When Steve James was a kid, he had the shot. He had the moves. He had the dream. “I was gonna be a pro player,” says James, 32, with a wispy smile. “Somehow or other I convinced myself I was gonna play in the NBA.”

In the early 1970s, when James enrolled at James Madison University in Virginia, he discovered his competitors, both teammates and opposing players, were faster and stronger. So ends the dream.

But his decision to become a documentary filmmaker instead has enabled him to revive that dream, if only vicariously. Together with coproducer Fred Marx and cameraman Peter Gilbert, James is putting together Hoop Dreams, an extraordinary one-hour venture into the world of basketball in Chicago’s inner city.

“When we’re done, Hoop Dreams will be a mosaic of the game,” says James. “It will follow players from their homes, into the neighborhoods, and into organized ball so you understand what basketball is and why it’s so important. It’s easy to dismiss basketball and say, ‘It should not be important.’ But the fact is that for thousands of kids it’s the dream ticket out of the ghetto.”

The documentary is now only in its early stages. With the help of the folks at Kartemquin Educational Films, an award-winning film house that allowed James and Marx use of their space, personnel, and equipment, they have put together two ten-minute demos. They hope to use the demos to raise the money–from sports-oriented institutions, public and private–needed to make the documentary.

The demos should do the trick. Zipping in and out of neighborhoods all over the west and south sides, they give the history of playground legends, some who made it, others who didn’t–stories of failure, and glorious exhibitions of talent. You meet Isiah Thomas, the west-side sensation who now plays for the Detroit Pistons, and regular guys like Eddie Curry, who gathers his buddies together about once a week in the summer to play basketball and barbecue ribs on the near south side. “There’s no women allowed,” Curry explains in the film, with mock seriousness. “This is our rest day. We get away from all the females. We got one sitting over there on the bench. But she’s gonna go. We’re gonna get rid of her.”

“It’s a love project for us,” says Gilbert, a veteran cameraman who is donating his time to the project. “We’re living our dream by watching the kids.”

James’s love for basketball goes back to his youth in Virginia, where he was one of three boys in a sports-crazed family.

“I was the white kid who wanted to be in the NBA. John Havlicek was my hero. I was slow and I couldn’t jump, so I was gonna live and die with my jump shot. I played high school ball and did OK–averaged about 12 points a game.

“And then I went to college. My coach was Mike Fratello, who now coaches for the Atlanta Hawks [a pro team]. The first day I met Fratello he says, ‘Let’s see you play some of the recruits.’ So we play a little two-on-two. I guarded this guy named Sherman Dillard. He’s six-foot-four, about 220 pounds, and he takes me to the hole repeatedly. I’m like a dishrag covering him. After it’s over, Fratello asks me, ‘What did you think of Sherman?’ I said, ‘He’s tough; he’ll be a good forward.’ Fratello looks at me and said: ‘He’s playing guard.’ That was it. I knew it; my career was over.”

Later James transferred to Southern Illinois University (where he met Marx), earned a master’s degree in filmmaking, and then moved to Chicago in 1984, determined to someday make a documentary about basketball. James and Marx wanted to follow the lives of several characters: a pro, a kid on the rise, and a fellow who never quite made it. To make the project work, they needed a star for the pro role.

“Isiah Thomas was the obvious choice,” says James. “He comes from Chicago, he grew up on the west side, and I know he has a big heart for kids in the inner city. To reach him, I called Gene Pingatore, his high school coach from Saint Joseph, a Catholic school in Westchester [a perennial basketball winner]. Ping tells me, ‘If you’re gonna do this film, you gotta meet Earl Smith.'”

Indeed, anyone who wants to know anything about high school basketball in Chicago should meet the man they call “Big Earl.” Smith makes his living as an executive in the insurance business, but his passion remains the court.

“I’m an ex-ball player–Hyde Park High, class of ’57,” says Smith. “I was just a hacker, just your average ball player. But I kept at it. I’ve seen all the great players: Charlie Brown, Cazzie Russell, Willie (“The Bird’) Jones, Clarence Wordlaw, Mark Aguirre, Isiah, you name them.

“I recruit for a few high schools. It’s a hobby; I don’t get paid for it. I’ll go from court to court all over the city, and if I spot a youngster who has talent, I generally will watch him three or four times. He doesn’t have to be a great shot; that usually comes later. It’s difficult to judge potential when you’re dealing with a 13-year-old. He could reach 16 and not get any better. But if you see a kid playing with older guys, and he’s holding his own, you know you got a potential world-beater. After that, I’ll ask him if he’s committed to a high school. If he is committed, I don’t tamper. If he’s not, I’ll meet his parents and introduce them to the coach.”

Smith allowed James and Marx to accompany him on his travels from playground to playground in North Lawndale, Englewood, Woodlawn, all over the inner city.

“We were never hassled,” says James. “We were never threatened. There were never any problems. At most, players would look at us a little funny. They thought we were cops. Why else would some white guys be coming into their neighborhood?

“Alexander Wolf, the writer for Sports Illustrated, wrote that the great thing about basketball is that it is a passport to black culture. And it is. If you let the guys know that you’re interested in basketball, they’ll open up to you.”

In time, the players taught the filmmakers the rules and language of inner-city basketball.

“The first thing you learn about playground ball is that the winning team keeps the court,” says James. “That makes for tough competition. If you lose, you can sit for hours, especially if there’s a lot of guys playing. So you better pick a good team. Which means you don’t want a ‘buster.’ That’s a guy who can’t play but tries to anyway. What you have to do is stack your team. Let’s say you’re getting ready to play, and a buster walks on the court. Chances are you’ll say, ‘I got my five,’ even if you don’t. The buster knows you’re not telling the truth. So the buster will call the next game, and then stack his team.”

“It tough, it’s really tough,” Gilbert adds. “But what I think attracts the kids to the game is the style. Basketball has much more style than football or baseball. You see it on the street: all the kids are imitating their heroes. You see tons of kids doing their slam dunks with the double pumps, just like Michael [Jordan]. It’s a fantasy thing. You feel like a star even if you’re just shooting alone. You say, ‘Here comes Jordan, three seconds left, down by one. Two seconds left. One second left. Jordan shoots. It’s in. Bulls win! Bulls win!'”

“And the language is so rich,” says James. “You got a ‘bunny,’ that’s an easy shot. Better not miss one of those. There’s ‘Bogart your man.’ That means to elbow him. Then there’s ‘flappin’ your jibs’–that means talking trash. The ball is called a ‘pill’ or ‘rock.’ ‘Goin’ to the bank’ means taking a bank shot. Some guys will say: ‘My bank stays open 24 hours a day.'”

The theme James keeps hitting, both in the film and in conversation, is that there’s something bittersweet to the game. Yes it’s fun, rich in its language, and exciting. But it’s also tinged with heartbreak. There are hundreds of kids playing day after day, but only a tiny fraction will make it to the pros.

“Isiah will be the first to tell you there were probably better basketball talents even in his own neighborhood,” Pingatore says in the demo. “And yet they weren’t going to make it. [Isiah] has that total combination of personality, talent, and intelligence. I think I see it in [other players], but you never know how a kid is going to develop.”

In the demo, this drama is captured by footage of a teenager, small and spindly, walking across a vacant lot, basketball in hand, to a netless court in a nearby school yard. There he will practice for hours, dribbling the ball behind his back and through his legs.

“Right now I want to play in the NBA,” says a serious, intense-looking 14-year-old in the demo. “That’s something I think about all the time, playing in the NBA. I want to be in the NBA more than anything else.”

This youth, James explains, travels two hours a day to go to a private school so he can be away from inner-city strife. He has devoted his life to the game; his potential career offers his family hope.

“I see all those basketball dreams I had, and they’re gone,” the youth’s 22-year-old older brother says in the demo. “All of my dreams are in my brother now. I want him to make it so bad, I don’t know what to do. I just want him to make it.”

He drills his younger brother as often as possible, playing endless games of one-on-one on a court near Cabrini-Green.

“I bang him and bruise him,” the older brother says in the demo. “That’s the only thing he can’t take. He’s fragile. I’m trying to let him know right now, he’s gonna get hit. You’re gonna get knocked down, gonna get banged around. So you better just get used to it right now.”

Later in the demo, Isiah Thomas bemoans the fact that too many kids see basketball as the only ticket out of poverty.

“For too long people have told kids that athletics is your only escape from the ghetto,” Thomas says. “You should be able to go to school, and escape from the ghetto.”

That’s a principle on which everyone working with Hoop Dreams agrees.

“I tell all the kids: study, hit the books, keep your grades up,” says Smith. “I wish the kids didn’t put so much stock in making the pros. But let’s be realistic, they do. They come from poor families. Their hope for the future is based on a dream. They don’t think they’re going to get out of the ghetto on academics. They think: ‘If I’m six-foot-seven, and I can dunk a basketball, then Yale or Harvard will give me a shot.’ What we adults can do is help them be prepared when that chance comes.”

There’s one magic moment in the demo when the message to work hard–at everything–comes to life. In it, Thomas has returned to Saint Joseph to give a clinic for about 100 kids, black and white.

“In everybody’s neighborhood there’s a guy who can play,” Thomas tells the kids. “He can shoot the lights out, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Then he goes to Saint Joe’s High School, and he gets cut, and you say, ‘But Tom was good. Tom was great. Why did he get cut?’ You see, Tom didn’t learn the fundamentals of basketball. He didn’t play in an organized way. He didn’t learn to play team basketball. Which is what you’re learning to play.”

The kids sit stone still, their eyes gleaming. It’s as though they can’t believe that the man standing before them, chatting amiably in his blue shorts and T-shirt, is the great Isiah Thomas.

Afterwards, Thomas ends his talk with an unbelievable exercise in which he closes his eyes and whirls the ball around his head. The sound of his hands slapping the ball–patta-patta, patta-patta, patta-patta–reverberates throughout the silent gym. Thomas’s eyes never open. He seems to be in a trance. The picture fades out, and the demo is over.

“I really believe in what Steve and Fred are doing, I think it’s an important message,” Smith says. “But if you really want to see some hot basketball action live, I know a great high school game coming up on Friday night.”

The reporter can’t make it. Friday is the night he gets together with the guys for basketball at the local Y.

“Don’t tell me,” says Smith, exploding into good-natured laughter. “You still believe. You still think, ‘Damn, if only I had a few more inches, if only I had some speed, I’d be playin’ in the NBA, takin’ it right over Magic Johnson.’ It’s too much. You’re like the rest of us. You still have the dream. You still have the dream.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.