Acclaimed prep basketball coach Gene Pingatore dies at 83

WESTCHESTER, Ill. — Gene Pingatore, the winningest boys’ basketball coach in Illinois history who gained national attention when he appeared in the 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams,” has died. He was 83.

Ronald Hoover, principal at St. Joseph High School in Westchester, says Pingatore died Wednesday at home.

At the time of his death, he was preparing for his 51st season coaching at the suburban Chicago school.

Pingatore’s teams won two state championships, advanced to the state finals six times and won 13 sectional titles. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, in 2017 he became the 15th boys’ basketball coach in the country to reach 1,000 wins; he finished with 1,035 wins.

“It’s not about the 1,000 wins,” Pingatore said after that game. “It’s about all the people who contributed to the 1,000 wins. All the players, all the assistant coaches and the fans that have followed us. They all made it possible. Not me.”

Pingatore coached three McDonald’s All-Americans: Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, Daryl Thomas and Deryl Cunningham.

Tributes to Pingatore poured in on Twitter on Thursday, including one from Isiah Thomas, who wrote: “meeting you saved my life.”

Outside of local prep basketball fans, most probably know Pingatore from his supporting role in “Hoop Dreams,” Steve James’ 1994 documentary on two Chicago high school basketball players, St. Joe’s William Gates and Marshall’s Arthur Agee, who had been recruited by Pingatore but had to transfer to the West Side public school because his parents couldn’t afford the tuition.

Pingatore was upset by his portrayal, and the inference Agee wasn’t helped by the school because he was less talented than Gates. Pingatore and the school sued the filmmakers, resulting in an out-of-court settlement.

But it was an honest account of the lives of two high school players and their families, and Pingatore’s fiery personality and the heartbreaking story of Agee and his mother helped make “Hoop Dreams” into one of the top documentaries of its era. The late Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert wrote “‘Hoop Dreams’ is what movies are for,” and rejected the notion Pingatore looked bad.

“I thought he came across fairly well,” Ebert wrote. “Like all coaches, he believes athletics are a great deal more important than they really are, and there is a moment when he leaves a decision to Gates that Gates is clearly not well-prepared to make. But it isn’t Pingatore but the whole system that is brought into question: What does it say about the values involved, when the pro sports machine reaches right down to eighth-grade playgrounds?”

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