Monday, March 21, 2016

Hoop Dreams

HOOP DREAMS           A                
USA  (170 mi)  1994  d:  Steve James

People say, “When you make it to the NBA, don’t forget about me.”  I feel like telling them, “Well, if I don’t make it, make sure you don’t forget about me.”
—William Gates, in the final scene

Winner of an Audience Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, HOOP DREAMS became the first documentary to close down the prestigious New York Film Festival, and ended its theatrical run at the time as the highest-grossing documentary in U.S. history.  Shot on Betacam, blown up to 35mm, it now lies at #26 (Documentary Movies at the Box Office - Box Office Mojo), described by film critic Roger Ebert as “the great American documentary” and “one of the best films about American life I have ever seen.”  Long before 2014 Top Ten List #1 Boyhood, Steve James and his crew followed two young basketball hopefuls around Chicago for a period of six years, from 8th grade until a year after they both graduated from high school, where their dreams to play in the NBA alongside Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas shifted dramatically as each came face-to-face with more pressing real-life issues in their lives.  And that’s what separates this film from other well-intentioned documentaries, as the cameras of this film take us places viewers have simply never been before, providing access into the hallways of an integrated but largely white suburban St. Joseph’s Catholic High School in Westchester and the Chicago public school, all-black, inner city Marshall High School, including their tiny, jam-packed basketball courts filled with the frenzy of over-enthusiastic cheerleaders and fans, but also inside the daily lives of families living in crime-riddled black neighborhoods and tenement housing projects where the surrounding dilapidation, vacant lots, and a complete absence of businesses or medical centers reveals an impoverished world in decay, where drug dealers pick up the slack and can be seen openly selling their wares on playgrounds where young kids are playing basketball.  The film opens on the Delano Elementary School playground from Chicago’s West side, where Earl Smith, a portly middle-aged black man acknowledges he works downtown during the week as an insurance executive, but catches weekend pick-up basketball games on the city’s outdoor playgrounds searching out young local talent, where he acts as an “unofficial” freelance recruiter for legendary coach Gene Pingatore at St. Joseph’s High School, the same guy that coached Isiah Thomas and has won more than 960 games in his still active 46-year career.  (They just won the state championship in 2015.  Ironically, it is Pingatore that encourages the filmmakers to check out another young prospect with even more potential, William Gates.)  On this day Smith singles out 14-year old Arthur Agee, a shirtless kid that just graduated from grammar school who has the quickest first step he’s seen in years, telling Steve James behind the camera, “In four years you’re going to be hearing from this guy.”  In no time he has the kid signed up to enroll in St. Joseph’s in the fall, though it involves a 90-minute one way commute just to get there, “way out to la-la land,” where it may as well be a completely different world than what this kid is used to, clean hallways in the schools, plenty of trees and grassy lawns with homes in well-manicured neighborhoods, and a predominance of white people, probably never before venturing more than a few blocks from his West Garfield Park neighborhood during his whole life.  With dueling stories about two inner city kids heading out to the promised land of the suburbs, Arthur starts for the freshman team at St. Joe’s, while William Gates is another entering freshman from the near north Cabrini-Green Housing Project who will be starting on the varsity squad that is one of the elite teams in the entire state. 

Alec Banks from High Snobiety, October 20, 2014, How 'Hoop Dreams' Became a Reality | Highsnobiety  

The second child and first son of Arthur “Bo” Agee Sr. and Sheila Agee – memorable characters themselves who certainly played a large role in the filming of Hoop Dreams – Sheila was initially skeptical of Arthur’s claims that Hollywood beckoned. “I went home that day and said, ‘Yo, mama. These dudes want to make a movie about me!’ She laughed at me and looked at me and said, ‘Boy get your ass out of here! Nobody wants to make a movie about you!’ The next day these three guys come with the cameras on, with the boom mic on, up the stairs. Mama comes to the door and she didn’t have her teeth in. Her top teeth were false. So she came to the door and saw the cameras and ran to the back and put her teeth in. So she comes back to the door like, ‘Hello! How are you guys doing!? Arthur told me you were coming!’ I’m like ‘mama stop lying, you didn’t even believe me!’”

With a $2,000 grant from the Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, what starts out as a five day shoot in the summer for a possible thirty-minute documentary to be aired on PBS television turns into something altogether different once these kids are followed into their respective homes, where William has an older brother Curtis who averaged 39 points a game at Wells High School, earning a scholarship to Marquette, but instead, due to poor grades, attended Colby Community College in Kansas where he showed little discipline and did what he wanted on the court, eventually transferring to Central Florida where he rode the bench for repeated philosophical differences with the head coach, eventually dropping out of school and heading back home.  Arthur’s father Bo has a similar experience, regretting the fact he never went to college, believing that if he went to college he would have ended up in the NBA (a priceless moment, where his boasting leads to his wife Sheila just rolling her eyes in astonishment), but instead he had a son, Arthur, which inevitably altered his future, where now his dreams have been transferred to his son.  Among the most prominent social factors on display are the weak or altogether missing father figures, where these kids have to make it on their own, yet also carry the burden of generational pressure placed on their shoulders to carry out this mythic dream to make it in the NBA where they would become instant millionaires.  While never mentioned, the odds of high school seniors just being drafted by an NBA team is three in 10,000, or .03 percent, roughly the same chance of being dealt four-of-a-kind in a game of poker, so much of the success lies not only in talent, but body size, where people towering six feet four inches may be giants to the ordinary public, but are among the smaller players in the game.  Reality was never an issue to the players in this film or kids around the country as they approached high school, as they were driven by a similar desire to succeed, urged to “Be Like Mike,” as this memorable Gatorade commercial that first aired in 1992 suggests, BE LIKE MIKE - GATORADE COMMERCIAL ... - YouTube (55 seconds).  The tragic element is that kids from impoverished black neighborhoods have far fewer outlets to succeed, as one out of every three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetimes, 58 percent of black youth in juvenile detention will be sent to adult prisons, more than half of the black Americans born into the lowest fifth economic percentile remain there at age 40, black children are much more likely to be raised in a single-parent household, black students attend worse schools, black wealth barely exists, while seven out of ten black Americans born into the middle class will fall into a lower percentile as adults, where even black Americans who make it to the middle class are likely to see their children be less financially successful.  These are the stark realities underlying this film.  The other is the lure of Isiah Thomas, who Arthur idolizes throughout his entire childhood, with his picture plastered on the walls of his bedroom, where the sheepish look of adulation on his face when he has a chance to meet the NBA star on the court at a St. Joseph’s summer camp is simply priceless.

Alec Banks from High Snobiety, October 20, 2014, How 'Hoop Dreams' Became a Reality | Highsnobiety  

As filming progressed, the narrative was starting to take shape given that both he and Agee were enrolling at St. Joe’s. Yet, Arthur found himself completely in the dark when it came to the production. “They would film three times a week for that first year because they didn’t have any money. This is just a small production company on the North Side of Chicago. After the third and going into the fourth year, that was when I was like ‘damn, y’all ain’t through with this project yet?! When are you going to be done with it?’ Even through those years they didn’t tell me that the project is just on me and my family and Will and his family. I’m thinking for three or four years that they’re doing a film about different basketball players. They said we’re not going to be done with it until you graduate and go off to college.”

Shooting only seven days of freshman year, and ten days of sophomore year, James was able to receive several grants to expand his film, most notably $250,000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the largest non-for-profit organizations in the world, where they shot 40 days in junior year, and 100 days between the summer following junior year and the end of the film.  Tests at the beginning of the school year reveal both William and Arthur are struggling academically, where both have the equivalent of a 4th or 5th grade education, which was simply overlooked at their previous schools.  But the first signs that this is no ordinary film is the financial trouble experienced by Arthur, where his family is unable to make tuition payments, which keeps him out of school for a period of two months in the beginning of his sophomore year, losing all credits for that semester, where he has to transfer to Marshall High School in the middle of the school year.  Simultaneous to this happening, St. Joe’s is able to provide a financial sponsor for William, none other than Patricia Wier, President of Encyclopedia Britannica, who not only pays for his entire tuition throughout high school, but also gives him a summer job working for her company.  What’s revealed here is a two-tiered system, implying that basketball coach Pingatore was disappointed with Arthur’s play, “Coach keeps asking me, when are you gonna grow?,” failing to intervene when his family experiences financial difficulties, even allowing the kid to leave school, while William is one of his premiere players, so he pulls out the red carpet.  Arthur’s mother Sheila feels betrayed by the coach and the recruiters, claiming they promised to take care of books and expenses, leaving them in a precarious situation.  Marshall’s no-nonsense basketball coach Luther Bedford sums it up, “If he had gone out there [to St. Joseph’s] and played like they had predicted him to play, he wouldn’t be at Marshall, and it don’t take no brilliant person to figure that out.”  Making matters worse, Bo loses his job, any sense of self-esteem, and begins drifting back onto the streets, where we see him go one on one with his son on the playground before heading off to the distant corner for the drug dealers, where Arthur, in one of the most poignant moments of the film, is left to stare in pained disillusionment.  After twenty years of marriage, Bo eventually leaves the home.  Shortly afterwards, Sheila loses her job as well as a nurse’s assistant due to chronic back pain, resorting to welfare with no other alternatives.  At one point, in obvious distress, she turns to the camera and says, “Do you ever ask yourself how I get by on $268 a month and keep this house and feed these children?  Do you ever ask yourself that question?”  It’s a moment where this stops being a film, where all artificiality is stripped away, and becomes a life-embracing plea for sanity and understanding.  Just how does any of this make sense? 

While Arthur makes the varsity in his junior year, there are additions to the family, as Sheila’s sister moves in, along with her newborn, and also Arthur’s best friend Shannon, who is escaping troubles in his own family.  While both are the same age, the time they spend together prevents Arthur from doing homework, where each year he just barely gets by, but is never once seen studying or answering a question correctly in class, even the softballs lobbed to him on camera.  Coach Bedford offers acute commentary on guys like Arthur, who never seems to be able to focus on the moment, as his mind is always somewhere else, where he sees plenty of guys on the streets after high school talk about how if they had the opportunity to go to college they would have ended up in the NBA, but instead they’re left with nothing to show for it.  With a lackadaisical effort, he worries Arthur may end up one of those guys.  Sheila’s welfare benefits are cut off for missing an appointment, going 3 months with no income whatsoever, causing her electricity and gas to be turned off, where the family ends up living in the dark.  While it’s not shown in the film, the director, to his credit, actually paid the bills to get the utilities turned back on.  Marshall Coach Luther Bedford, unbeknownst to the filmmakers, also brought groceries to the Agee family when they needed help.  Nonetheless, it’s a particularly painful segment, as we also learn Bo has become a crack addict, with signs of physically abusing his wife, eventually spending seven months in prison for burglary, causing a huge emotional rift between father and son.  Mirroring this downward spiral, William injures his knee in practice, a torn ACL that requires surgical repair, which makes him miss most of his junior year.  What’s most intriguing about these doctor visits is that no adult accompanies him, as he’s a 16-year old kid left on his own to figure out the myriad of medical options, where it’s clear he’s in over his head.  Nonetheless, he receives the best of care, completely paid for by the school insurance.  In yet another shocking twist, as if he doesn’t have enough pressures, William is next seen holding a baby in his arms, a tiny girl named Alicia, along with his longtime girlfriend since middle school, Catherine Mines, where both have been a carefully kept secret, something neither his coach nor his teammates had even the slightest inkling, placing his life in an entirely new perspective.  It says something about William’s needs and his character that he keeps this family hidden from his coach for as long as possible.  While William’s father was never around during his lifetime, he’d make it his life’s mission to be fully present in her life, expressing wisdom even at the tender age of 16.   With his injury and the birth of his daughter, William’s grades plummeted.  As he’s getting offers from various colleges, he takes the ACT college entrance exams, but disappointingly scores only a 15, while 18 is the minimum score to receive a college scholarship.  As a result, the school contacts Encyclopedia Britannica which pays for a college exam preparatory course to help him be more successful taking the test.

While it’s clear both kids are indifferent students, where getting a good education might have been a better career path, it’s certainly not surprising to see how obsessed the sports dream, however fragile, remains such a prominent focus of their lives, spurred on by older authority figures that wish to realize their own failed dreams through these kids, where it defines their identity from an early age, as it’s one of the few things they excel at, giving them a sense of pride and self-satisfaction, where aspiring to be great is simply the natural outgrowth of the dream, despite being beyond the reach of most mortal men.  William’s injury, and the warnings of how it could tear again, and will likely make him a candidate for arthritis down the road, are the first steps in the disintegration of that dream.  In Arthur’s case, while Marshall (9-16) had their worst season in twenty years, as a junior in 1990 he got a firsthand view of a sensational King High School scoring guard Jamie Brandon, the standout player in the Chicago public leagues.  At 6-4, and about 200 pounds, he was a three-time All-Stater, named Mr. Basketball of Illinois in 1990, the year his undefeated team, ranked #1 in the country, won the state title, where he could score from the inside or behind the arc, totaling 3,157 points in his career, third most in state history, with his team going 63-1 in his final two years at King, where he got a scholarship to play at LSU alongside Shaquille O’Neal.  But despite all the accolades, and the stats to back them up, where Brandon was the Chicago-area’s most publicized high school athlete of his era, and perhaps any era, yet this guy was never drafted by the NBA.  This little piece of trivia was left out of the film, but it would certainly have been common knowledge to Arthur.  By the time William gets cleared to play, it’s the last game of the season as they get ready to enter the state tournament.  While he has spurts of his former glory, perhaps he returns too soon, as in the tournament he’s also troubled by his lingering injury, and in the final elimination game to make it downstate, he’s actually taken out during the 4th quarter stretch run for a medical evaluation allowing the other team to take the lead.  By the time he gets back, with the game on the line, he seems to lose his confidence and the final moments are disheartening.  Afterwards, he’s even examined by the Chicago Bulls team doctor where another surgery is performed, rehabbing afterwards at their professional facilities.  He’s invited to a Nike summer basketball camp of the hundred best high school players, including future Michigan Fab-Five stars Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, and Juwan Howard, where as many as two hundred fifty college coaches attend in search of talent, with the inspection resembling a “meat market,” where director Spike Lee makes a chilling reminder that what all these coaches see in them are dollar signs, as to them “it’s all about money.”  William performs well, giving him a huge boost of confidence, where afterwards he’s recruited in his home living room by Marquette University’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill, offering him a full athletic scholarship for four years, irrespective of what he does on the court, giving him an opportunity to earn a degree.  While there are other offers, Marquette’s well-designed recruiting visit turns his head and William jumps at the chance.  After the earlier travails with his injuries, he’s so ebullient, it’s as if he’s reached the Promised Land.   
Bo returns to the household as a born-again Christian, claiming he’s off the drugs and is a changed man, while Arthur and Shannon spend the summer working at Pizza Hut earning $3.35/hr.  They’re also required to take summer school classes to earn credits for classes they otherwise wouldn’t pass, though Shannon soon drops out from disinterest.  In a fascinating twist that you won’t find anywhere else, the drug dealers in the neighborhood give these guys money so they can dress more stylishly, singling them out as future NBA stars, giving them pizzazz and more attitude.  Arthur still has unfinished business with St. Joe’s, as they won’t release his transcripts with an outstanding bill of $1800, causing his parents to make a special trip to the school where a payment plan can be drawn up, and the credits will be released only after the receipt of two months of “good-faith” payments.  Spike Lee’s comments are especially appropriate when it comes to a school holding a student’s records hostage for ransom.  Surprisingly Arthur finally grows a few inches and becomes a star in his senior year, despite his academic deficiencies, where it’s the closest school comes to being part of his comfort zone, where he and the other players are noticeably happy and having the time of their lives, called giant killers, as they knock off some of the most favored teams in the league.  William, on the other hand, has to endure the demonstrative rants and overly critical assessments from Coach Pingatore, who frequently berates his team with expletives, where he and the other players are always on edge for fear of what to expect next.  A perfect example is the team bus to an away game, where Pingatore sends a solemn message, “Now remember, think about the ball game,” resulting in dour faces and a hushed silence afterwards where you can hear a pin drop, while Arthur’s team bus is entirely different, as loud music can be heard from boom boxes as a boisterous group can be seen laughing and playing cards, where this all-black group couldn’t be more relaxed and ready to have some fun.  It’s like a party atmosphere, remaining one of the most unique portraits of the visible differences between the black and white worlds, beautifully expressed in the parallel shots of a single sequence.  Part of the brilliance of the film is capturing the small, day-to-day details that accumulate over time, providing a superbly rich feel for the times and what they entailed.  The camera literally brings the viewer along for the ride, where our interest is always rewarded, as these are complexly defined characters with unique life experiences.  In William’s awkward final scene with Coach Pingatore as he nears graduation, the disappointment and coldness in his tone are unmistakable, “I need to know your number so when you ask me for money, I can turn you down.”  Shannon eventually ends up on the streets and succumbs to the dope dealers, while Arthur’s in for the ride of his life, as in 1991 the Marshall Commandos not only win the Public League Championship, beating King, which in the previous year won the state championship, now featuring two starting seven footers, but earn a trip downstate to compete for the state title.  What Marshall featured with Arthur was dazzling speed, where they were renowned for stripping the ball, for applying relentless defensive pressure and creating utter mayhem on the court, causing multiple turnovers, where they could steal the ball on successive possessions and literally demoralize bigger and taller opponents, finishing in third place with a season record of 25-7.

One of the unsung success stories in the film is Arthur’s mother Sheila, who graduates at the top of her class to become a nurse, finally making her way off of welfare.  Brushing tears from her eyes, she hugs her teacher while commenting, “I didn’t think I could do it.  And people told me I wasn’t gonna be anything.”  It’s an especially proud and celebratory moment that is not missed by the filmmakers, who were not even aware that she was attending school.  Interestingly, adding another parallel, William’s mother Emma also works as a nurse’s assistant.  With the focus on the other two, William struggled to obtain the required score of 18 on his ACT exams to earn a scholarship, but eventually, on his fourth try, he obtained an aggregate score of 17.5, which was rounded up to 18, attending Marquette on a four year scholarship, where he appeared in every game during his first two seasons, but left in the spring of his third year when he reinjured his knee and was unable to make the starting lineup.  He dropped out for a while, but eventually returned to graduate with a communications degree.  As Arthur’s grades are marginal, he receives an athletic scholarship to Mineral Area Junior College in southeastern Missouri, where all seven of the school’s black students play on the basketball team and live together in one house, a small cinderblock structure that sits all alone, seemingly in a vacuum, but Arthur uses the experience to obtain an athletic scholarship to Arkansas State University, where he plays for two more years at a Division I school. While neither of these guys ever played a single game in the NBA, they certainly had their successes, part of which, even while they were going through it, was dragging a crew of three white guys following around behind them with a camera, which must have caused a sight in high school classrooms or hallways, bringing extra attention to these already complicated young lives.  The naturalism throughout is unadorned, where you couldn’t script these kinds of experiences, which are artfully captured by these filmmakers, even from the opening frames, where there’s a beauty and rhythm to the street shots with the elevated train rumbling overhead, with added emphasis on the musical soundtrack by composer Ben Sidran, much of which resembles the soulful and meditative style of John Coltrane’s quiet tenor sax introduction to the song, “Alabama,” JOHN COLTRANE Alabama - YouTube (6:03), providing surprising depth to what we are experiencing.  Despite the passage of more than twenty years, there are few, if any, films that provide such a vast and extensive examination of the black community from such an intensely personal perspective, where the film takes us into the homes, playgrounds, schools, and churches of the inner city, which is like being immersed into the heart of a James Baldwin novel, where the film’s meticulous detail matches the literary description in his novels, where there is a similar dramatic narrative arc following two appealing subjects that is never less than inspiring and profound.  It’s a critique of the American Dream, while providing a starkly honest and frank representation of everyday life in black America, where the lifeblood of the film are the aspirations of the urban poor, where racism, poverty, drugs, and education intrude into their daily lives, where it would be hard to invent a more grating story of how white America uses and discards young black men.  At times it’s filled with the blistering rage of injustice, including a descent into domestic violence and drug abuse, sinking lower than anyone could have ever imagined, yet there are multiple scenes showing the influence of a near-empty church, humble in tone, with the family gathered around to provide faith and inspiration, where it’s also about elevating one’s stature in life, transcending the personal struggles with unforeseen triumphs, finding a purpose when all hope seems unattainable.  It’s one of the great American documentaries because of its spirit of openness, never knowing what lies ahead, yet still believing in yourself, following your own path into an unknown future that awaits us all.   


The film was not nominated for an Academy award in the Best Documentary category.  According to Roger Ebert, the Academy’s documentary committee had a system as they collectively viewed potential films, each carrying little flashlights.  When a viewer had seen enough and given up on the film, they waved a light onto the screen.  When a majority of flashlights flashed their lights, the film was switched off.  HOOP DREAMS was stopped after fifteen minutes.   

William Gates got a Bible degree at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and became pastor at the Living Faith Community Center in Cabrini-Green, a position he held until July 2012, when he relocated his family to the San Antonio, Texas.  Gates has four children and his sons are now being recruited to play basketball just as he was during the filming.  His older brother Curtis was shot and killed in an apparent car hijacking in 2001 at the age of 36 (Man chased down and slain - tribunedigital-chicagotribune  Rick Hepp from The Chicago Tribune, September 13, 2001).

Arthur Agee runs the Arthur Agee Jr foundation which he founded in 1995, whose main goal is to “educate parents and families that they are role models for their kids – and they shouldn’t be looking up to entertainers and athletes as a [outlet] to get out. The parents should be setting the morals and grounds for them to be successful.  And it starts with education,” while also working as a motivational speaker for inner-city youth.  He started a Hoop Dreams sports clothing line in 2004 with the slogan, “Control Your Destiny.”  Agee now has five children and still lives in the Chicago area.  His mother Sheila works as a private nurse for affluent families.  On Thanksgiving morning 1994, Agee’s older half-brother, DeAntonio, was gunned down at Cabrini–Green, while his father Bo, a minister and clothing salesman, was shot in an alley behind his home in 2004 while attending to merchandise in his garage (`Hoop Dreams' father slain - tribunedigital-chicagotribune  Hal Dardick from the Chicago Tribune, December 17, 2004).  Berwyn police charged Ronnie Taylor, 33, of Chicago with first-degree murder and for allegedly accepting money in a contract hit-for-hire to kill Arthur “Bo” Agee Sr, but Taylor was acquitted of all charges in January 2010.   

The Hoop Dreams Live On, by Seth Davis from Sports Illustrated, August 30, 2006, boardsanddimes 

Arthur’s mother, Sheila, was so devastated by her husband’s murder that she moved to her original hometown of Birmingham, Ala.  (Arthur told me a burglar broke into his mother’s house in Alabama last month.)  That left Arthur with the responsibility of selling his father’s house.  “I’ve never sold a house, dude,” Arthur says.  “It got so bad I had to take out a loan on my car title just to rent a truck to move everything out of my dad’s church.  My family got broken up when my dad got killed.  Now I’m just trying to get back on my feet as far as my personal life is concerned, because my stuff was way out of order.”  In an effort to gain some financial security, Arthur applied for a bank loan.  That led to another disturbing revelation.  The woman at the bank told him he was registered as deceased.  According to Arthur, it turns out Bo had used Arthur’s social security number to take out some two dozen credit cards in Arthur’s name, and some of them were delinquent.  That left Arthur several thousand dollars in debt and his credit in shambles.  It also put him in the position of contacting the Berwyn police to, as he puts it, “file a report on a dead dad.”  “He scammed me,” Arthur says.  “I actually would have to press charges against him if he were alive.”  Asked if he feels anger toward his father, Arthur replied, “Do I?  You don’t understand.  If my dad was alive, I’d want to kill him.  To just swallow it and say like God wants, to turn the other cheek?  That’s hard to do.”

Coach Pingatore and St. Joseph’s High School filed a lawsuit against the filmmakers in October, 1994 claiming their school, and varsity basketball coach Pingatore, were depicted “in a false and untrue light,” claiming the school provided access to the filmmakers because they promised the film would be used exclusively for educational purposes, having been told it would be a non-profit project to be aired on PBS, not a commercial venture, where the recent commercial release suggests the film could earn several millions.  The suit was settled the following year on February 15, 1995 when the filmmakers agreed to donate scholarship money for students at both St. Joseph and Marshall High Schools.  Pingatore now uses the film as a recruiting tool.  The film grossed about $8 million dollars, where the director split the profits of about $200,000 with both the Agee and Gates families.  Agee subsequently bought a house for his mother in the western suburb of Berwyn, a short 10-minute drive from their old apartment in the West Garfield Park neighborhood in Chicago. 

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