by Matt Saldaña
William Gates, the subject of Steve James' genre-defining basketball documentary HOOP DREAMS, told a panel of filmmakers that attending this year's Full Frame Film Festival (his first, by his count, and just the fifth time he had watched the film) "reminded me of how I pursued the game of basketball-- I wanted to be the best at it."
Indeed, seated with Gates were among the best filmmakers in their league: Barbara Kopple (HARLAN COUNTY USA, FALLEN CHAMP), George Butler (PUMPING IRON, THE GOOD FIGHT) and Steve James (HOOP DREAMS), along with two promising new players in Arturo Cabanas (MAN UP) and Andrew Lang (SONS OF CUBA). James had organized the panel in culmination of this year's excellent sports film series, "This Sporting Life." But aside from the amount of talent gathered in close proximity on the Durham Arts Council stage, the truly remarkable event was Gates' recounting of the impact of being on the other end of the camera.
"He we are, 20 years later ... and I'm sitting here talking about HOOP DREAMS," Gates said. (The film was released in 1994, but began filming five years earlier.) "That's what documentaries do."
It wasn't always so easy: Gates said that after the film was released, his high school shunned him, his teammates "must have hated" him for the attention, and the NCAA revoked his and Arthur Agee's athletic scholarships for becoming "professionals."
"They said we were professional athletes because they thought HOOP DREAMS was going to make money," he said. "Imagine that: documentaries making money."
Now, Gates said, his high school uses HOOP DREAMS for recruiting, and though he never achieved NBA fame, he uses the film as "bragging rights around the house" to tell his son that he is in the upper echelon of athletes like Michael Jordan with films dedicated to them. Many NBA stars, in turn, cite the film as an early inspiration to pursue basketball. And, perhaps most important, Gates said that the film allowed him to "always have" the voice of his brother, who encouraged him to become a great player, and was killed in 2001.
During filming, Gates said he faced difficult decisions of how much to open up to the film crew; James, in turn, had to decide when to roll film. Gates recalled how the director would turn off the camera to talk to him, one-on-one, often starting with the line, "Now, let's just think about this."
Notably, Gates hid the pregnancy of his then-girlfriend until she had already given birth, for fear of becoming a stereotype of a black man living in inner-city Chicago. However, he said he's glad he finally came clean. The two have been happily married for 16 years, and have four children, Gates told the crowd.
When James showed Gates the final cut, James recalled the 18-year-old's reaction: "It shows how I go from being a great basketball player to an average basketball player."
James disagreed, but asked Gates how he felt about that portrayal.
"It's what happened, and I think people should see it," he said.
Such candor, and self-reflection, are indicative of two things that led HOOP DREAMS to be widely considered one of the greatest documentaries of all time: not only were Gates and Agee perfect subjects, but the director also cultivated a close bond with them.
"The fact that we could hang with these guys, and share that common bond [of basketball], that was the link," James said.
"After the film was over, we remained friends," Gates added.
As for charges of exploitation, which he said he encountered after the film's release, he said: "Here's someone who took a genuine interest in my life. If that's exploitation ... man, exploit me."
Kopple, who wasn't able to get access to Mike Tyson for FALLEN CHAMP but spoke to several central figures in his life, said her conversations with Gates over the weekend "taught me a whole different dimension of looking at the work we do."
Gates told Kopple that her 1993 documentary on the disgraced boxer "sparked something in me," and that watching it, he got to know the filmmaker as much as the subject.
"The only way you can capture what you're thinking is to make it your own," he said of documentary film, noting that HOOP DREAMS was as much his and Arthur Agee's story as much it was James'.
But, at the end of the day, it's the athletes on screen that make or break a film.
"If we can get into their psyche, their thought process, that's a great film," Gates said. "I think everyone wants to see that."