Gene Pingatore, who was the most winning boys’ high school basketball coach in Illinois history but was best known for being featured in the acclaimed documentary, “Hoop Dreams,” died on June 26 at his home in Westchester, Ill. He was 82.
The death was announced by St. Joseph High School, where he had coached for 50 years and was preparing for next season. No cause was announced.
Pingatore’s teams compiled 1,035 wins and 383 losses and won two state championships. His prized player with the Chargers was the talented guard Isiah Thomas, whose success at Indiana University preceded a Hall of Fame professional career with the Detroit Pistons.
“I always told you, you saved my life,” Thomas said on Twitter after Pingatore’s death.
Pingatore’s participation in “Hoop Dreams,” which traced the lives of two Chicago-area teenagers in their difficult pursuit of college stardom, brought him national renown. But it also brought him anxiety.
For four years in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the “Hoop Dreams” crew followed two players, as well as their families: William Gates, whom Mr. Pingatore coached at St. Joseph, a Roman Catholic prep school in Westchester, a Chicago suburb; and Arthur Agee, who began at St. Joseph but transferred to Marshall Metropolitan High School on the West Side of Chicago. Both players went on to modest college careers.
“In the beginning it was sort of fun,” Pingatore said an interview in 2017 with CSN Chicago, a regional sports network. But, he added, the constant attention became a “pain in the neck.”
“Every time you turned around,” he said, “they wanted to be on the bus, they wanted to be in the locker room. And the last year, I shut it down and didn’t want to do it.”
Just before the film’s national release in October 1994, the school and Pingatore sued the producers in Cook County Circuit Court, accusing them of disparaging the school’s reputation by portraying Pingatore, who was known as a demonstrative and fiery sideline figure, as a less than supportive coach who yelled at his players.
“They only show negative images, which we feel are untrue, of a good man who has done a lot for an awful lot of people,” Charles Lynch, the school’s president, told reporters on the day the lawsuit was filed. It also charged that the producers had misled the school into believing “Hoop Dreams” would be an educational film, not a commercial one.
The suit was settled several months later when the producers established academic scholarships at St. Joseph and Marshall.
Eugene Louis Pingatore was born on Oct. 25, 1936, in Cicero, Ill. His father, Frank, was a developer, and his mother, Annette (Lario) Pingatore, was a homemaker.
He played for the St. Mel High School basketball team that won the Chicago Catholic League and city championships in 1954. He later attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles on a basketball scholarship.
After graduation, he returned to Chicago, where he was hired by the newly opened St. Joseph as its freshman basketball coach and soon became the varsity team’s assistant coach. By 1968, he was frustrated that he had not become a head coach, at St. Joseph or elsewhere, and pondered a career as a lawyer. He enrolled at Chicago-Kent College of Law, but left after only a few weeks.
He took over the St. Joseph team in late 1969 when its coach, Pat Callahan, resigned.
Pingatore’s teams rarely had losing seasons, but it was not until 1999 that St. Joseph won a state championship. Having achieved that elusive goal after 30 years at the school, he was asked if he would step down.
“If I was in this just for the winning, just for attaining a certain level of success, yeah, maybe I would consider it,” he told The Chicago Sun-Times. “But I’m in this to help kids, as I hope and think all coaches are.”
He guided St. Joseph to a second state title in 2015 and had coached at a tournament the weekend before his death.
“He was so healthy, and he lived for coaching,” Lisa Crispo, his daughter, said in a phone interview. She added, “He had many opportunities to leave, to coach college, but he stayed. He was St. Joe’s.”
In addition to his daughter, Pingatore is survived by three grandchildren and his fiancée, Jill Oakley. His marriage to Mary Beth Kurtz ended in divorce.
Pingatore tempered his feelings about “Hoop Dreams” a bit over the years.
“Time passes and it heals a lot of wounds — it’s really a good movie,” he told The Dissolve, a film website, for an oral history of “Hoop Dreams” in 2014. “But if I had to do it again, I don’t think I would have agreed to let them film.”