Hoop Dreams: the Outtakes

“It’s got a life of its own,” says Ben Joravsky, speaking of the phrase “hoop dreams.” “I was talking to Steve James about it. He said, “Do you think it’ll be like “catch-22”?’ I said no, but it’s the equivalent of “do the right thing’ or “the right stuff’–where you say it and it conjures up a meaning in people’s heads.”

The meaning? “It’s sort of like a parable,” Joravsky says, though allowing that “it’s becoming so broad and overused it can mean anything related to basketball. Newsweek can put Michael Jordan on the cover and say “hoop dreams.’ I saw that and laughed out loud. Michael Jordan is the epitome of black kids making it to the top, so Newsweek in a clumsy way, I guess, hit on it. But in a more precise way, if you’re driving down the street and you saw a pickup game with about six kids playing–black kids, teenagers–you’d go, “hoop dreams.”‘

In the movie houses Hoop Dreams is 169 minutes of biography of Arthur Agee and William Gates. But another 250 hours of tape existed that nobody but the filmmakers saw–until Joravsky plunged into that wilderness of outtakes.

Joravsky, a Reader staff writer, was hired by Kartemquin Educational Films to write the book version of Hoop Dreams. The book was commissioned by the Turner Broadcasting System, whose Fine Line Features subsidiary distributes Kartemquin’s movie.

“I must have taken home 70 cassettes,” says Joravsky, speaking of his labors last December and January to produce a book now in the stores. “That’s when I was writing the second part of the book. The first two years [Gates and Agee’s freshman and sophomore years in high school] they didn’t have much tape. The first half is when I did a lot of original research. I’d be on the phone every night from maybe 8:30 to 11:30. “What did you say? What did he say?’

“By the second part the filmmakers were much more involved with the families. They had a much stronger sense of what they were doing, and I think they had some money. To me, the outrage wasn’t so much that they didn’t get the best-documentary nomination but that they didn’t get the best-picture nomination. Because this was a movie.

“The director, Steve James, got everybody to play their parts. These characters had these roles, they got used to him, and after a while they began to play to the cameras.

“Peter Gilbert was the cinematographer. Steve would be holding the lights, and he’d be the voice you’d hear. “OK, hold it, Arthur. We’re not in focus yet.’ He’d ask them to walk down the aisle and in his mind he’d think, “I might need Arthur to walk down the aisle. It’s summer school. I can’t use the shot of him walking down the aisle I shot in January.’ I saw this over and over in the tapes I watched. They were in control of a very unwieldy process.”

Joravsky says he isn’t sure whether to call Gates and Agee actors or performers. Their roles were themselves. Their performance lay in acting as if the camera were not there without forgetting for an instant that it was.

“I’ll give you an example. There was this one scene with a nurse in the hallway of William’s hospital. And the purpose of this scene in the movie is to basically build up to the operation. William is supposed to be–he is–scared, filled with anxiety. He’s facing the knife, right?

“She’s explaining this to him and something happens. It’s a typical screwup. Wait a minute! We don’t have the focus we need! The sound’s not right! So they stopped filming, they stopped the dialogue between William and the nurse. And when they said OK, let’s go back to the dialogue, the nurse forgot where she was. William cued her! He gave her her line. When I saw this–this is like a movie! He’s 15 years old! He had gotten so good at it, here he is in this emotional situation and he’s cuing her with her line–and you see none of it! That’s the brilliance of the filmmakers in my opinion. It flows.”

Another example: the painful scene where Agee’s parents, Sheila and Bo, ask the financial officer at Saint Joseph High School to release their son’s transcripts. “It was shot twice,” says Joravsky. As the Agees walked into the tiny office, James and Gilbert were waiting for them with the camera running. And when the awkward conversation between the needy couple and the school official ran its course, the two filmmakers asked everyone to sit there for a moment while they shot some cutaways from another angle.

“Well, what happened is that while Peter was shooting, Bo and Sheila and the financial fellow began to go into their dialogue again. They began to redo their scene. It’s mind-boggling. I guess they had nothing else to talk about. I pointed this out to Steve James. I was complimenting him–because I believe it is a compliment–and he said, “No, I didn’t ask them to. They just started talking.”‘

Writing the book, Joravsky wanted to open up characters the movie had abbreviated. One was Curtis Gates, in his day a prep superstar, in the movie a once-was laying his dreams on his younger brother. Joravsky was determined to give Curtis his due. “They caught this guy at a stage of his life where he was a little down. He’s not like that anymore. He’s a very confident, productive man.

“I feel Curtis–and this is definitely the fault of the press as opposed to the filmmakers–Curtis has become emblematic of a prototype, as opposed to being Curtis. First of all, he’s a local legend. From a purely sports standpoint he’s got that. Secondly, the guy’s got a good job, he supports his family, he’s got a good life. So he’s not in the pros! So what?

“We send out so many conflicting messages. We watch the movie and say on the one hand that black boys should not invest their dreams in the NBA. They should go out and become computer operators for IBM, right? On the other hand, the attitude is, aww, he didn’t make the NBA. He lost.

“And it’s not just Curtis. I read these articles all the time. “Whatever happened to so-and-so? He never made the NBA.’ So what?”

New Yorkers Take Over Chicago

Under its outgoing ownership Chicago magazine was the odd duck up north. Landmark Communications Inc., based in Norfolk, Virginia, intended to pick up other city magazines after buying Chicago in 1990. But because the economy went sour, its roots never spread beyond TV, cable, newspapers, and niche publications like the Antique Trader Weekly.

Enter, last week, a kindred spirit–New York City’s K-III Communications, which owns more than 60 magazines, among them New York. Far from being a lonely outpost, Chicago–once the deal is done–will take its place as K-III’s most visible property in a city that spokesman David Adler says “is becoming a very big hub.”

Last week K-III also bought Chicago-based Bacon’s Information, which services the PR industry with media data, and before that a string of 22 local specialty publications that had been owned by Maclean Hunter. K-III already owned Stagebill, the program for 45 Chicago-area theaters. “We probably have over $125 million worth of businesses headquartered in Chicago,” Adler told me.

What Adler said next explains as well as anything why Chicago publisher Heidi Schultz and editor Richard Babcock beamed as the pending sale from Landmark to K-III was being announced. I asked Adler if all those local businesses would be brought under one roof.

No, he said flatly. “One of the things we do, we always preserve the corporate culture of our units. Synergy is not a word we subscribe to here at K-III.”

Is there an editor in chief who rules all K-III magazines? No again. “We pride ourselves on not having that,” he said. “We give our magazine editors a lot of autonomy.”

K-III’s idea of autonomy may not turn out to be Babcock’s, but he has a grace period coming. Chicago has become much more interesting to read in the last year or so. There’s a touch of Vanity Fair to it these days, a recognition that homegrown power, sex, and scandal can be just as delicious as the crops from either coast.

“In fact I’ve turned down some promising crime stories because I thought we had enough cooking that we couldn’t handle more of them,” Babcock told me.

What Chicago could use from K-III is cash. “We have really old Macintoshes,” one writer said. “The equipment dies right and left. Since K-III wants to go public, we hope they’ll dress us up to make the package prettier.”

The Tribune’s Little Loophole

Journalism is not an exact science, and there’s more than one way to cover a tricky financial story. Take the tax loophole Senator Carol Moseley-Braun and cooperative Republicans concocted to help the Tribune Company buy a couple of southern TV stations.

The loophole was written into a bill eliminating the tax break minority-controlled companies have gotten when they buy media properties. Quincy Jones and other black entrepreneurs are the supposed controlling interest in the Tribune partnership, although Newsweek has reported that they actually put up only 9 percent of the money and own only a 9 percent stake in the deal.

The New York Times took up the matter as a Washington case in point and ran a page-one story headlined “Little-Noted Tiptoe Through a Closing Loophole.” It noted that the deal would save the Tribune about $13 million and Rupert Murdoch, owner of one of the TV stations, about $30 million.

The Sun-Times made hay. It carried articles three days running, and followed them last Sunday with a lively column on the “sweetheart tax deal” by Raymond Coffey, who quoted Newsweek and sneered zestily.

The Tribune ran a single short, chaste, unsigned article buried in its business section. To accommodate computer illiterates, the Tribune skipped its usual offer of additional on-line information.

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