The film was originally intended to be a 30-minute PBS special about multiple players on a single basketball court. After 5 years, the filmmakers had shot 250 hours of footage, which was trimmed down to 3 hours.
According to Roger Ebert, after the film failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, he and Gene Siskel learned about the nominating process. He said that members of the Academy's documentary committee held flashlights when they watched documentaries, and anyone who had "given up" could wave it against the screen. The movie was turned off if a majority waved their flashlights. Hoop Dreams (1994) was turned off after 15 minutes.
When the film failed to be nominated for Best Documentary, even though it was nominated for Best Film Editing, Entertainment Weekly ran a story about how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selected documentary nominations. Most of the voting members were not documentary filmmakers, and many worked against nominating the film. As a result, the rules were changed to allow documentary filmmakers to vote in that category.
To stay eligible for college basketball (according to NCAA rules), neither player's family received any money for the film's sale while in school. Agee and Gates were later made full partners and received shares equal to the producers'.
St. Joseph High School filed a lawsuit to prevent the film from being released to theaters. They claimed they were told the film would only air on PBS, and accused the filmmakers of misrepresenting and defaming the school. The two sides reached a settlement, and the filmmakers created an academic fund at the school.
Many of the locations used in the movie are either gone or substantially different. The neighborhood around the Cabrini-Green housing project, where one of the players lived, underwent "gentrification" soon after the film wrapped. The baseball field has been replaced by luxury condos and a shopping complex. The last Cabrini-Green apartment building was demolished in May 2011.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Both players suffered much tragedy after filming wrapped. In 1994, Arthur Agee's older half-brother, DeAntonio, was gunned down at Cabrini-Green. In 2001, William Gates' brother, Curtis, was killed in a carjacking. In 2004, Arthur's father, Bo, was shot to death in an alley. On Nov. 4, 2009, at a 15th anniversary screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Arthur told the audience that ten of his friends from the film had died.