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'Hoop Dreams' Guns for Academy Award Long Shot

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The producers of the acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams," which chronicles the basketball aspirations of two young Chicagoans, will learn this week whether their own quixotic dreams of film glory come true.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was to announce its Oscar nominations on Feb. 14. Fine Line Features, the distributor of "Hoop Dreams," has spent thousands of dollars to persuade academy members to make the film the first documentary ever nominated for best picture.

The executive producer of "Hoop Dreams" said last week the odds of snagging that nomination were as long as the chances of the film's young stars making it to the National Basketball Association.

"The best-picture nomination is a real long shot," said Gordon Quinn, the founder and head of Kartemquin Films of Chicago, one of the film's co-producers. "But you never know because we've had so many surprises already."

The film, meanwhile, has drawn thumbs-down reviews from officials at the Roman Catholic high school where much of it was shot. In a lawsuit that was said last week to be nearing a settlement, the school challenged the way it was depicted in the film.

Small Beginnings

"Hoop Dreams" started out some eight years ago, planned as a short documentary about playground basketball in Chicago. It turned into an extraordinary longitudinal study of two black 8th-grade boys who were recruited to St. Joseph's High School, a suburban basketball powerhouse that was once home to the N.B.A. star Isiah Thomas.

When the producers decided to follow William Gates and Arthur Agee through high school, they envisioned a documentary that would air on public television.

But things changed when the three-hour film opened to critical acclaim last year at the respected Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Fine Line snapped up "Hoop Dreams" and released it to theaters in October.

Fine Line has waged a full-fledged Academy Award campaign, including trade magazines, special screenings, and mailings to academy members.

Mr. Quinn said that he would be satisfied even if "Hoop Dreams" earned an Oscar nomination in the less-glamorous documentary category. Regardless of what happens with the Academy Awards, the film was recently released in more theaters and is still scheduled to air on the Public Broadcasting Service in the fall.

All of which improves the chances that more young people will be exposed to the film and its lessons about basketball, recruiting, career choices, and personal responsibility, Mr. Quinn said.

Educational Emphasis

To help reach an audience that might not normally be attracted to PBS documentaries, the producers several years ago tapped the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston to come up with educational materials tied to the film.

"Fifty-three percent of high school basketball players believe they can make it to the pros," said Art Taylor, the center's associate director and the head of the "Hoop Dreams" outreach project. "If that is all you are thinking about and you don't back it up, you're going to be in big trouble."

The film opens a window not just on basketball, but also on the struggles of two families living in poverty on Chicago's West Side.

The Center for the Study of Sport in Society has used it at basketball camps and with playground leagues to discuss such topics as the recruiting game and how to deal with sports injuries.

Now that the film is drawing more of a nonbasketball audience, the center has devised an educational guide to prompt classroom discussions about academics, career development, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and other topics for which the film provides poignant examples.

One unit focuses on Curtis Gates, William's older brother, whose own basketball dreams have faded, leaving him to bounce from one dead-end job to another. "Is it too late for Curtis to turn his life around?" the guide asks in a section on career planning.

The center is working on further outreach efforts for when the documentary airs on public television. Mr. Taylor said young black males are one of the hardest audiences to reach with a film or television program, "but we think basketball will be the theme that will do it."

School Lawsuit

The film's box-office success, although modest by Hollywood standards, is a key factor in the negative review it has received from St. Joseph's High School.

The school in suburban Westchester, run by the Christian Brothers order, sued Kartemquin Films and New Line Cinema Corporation, the parent of Fine Line, last October. The suit claims "Hoop Dreams" presented the school and its basketball coach, Gene Pingatore, "in a false and untrue light."

The suit in Cook County Circuit Court contends that school officials thought "Hoop Dreams" was a nonprofit educational venture and says that St. Joseph's would not have given permission for a commercial film.

School officials have also objected to the film's suggestion that St. Joseph's recruits talented athletes from the inner city. Charles Lynch, the president of St. Joseph's, said last week that because the school and the film companies were close to a settlement, he could not comment.

Mr. Quinn said Kartemquin had no idea the film would attract a commercial distributor. In his view, he said, it remains a nonprofit educational film. Mr. Quinn said the settlement likely would involve the establishment of a scholarship fund at St. Joseph's.

The two young men depicted in the film are still pursuing their dreams, although sportswriters have speculated that the N.B.A. is beyond their grasp.

Mr. Gates is a senior at Marquette University, where he is a reserve player on the basketball team. Mr. Agee is a senior and a starting guard at Arkansas State University, where the basketball coach has barred him from giving interviews because of the negative impact the publicity reportedly has had on his studies.

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