It’s a chilly morning and two old friends are supposed to meet for a game of hoops. The shy, steadier of the pair arrives early. The other, a fun-loving extrovert, arrives almost two hours late.
The tardy one, Arthur Agee, strolls into his buddy’s office with a playful smile and talk of car trouble. William Gates immediately forgives him.
For more than a decade, the pair have been bound by unexpected fame. The two Chicago high school basketball players were featured in the 1994 hit documentary “Hoop Dreams.” Now in their mid-30s, their contrasting fates may surprise the many people who saw the movie.
Gates, the reserved one, has become an authoritative force who leads a church in Chicago’s Cabrini area. He is married with four kids. Agee, a spirited charmer, doesn’t have a regular job but is launching a line of “Hoop Dreams” apparel. He has five kids by five different women.
“You ain’t even Mr. Gates, now it’s Pastor Gates,” Agee said as the two men embraced.
Much has changed since filmmakers began chronicling their lives in 1987, when the 14-year-olds saw the NBA as their way out of poverty. Enduring close to three-hour commutes, the boys enrolled at St. Joseph High School in suburban Westchester as freshmen. The private Catholic school had famously launched the career of retired NBA point guard Isiah Thomas, whom both kids had long idolized.
Gates, a more promising player than Agee, blew out his right knee his junior year. A year earlier, his girlfriend, Catherine Mines, gave birth to a baby girl, Alicia. Gates was still able to accept a scholarship from Marquette University in Milwaukee, but the injury continued to dog him.
Agee left St. Joseph during the beginning of his sophomore year when his parents couldn’t meet their share of his tuition. Devastated, Agee transferred to Chicago’s Marshall High School in West Garfield Park. His team made it to the state finals his senior year.
After graduating from Marshall, Agee enrolled in Mineral Area Junior College in Flat River, Mo., and later transferred to Arkansas State University. He didn’t graduate from college, but Agee played semiprofessional basketball. In 1996, he was offered a spot on the Continental Basketball Association’s Connecticut Pride but passed it up because it conflicted with a part in a cable film by Steve James, director of “Hoop Dreams.” Agee also had an uncredited spot in Spike Lee’s 1998 film “He Got Game.”
The teenagers knew each other casually before “Hoop Dreams” was made, but they grew extremely close over the five years of filming. They even had secret sleepovers at each others’ homes, unbeknownst to the film crew.
“We were teenagers - we didn’t want them knowing everything that we were doing,” Gates said.
They predict their connection will last all their lives. Agee was one of the first people Gates called when his brother Curtis was murdered in 2001; Agee called Gates immediately after his father, “Bo” Agee, a West Side minister, was slain.
“At the end of the day, he’s my guy,” Gates said. “And I know he feels the same way.”
Agee credits Gates for being honest with him, even when it’s about something he doesn’t want to hear.
Still, they sometimes fall out of touch. In recent months, Gates couldn’t reach Agee because his cell phone number had changed.
“Hey, stranger, where you been?” Gates said after they hugged last month, the day they met to play basketball.
Agee fed him a sly grin and gave him an extra-large T-shirt, part of his “Hoop Dreams” clothing line. The filmmakers granted Agee the rights to use the “Hoop Dreams” name. On the T-shirts, Agee added the slogan: “Control Your Destiny.”
“My man ain’t never been that big,” said Gates’ wife, Catherine, laughing.
Gates held up the T-shirt and joked that his three boys - ages 13, 10 and 5-could fit inside it.
Agee led his old friend outside to his rusty, white 1991 Buick LeSabre. In the back seat, Agee’s pit bull, Cole, was anxiously pacing. Agee opened up his trunk, which had a stack of T-shirts neatly folded in a laundry basket, and handed Gates a handful of T-shirts in smaller sizes.
Agee lives in Bartlett, a northwest suburb of Chicago, with his girlfriend, Jennifer Genovesi, and their 8-month-old son, Devin. His four other children, Anthony, 16; Ashley, 16; Deja, 12; and Aiysha, 2; each live with their respective mothers. Agee said he pays more than $900 a month in child support and is often broke.
Things were looking more promising after “Hoop Dreams” made its debut. Because of the film, Agee was able to move his family out of their Section 8 two-flat into a bungalow. Both men said they earned roughly $150,000.
But neither grew rich.
Agee gave up on basketball in 1997.
In recent years, he has focused on his Arthur Agee Jr. Role Model Foundation, a non-profit that works with underprivileged kids. He also starred in a documentary called “Hoop Realities.” The film looks at Agee’s attempts to launch the clothing line, follows a recent senior guard from Marshall and examines the difficulties of reaching the NBA. The film premiered a year ago at the Virginia Film Festival. Agee said the producers are working on getting a distribution deal.
A “Hoop Dreams” sequel is not in the works, said Peter Gilbert, a producer of the original film. But, he added, “Never say never.”
Gates never banked on another film. Now a father of four living in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, Gates became the first person in his family to graduate from college, earning a communications degree from Marquette in 1999. He worked for three years as a program director of Community Economic Development Association of Cook County and considered law school.
He hit a low point after his brother Curtis’ murder on Sept. 10, 2001, and spent much of 2002 unemployed, with the exception of a few handyman jobs.
“It was worse than the knee injury and not being able to play,” he said of that period. “I felt powerless.”
The grandson of a pastor, he decided to pursue a more spiritual path. In early 2003, the Moody Church offered him the job leading an evangelical church, Living Faith Community Church in Cabrini-Green. Gates remains there today.
Meanwhile, both men still play hoops for fun. Gates said his eldest son, William Jr., already is a better player than he was at his age.
“I don’t tell him this, but he’s really good,” Gates said.
2 MEN IN DOCUMENTARY FILM MET UNTIMELY DEATHS
Two men featured prominently in the “Hoop Dreams” documentary were murdered in the years after the film’s 1994 release.
In the film, Arthur “Bo” Agee, Arthur’s dad, started using cocaine, beat his wife and served time in jail for burglary. But viewers watched as he broke free of addiction, reunited with his family and became a West Side pastor.
In December 2004, Agee, 52, was murdered in an alley outside his home in suburban Berwyn, Ill. Sheila Agee, his high school sweetheart, moved to be with family after the slaying. She couldn’t bear to remain in the home.
She believes that the murderer was an ex-convict Agee had preached to, a man who knew her husband sometimes carried a lot of cash because of his business.
Another murder victim from the film was William Gates’ older brother Curtis, a former basketball player at Colby Junior College. In the film, Curtis Gates is shown working as a security guard. He said of brother William: “All my dreams are in him now.”
Gates, 36, was shot to death on Sept. 10, 2001, in Chicago.
In both murders, suspects were brought to trial and later acquitted.