'Hoop Dreams' Star Finds There's Life After Basketball

William Gates promotes film's message, and still aims at NBA

AS he practiced for hours on the cracking asphalt of Chicago's public courts, William Gates dreamed of having thousands of fans come to watch him play pro basketball. Now he stands in the doorway of Northeastern University's gymnasium here as the people stream by who have just finished watching him play during a special visit to the campus.

On this day, he had to settle for just a couple hundred fans, and he winces a bit when he admits that his chances of making it into the National Basketball Association are slim.

Gates, whose high-school life is richly depicted in the critically acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams," was here to talk to more than 400 inner-city youths at the "Hoop Dreams and More" program at Northeastern University. Gates overcame trials both on and off the court to graduate, and he spoke of the importance of hope and determination.

"Sometimes you may have the odds stacked against you, but with your perseverance, you can come out a winner," Gates says. "Everybody's got dreams, and they can come true. I'm a living example."

As a 13-year-old, his goal was stardom. Now, one term away from graduating from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Gates sees his managing to make it this far in his life as a much more impressive achievement.

Gates's father abandoned his family. Gates had a child of his own with his girlfriend in high school, and suffered a career-threatening knee injury as a junior.

"Hoop Dreams," he says, "relates with a lot of people out in their own communities," he says. The documentary has "brought some national attention to those who don't realize what's going on, and now I think there's a better understanding of how we can help kids in the inner-city communities."

Through the documentary, Gates has become an icon for urban black youths struggling against destructive influences to make a better life.

The "Hoop Dreams and More" program is designed to help combat these influences. Sponsored by the Center for the Study of Sport and Society, it was founded at Northeastern in 1984. It will travel to other cities, bringing the message of the film to those who can perhaps understand it best.

"Hoop Dreams" opens as Gates, an eighth-grader who can dunk, begins a remarkable basketball career at St. Joseph's private high school in the suburbs of Chicago - a career made financially possible through the help of benefactors. It's a fairly common arrangement: A young athlete's talent is rewarded with an excellent educational opportunity; in return the school gains prestige for its athletic program.

Gates's aspiration to play college ball and ultimately with the pros keep him performing at a peak level on the court while he drives to achieve the academic standards necessary to attend college.

At its best, the film shows, school and athlete are mutually benefited; at its worst, schools exploit the basketball dreams of a 13-year-old to gain local and even national recognition.

Producer and editor Frederick Marx says the system can swing both ways.

"The system has got a great potential for the exploiting of young people," Mr. Marx says. "Having said that, it also depends on the circumstances of recruiting. It can provide certain opportunities [athletes] would not otherwise have."

"William never would have attended a school like Marquette had he not played basketball," film producer Steve James adds. "Sports were a mixed blessing for him."

For those who grow up dreaming of making it to the NBA, the realization that they will not achieve their goal can be devastating. Gates's injury before the start of his junior year began a period in his life in which his love for the game was crushed under the burden of unrealized expectations.

"The injury was the biggest downfall of my career," Gates says. "I began to focus on different things because, in my own mind, I kind of felt that the NBA wasn't in my future anymore."

Confronted by the collapse of his dream, and now a father, Gates found his love for the game slowly waning. But his perseverance earned him a college scholarship and the means to make a better life for his family.

By his junior year in college, he had quit the Marquette team to spend more time with his five-year-old daughter and his girlfriend, now his wife.

"He realized he could live without basketball," Mr. James says. "For a while there, he lost his love for the game. He wasn't getting enough out of it - too many frustrations and way too much pressure. He almost gave up on it, but he stuck it out and actually discovered when he was away from the pressure [that] he missed the game, and when he came back, he found his love again."

Gates returned for his senior year, playing very few minutes in each game for the Marquette team that took second place in the National Invitation Tournament.

Now, with his college basketball career over, Gates plans to complete the courses required for his degree this fall. Amid promotional tours with Nike and the "Hoop Dreams" book, Gates will also try out for the NBA expansion Toronto Raptors in October.

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