high and going on to have enormously successful careers. The latter movie also shows the rise of the sneaker wars, the proliferation of ratings systems and the inordinate amount of pressure ever-younger children must bear.
In some ways, the common thread between the two films comes at the end of Gunnin’. Tyreke Evans’ older brother, himself an accomplished former player, makes the point that Evans and the other players are living for so many other people they may not fully realize the magnitude of what they are involved in.
A major theme for William in Hoop Dreams is all the expectations foisted on him by his coach Gene Pingatore, and his brother Curtis, who looks to William to realize his unfulfilled dreams, among others. At one point toward the end of the movie, he reflects that once he enrolled at St. Joe’s, he and the other guys never really just played for fun.
The absence of fun and the entanglement of others’ visions are just two of the similar strands that have become more pronounced during the period since Hoop Dreams began and Gunnin’ ended. While Cabrini-Green may be shut down, the forces that contribute heavily to the young men questing after these dreams remain.
Has high school basketball become more professionalized? Is this a bad thing?