You’re five minutes into a chat with the three guys who made Hoop Dreams, and you know more about their long-faded days on the basketball court than their triumphs in filmmaking. Peter Gilbert was a benchwarmer in high school in Chicago. ”Serious splinter action,” says the coproducer and director of photography. Steve James, the director and coproducer, played a year of hoops at James Madison University. And the giant of the trio, 6-foot-5 coproducer Frederick Marx, may have nixed his jump shot at fame when a coach from the University of Illinois went hunting for him at a high school banquet.
”I was the MVP that year,” Marx recalls with whimsy, ”so he wanted to talk to me. But of course, being a hippie in 1973, I ducked out of my own banquet.”
”If not for that banquet,” James gently teases, ”you’d be in the pros.”
Gilbert, James, and Marx are all closing in on 40. But as the weary-looking filmmakers plop their sneakers on the coffee table and savor a view of Central Park from a suite at Manhattan’s Mayflower Hotel, it’s clear they never really lost that ache for the big leagues. Which explains why they were willing to gamble eight years of their lives on Hoop Dreams. The estimated $750,000 film, probably the most celebrated documentary since 1989’s Roger & Me, has won the three a shower of kudos, including an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, a promotional boost from Nike, whispers about an Oscar, and that surefire badge of prestige in the ’90s — a lawsuit. St. Joseph High School is suing the production company and New Line Cinema, the film’s distributor, seeking in excess of $30,000 and court costs for allegedly misleading the school into taking part in the project and for casting the school, especially coach Gene Pingatore, in what court documents call a ”false and untrue light.”
And then there’s the strangest of backhanded compliments: a deal allowing TNT to make Hoop Dreams into a TV movie. ”We had people come up to us and go, ‘Saw the documentary, loved it, it’s so amazing, it’s moving — we wanna remake it,”’ says director James. ”We were a bit bewildered at that.”
Even so, after eight years of scrounging for cash and stretching personal relationships to the limit (”During the course of making this movie there was one marriage, one divorce, and five children born among the three of us,” notes James), it looks like the tag-team trinity has crashed the big leagues after all. ”I don’t want to overstate this, but in the way that William and Arthur pay a price for their dreams in the film,” says James, ”the same was true for us.”