ASHBURN — Arthur Agee didn’t expect to still be seeing his Marshall teammates almost 30 years after the cameras stopped rolling.
But life rarely moves on in ways imagined, an essential theme of “Hoop Dreams,” a 1994 documentary that followed two Chicago high school basketball players — Agee and William Gates — as they pursued fleeting dreams of NBA stardom while navigating poverty, violence and a society stacked against them.
Roger Ebert lauded the three-hour film as “the great American documentary,” and “Hoop Dreams” is now taught in schools and archived at the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
The filmmakers collected more than 250 hours of footage, embedding themselves with Agee and his Marshall Commandos as they made a miraculous run from unranked to third-place state finisher in 1991.
The bond forged that year and documented for the world to see led to a lifelong “brotherhood,” said Agee and his teammates, now in their late 40s.
Most of the Commandos have stayed in Chicago, started families and remained connected as the “Bedford Boys,” an ode to the man who brought them together: legendary Marshall coach Luther Bedford, who died in 2006. The Bedford Boys have supported each other through challenges, tragedy and everyday life.
On Sunday, the cast of “Hoop Dreams” reunited with no fanfare to watch the Bears game together and raise a toast to “Commandos For Life.”
“We’ve survived because we’ve stuck together,” Agee said. “When we hang out, you forget you’re 49, 48, and feel like you’re a teenager in high school again, back in ‘Hoop Dreams.’”
Agee went on to a modest college basketball career and turned his fame into a livelihood, producing a follow-up film and giving speeches at schools.
“It’s part of my real life, so I’ll always love to talk about it,” he said.
The NBA didn’t pan out — but the “ultimate payoff” of Agee’s hoop dreams is having his Marshall teammates to go through life with, he said.
“There’s no movie without those guys. They bought in, and we’ve always celebrated each other’s success,” Agee said. “They gave me confidence because I wasn’t an All-American, I wasn’t ranked. We were all just the underdogs.”
Cesare Christian was the leading scorer for the Commandos in 1991 and host of the get-together Sunday. The cameras back then were “seen but never intrusive,” and Christian said watching the movie “still brings you chills.”
“It shows where we grew up, one of the hardest areas in the world at that time. We knew that, and it captures a time where, as young men, if we didn’t have each other, who knows what would have happened,” Christian said. “Coach Bedford gave us that foundation, and he’s smiling upon this right now.”
Christian is an athletic director, and many of the Bedford Boys have followed their namesake into coaching, including Adonis Griffith, who spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Marshall. The movie has been a tool to teach young men “how to rise above their circumstances by being a team,” Griffith said.
“The movie didn’t make us. It was us coming together that made the movie what it was,” Griffith said. “It was a special time in our lives, and we’re blessed to be able to press play and run it back.”
Former Commandos Mario Pittman and Andre Williams said Bedford was a “father figure” to the team and many of its players who did not have fathers at home. The strict disciplinarian had an underlying warmth, making sure grades were straight, players were in shape, everyone went off to college and “boys grew up to be men,” Williams said.
Bedford spent 40 years at Marshall and competed with Chicago’s top schools even though he never recruited, finding the practice to be exploitative. As the Commandos came together in 1991, the movie showed Bedford teaching “kids how to do what they’re supposed to do,” Pittman said.
“That representation has inspired young minorities and given them the wisdom and knowledge to reach for more,” Pittman said. “Hoop Dreams could be basketball, football, tennis, anything, and the message will always be relevant.”
On Sunday, former Commando point guard Shawn Harrington flipped through Marshall’s 1991 yearbook and said he “feels blessed to still be here laughing with my brothers.”
The team rallied around Harrington during his most difficult chapter, he said. Harrington was driving his daughter, Naja, to school Jan. 30, 2014, when two people shot at them at a red light in Humboldt Park, mistaking their car for someone else’s. Harrington was shot twice as he shielded his daughter from the gunfire, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. The shooters were sentenced to 59 years in prison.
The Bedford Boys were all in Harrington’s hospital room that day, he said.
“It made me realize how much love we had for each other. And that all started through the love we all had for basketball,” Harrington said. “I don’t use the word ‘brother’ lightly. I can sit here and talk to them with a smile on my face. They’re the ones that help me wake up the next day.”
Agee said he’s dealt with grief in the years following the movie. His father, Bo Agee, who was featured in the documentary, was shot and killed outside Chicago in 2004. Tragedy struck again in 2014, when Arthur’s youngest brother, Joe, died of heart failure at 33. One of his closest friends and teammates at Marshall, Courtney Hargrays, died in a car crash in 2017.
“The whole team was at the funerals. They showed up for me,” Agee said. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
Ontario Brown has often taken to organizing Bedford Boys meetups, which only just started happening again since the pandemic “kept us all a phone call away,” Brown said.
The violence and grief that still scars Chicago can sometimes feel inescapable, and when Brown lost his son, “my community was my lifeline,” he said.
“We’re all too familiar with how short life can be,” Brown said. “So we’ll keep meeting for as long as we can.”
Agee said he’ll rewatch parts of “Hoop Dreams” whenever it’s on TV. One of his favorite scenes takes him back to powerhouse private school St. Joseph, where he started playing before a tuition spike forced him out and led him to Marshall.
Agee couldn’t afford a Commando varsity jacket — so he wore Christian’s to the St. Joseph game.
“I wanted to show them I became something,” Agee said. “I was there repping the whole squad.”
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