Five Sport Documentaries to Check Out

Sport has been a subject of documentary since Edison’s and the Lumieres’ 1890s experiments. One of Edison’s first pieces is a boxing match between Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing. In the 1930s Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia showcased atheticism in the guise of propaganda. Today, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has propelled sport documenatary to new popularity.

In no particular order below are five sport documentaries to check out.

When We Were Kings

When We Were Kings, directed by Leon Gast, chronicles the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. The film captures Ali at his heights of skill and charm, and it captures the fans’ fervor of the event. Though financial issues kept the film in production for more than 20 years, that delay didn’t inhibit any of the film’s power when it was finally released in 1996.

The Endless Summer

Bruce Brown‘s The Endless Summer follows two 1960s surfers as they attempt to catch waves on coasts around the world: New Zealand, Tahiti, and South Africa, to name a few. The surf rock soundtrack offers an easy-going feel, and the voiceover narration provides light-hearted humor and fun in its wry observations on the surf, surfers, and local cultures.

Tokyo Olympiad

Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympaid is an Olympic achievement unto itself with its scale and length. Filmed during the 1964 Olympics, Ichikawa’s catalogue captures details grand and small, from entire races to anguished faces. The careful editing results in a musical composition that glides through the Olympic experience.

Murderball

Murderball offers an edge-of-your-seat look at wheelchair rugby and the competition between the U.S. and Canadian teams in the 2004 Paralympic Games. Players such as Mark Zupan and Scott Hogsett break down the stereotypes of sport, masculinity, and ability with brutal honesty and biting humor. The result is entertaining and uplifting.

Hoop Dreams

If you watch only one sport documentary, make it Steve James’s Hoop Dreams. The almost-three hour film follows two Chicago teens recruited to play ball in suburban high schools as they pursue their dreams to play pro ball. They face multiple obstacles along the way — financial and familial, physical and psychological — as they aim for spots on college and, later, NBA teams. The thrilling gameplay at the Illinois state championships is among some of the best shot and edited game footage in any sport documentary.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

‘Hoop Dreams’ News Coverage Suggests a Different Kind of Impact

Popular film titles sometimes work their way into everyday language: Bucket List, Gaslight, Groundhog Day. “Hoop Dreams” is one of those film titles.

As part of my background research into Hoop Dreams, I pulled 996 articles mentioning the phrase from all the years available in the Lexis Nexis news database. About half of those stories referred to the film, but just as many did not. Among the latter, some patterns — both expected and unexpected — emerged.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most dominant recurring pattern involves individuals and their aspirations. Most individuals — almost equally boys and girls — are athletes who seek success in sports, such as landing a scholarship, attending college, starting a new sport, or joining a team. Some individuals even abandon their sports dreams, such as one who gave up basketball to become a doctor.

These dreams know no geographical boundaries. While Chicago is the setting for the Hoop Dreams film, other dreamers live in Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. People chase their dreams across the globe to Germany, Canada, Croatia, Luxemborg, Israel, and India.

“Hoop Dreams” is a popular name for teams, camps, academies, and programs. Teams with the name play in West Virginia, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania. Camps and academies appear in Connecticut, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Australia. Programs include Hoop Dreams in Lexington, KY; ABCD Hoop Dreams in Boston; and YMCA Hoop Dreams in Hamilton, Ontario. Programs also appear in England and Australia. Do an Internet search and you’ll probably find even more than the ones listed here.

Tournaments run in Georgia and California. The Pescadero High School Hoop Dreams Tournament schedules both boys’ and girls’ teams. One tournament involved wheelchairs.

A cool program was founded by Susie Kay in Washington, D.C., to help area students attend college. Kay claimed that Arthur Agee, one of the two boys appearing in the film, reminded her of her own students. Named for the film, the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund started as a single-day basketball fundraiser in 1996. That first round raised $3,000. Within a few years, that tournament and other fundraising efforts expanded to $125,000. The program ended in 2009 following the economic downturn.

Very few stories mentioned the NBA at all. A couple stories connected “hoop dreams” with buying NBA teams or stadiums, and one referred to Mesho Marrow’s dream of founding a women’s basketball team in St. Louis. That dream became reality with the Missouri Arch Angels, named for the city’s iconic structure on the Mississippi River. The team plays in the Women’s Blue Chip Basketball League.

The phrase applies mostly to youth, but one 90-year-old also harbored her own hoop dream. Josephine Brager sought induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. She played basketball pre-World War II for the All-American Redheads and later the Dallas Hornets. The Redheads toured the country playing against men’s teams using the men’s rules — and often won. Sadly, Brager wasn’t chosen for induction.

“Hoop dreams” also means sports other than basketball. It refers to netball, which is an international cousin to U.S. basketball. Rhythm gymnasts and hoop dancers also are hoop dreamers.

One sports reference took me a little bit to puzzle out. According to one story, the Shamrock Rovers Football Club had “hoop dreams.” But why would an Irish football club have “hoop dreams?” Because one of the team’s nicknames is “Hoops.”

In Morgantown, West Virginia, a home offered a “hoop dream” of its own. In addition to the five bedrooms, five bathrooms, and home theater, the house had an indoor basketball court. The asking price was more than $1 million.

Some of the more creative mentions of “hoop dreams” have nothing to do with basketball or even sports. One gig announcement cited “Hoop Dreams,” a band, playing in Hobart, Tasmania. After a little digging, I found the band was based in Virginia and had a Cure-like sound, particularly on the track “Knife Fights.” Before signing the band, a record company contacted Kartemquin Films about the band using the name, which filmmakers Steve James and Peter Gilbert were fine with.

“Hoop dreams” also occur in fashion, in one case for earrings. The story read, “Orbs in all styles and sizes are earmarks of high style.” Hopefully, the look is better than the pun.

My favorite reference connected the film, identity, sport, and art all in one installation. Inspired by the film, Esmaa Mohamoud created an art installation called “Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams).” The installation consists of 60 concrete basketballs, each weighing about 31 pounds. The “heavy” refers to the relationship between basketball and black male culture, according to Mohamoud.

Before the news started covering the film in 1994, the only mention of “hoop dreams” appeared in a 1987 story about “hoops and dreams.” Every other non-film-related story I pulled from the database appeared after the film’s release, from about 1997 forward.

A search for the phrase through an Ngram viewer offers similar findings, particularly in the phrase’s first appearances. In a search for the phrase from 1950 to 2017, the phrase first appears in 1993, grows in 1994, and peaks in 1999.

All of these findings suggest a documentary impact of a different kind: that of a name on sports, music, fashion, art, and culture.

Special thanks to Tim Horsburgh, distribution and communications director at Kartemquin Films, for suggesting the Ngram search and the other film names mentioned in this post.

Merchandise Extends the ‘Hoop Dreams’ Experience

With every new blockbuster arrives a bevy of branded media, merchandise, and cross-promotions. Soundtracks, television specials, DVDs, and novelizations expand your media collections. Elsa dolls, Batman key chains, and Shrek Twinkies extend your movie experience while they shrink your wallet.

Sometimes, you have to wonder if Hollywood will ever let it go.

Documentaries for the most part fail to fit neatly into these branding machines, but a few exceptions exist. Warner Bros. released a March of the Penguins bonus set with postcards and plush penguin toy. Morgan Spurlock perhaps demonstrates this disconnect most clearly in POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, wherein he attempts to solicit funding for the documentary through paid sponsorships. In addition to POM Wonderful, other products and brands include Mane ‘n Tail, Old Navy, Seventh Generation, and Sheetz, a gas station chain familiar to those living in Pennsylvania and nearby states.

While these two titles lean on the lighter side, most documentaries address more serious issues that make further branding ridiculous. A Born into Brothels T-shirt or The Thin Blue Line backpack are inappropriate. (An Errol Morris bobblehead, however, might be a hot commodity.)

Some documentaries offer movie promotion items such as posters, cards, and autographed stills, but rarely more than that.

Hoop Dreams is a tasteful exception. In exploring the film’s history in the Kartemquin archives, I discovered documents that mentioned Hoop Dreams-branded merchandise. T-shirts with the Hoop Dreams brand sold in J.C. Penney’s stores in the mid-1990s, for example. Turner Publishing released a tie-in book by Ben Joravsky, for another example.

Where does one look for these now-vintage items? Why, eBay, of course. Much to my surprise, I found both official merchandise and memorabilia related to the film, its distribution, and its stars, William Gates and Arthur Agee.

Turner Publishing’s book proved the easiest find:

The front of the hardcover edition of Hoop Dreams, by Ben Joravsky.

This branded pencil connects with the distribution through Fine Line and Turner, but it makes no mention of Kartemquin:

Hoop Dreams pencil
A Hoop Dreams pencil with the New Line Home Video and Turner Publishing logos.

Two of the branded T-shirts showed up in the search results. This green one features a player with a basketball head holding an old-school cell phone. The writing reads,

Hoop Dreams official T-shirt
An official Hoop Dreams T-shirt. Check out that original flip phone!

Defense
You can’t do it
Shut me
down?
I toy with your
Existence
Fake left
Fake right
Take you (any which way)
You need
Help
Fool
Time to dial

A small patch reading, “Hoop Dream 911,” appears on the sleeve.

The black T-shirt is more understated with just the Hoop Dreams logo on the front and back.

Hoop Dreams official T-shirt
Another official Hoop Dreams T-shirt, this one with more understated logos.

Both T-shirts bear tiny writing that claims copyright for “Kartemquin Educational Films, Inc.” I wonder if any other documentary production houses can make the same kind of claim.

Memorabilia also appear on eBay. Memorabilia differ from the branded merchandise in that they may not be official, but they still connect with the film in some way. Trading cards for Gates and Agee are the most popular find. But then I came across this T-shirt:

Hoop Dreams commemorative T-shirt
A Hoop Dreams T-shirt commemorating the television broadcast in November 1995. The shirt is signed by both Gates and Agee.

The T-shirt commemorates the Hoop Dreams PBS broadcast on November 15, 1995. On the front a screenprint shows Gates holding a basketball, with below the logos for Chrysler, Kartemquin, PBS, and KTCA, the Twin Cities PBS-affiliate and producing partner. On the back appears a screenprint of Agee, ball in hand, in mid layup.

Two additions make this T-shirt special: signatures from Gates and Agee. Gates wrote, “Hoop Dreams,” while Agree wrote, “#4,” “Hoop Dreams,” and “’95.” I asked the eBay seller if they knew more about the shirt, and the seller said the person who originally had the shirt worked in sports promotions and probably did an event with the film’s broadcast and the two stars.

While Kartemquin and Fine Line no longer offer Hoop Dreams merchandise, Arthur Agee still uses the film’s name for his own company, Classic HD Basketball Clothing Co. The company features autographed Hoop Dreams posters, DVDs, and books, as well as T-shirts and basketball shorts. Part of the proceeds go toward renovating and equipping a basketball court in Chicago so that others can shoot for their own hoop dreams.

The Stories Documentary Archives Tell

While watching old documentaries provides an interesting look into nonfiction film history, sometimes the coolest discoveries lurk in dusty cardboard filing boxes.

This summer I enjoyed the opportunity to delve into Kartemquin Films‘ archives. Kartemquin has been busy making documentaries for more than 50 years, and with three new titles so far in 2016 alone, they show no signs of slowing down. I came away from my explorations thinking documentary work should be measured in reams of paper, not in shooting-to-editing ratios.

Digging through archives offers the adventure of exploring familiar trees rooted in unfamiliar woods. Some documents are to be expected in the course of operations: fundraising strategies, grant applications, acceptance and rejection letters, budgets, contracts, meeting agendas, consent forms, licensing agreements, legal correspondence, strategy memos, press releases, and marketing materials. At a University of Chicago speaking engagement in June, Kartemquin co-founder and current artistic director Gordon Quinn joked about keeping everything — but I’m not entirely sure he was kidding.

Materials from my initial inquiries ranged about 1985-2002, covering films such as Golub (1988), Hoop Dreams (1994), Vietnam Long Time Coming (1998), Stevie (2002), and Refrigerator Mothers (2002), along with a smattering of other films’ materials and external marketing materials. After 200 pages of notes so far, I feel I am only beginning to scratch the surface, but I have learned some interesting things about archival research, documentary history, and Kartemquin Films.

Archives represent living history. They hold mysteries about the past just as they reveal something about the present. A document appearing within an archive is never neutral. It is as much about the text on the page as it is about the contexts surrounding it. A document may have an official purpose, or it might be something much more personal. Either way, each document tells a story or two of its own while contributing to the larger narrative.

But these documents often tell incomplete stories, much like reality. For example, I found page 1 of what looked like an incredible manifesto, complete with — and perhaps not surprisingly — an opening quote from John Dewey, but there was no page 2. Another letter reached out to Frank Zappa possibly to participate in a documentary series about art, but did Zappa reply? The archives remained mum.

Some of the more interesting documents reveal the complex relationships that develop during a film’s production and continue after a film’s release. Editing questions, for example, can become intense during the production process. They cover so many possibilities: whom to include, whom to exclude, what details to include, what details to exclude, how often to appear, and how to frame all of them. And, of course, disagreements abound on every one of those questions.

Another complex relationship emerges with participants and consent agreements. Consent is nowhere near as simple as a signed piece of paper. It is a fluctuating relationship that continues and evolves even after a documentary’s release. Some participants write to express support for the films and the issues they address, while others write to express how upset they are about their representations. For example, the uplifting sports and veterans story Vietnam, Long Time Coming drew much praise, while the highly complex Stevie drew more mixed responses.

The most complex relationships I found among all that paperwork involved distribution deals. Distribution contracts represent a long-term relationship with terms dictated by all parties involved. Of course, some parties hold more power than others, and it was interesting to see each party advocating for its own interests and values, particularly with Hoop Dreams.

With paperwork comes handwriting: elaborate doodles, scribbled questions, penciled budgets, and scrawled memos. Some comments revealed some deep thinking about the issues at hand, while others showed touching connections developed during productions. One list appearing on yellow notepad paper, for example, features several books that might be good for the Vietnamese girls they met while filming Vietnam, Long Time Coming. Titles included The Secret Garden, The Hobbit, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Education of Little Tree. One memo even featured a sketch of a station wagon. Many comments showed a deep sense of humor — something necessary in the face of struggles related to raising funds, completing projects, and finding distributors.

Old school physical media storage lurked in multiple folders. In the Vietnam, Long Time Coming box I discovered projection slides and 3 1/2-inch hard disks. In the Hoop Dreams folders I found another 3 1/2-inch disk with a script on it. Other boxes held 5 1/4-inch floppy disks and even cassette tapes. While I had no devices to access the content on these media, I still feel something is being lost as everything now is transitioning to digital.

Not all the history buried in those archives is related specifically to Kartemquin, but it did connect with the documentary community at the time. One series of folders contained flyers from other documentary production and distribution companies. Some still operate today, such as New Day Films, California Newsreel, AppalShop, and Zipporah films, but others I had not heard of, such as Greenwich Film Associates, Documentary Associates Inc., Film Images, Cine Manifest, Public Interest Video Network, and Red Ball Films. Many of these companies were based in California or the New York City metro area, but interestingly enough others had addresses in Colorado, Washington state, and Ohio. I do wonder what became of them and their archives. What were their stories? How and why did they end?

Going through these boxes made me feel like I was standing on a two-foot slab of ice jutting out of the Arctic Ocean. I was only seeing the surface when so much, much more remains to be discovered underneath the water.

‘Hoop Dreams’ Delivers Goose Bumps and a Good Story

A memorable sport documentary requires two things: goosebumps and a good story.

Hoop Dreams has both, in spades.

The story behind Hoop Dreams shows the power of long-term documentary making. The arc follows William Gates and Arthur Agee for five years, from their entry into high school through their first year of college. As high school freshmen, both boys get recruited from Chicago city schools to play basketball for St. Joseph’s High School in suburban Westchester, IL, where NBA great Isiah Thomas got his start.

Both boys experience highs and lows during these periods as they pursue their hoop dreams of getting to the state championships, of landing a college scholarship, and ultimately of getting into the NBA. Gates has full tuition support, but he still faces issues with knee injuries and academic performance. Agee has only partial sponsorship, and because of financial struggles, he ends up back in a Chicago public high school.

But their stories focus more on just their dreams of playing pro ball. Both boys face pressures and challenges at home. Gates becomes a father to a baby girl, Alicia. Agee and his family face tough issues both at home and outside it. Father “Bo” Agee takes drugs, beats his wife, steals, and serves time. Both parents lose their jobs and struggle to get another. Violence in their neighborhood finds Agree and another family member held at gunpoint.

The goosebumps come from the competitions unfolding. Both boys play on teams that reach quarter final rounds, with tough competitors coming between them and the next bracket. Sometimes, the game comes down to that last free throw or that jump shot. Will he make it? Will he miss? (Please, please, don’t miss!)

Cast as the underdogs, Agee’s team, the Marshall Commandos, takes down two very tough teams during his senior year. After one tense game, the team realizes that it needs to prevent the other team from scoring for a brief period to secure a win. That moment when Agee waits out the timer courtside is almost as exciting as waiting for that free throw.

In the end both boys, now young men, earn scholarships to colleges. Gates signs with Marquette University in Milwaukee, while Agee signs with Mineral Area College in Missouri.

As Hoop Dreams shows in its almost three-hour run, the sport itself is never the full picture. The competition, the goose bumps, is just a small, albeit exciting, part. It is the story that shows what the sport really means, the dreams it inspires, and the reality in which it plays out.