The BIG Story: LeBron James More Than a Game
At a Tuesday afternoon press conference inside New York’s posh Four Seasons hotel, basketball superstar LeBron James, 24, is putting on the type of clinic that has become a hallmark of his still young six-year career. The NBA’s reigning MVP, who during his time as a Cleveland Cavalier has averaged do-it-all figures of 28 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block per game, is being the consummate team player. Yes, James is well aware that the throngs of photographers and journalists seated for a question-and-answer session for Lionsgate’s buzz-heavy, coming-of-age basketball documentary More Than A Game, set for national release on October 2, are mainly gathered here because one of sports most globally famous talents just happens to be one of the five Akron, Ohio young men featured in the movie. But for James–who is sharing the event with his former St. Vincent-St. Mary’s Coach Dru James II, high school teammate Willie McGee, film producer Harvey Mason Jr. and More Than A Game director Kristopher Belman–it’s always been about the team.
“Those four guys are more than just my friends… they’re brothers,” he says of his former teammates McGee, Sian Cotton, Romeo Travis, and James Dru Joyce III, the son of Coach Dru. “As kids we had dreams and Coach Dru gave us a way to make that dream to become a reality.”
Such talk is not a vanilla sound bite designed to warm the hearts of jaded journalists. That much is evident when you watch More Than A Game, which follows the journey of five close friends from the Ohio blacktops to a glorious victory in the 2003 High School National Championship. It’s all there. The elder Joyce taking an interest in his undersized yet tenacious son’s passion for basketball, eventually coaching Joyce III and the traveling youth members of Northeast Ohio Shooting Stars in 1997. McGee, who was forced to leave his troubled home in Chicago to live with his no-nonsense brother in Akron; Cotton, an ambitious young man struggling to make a name for himself in the towering, legendary shadow of his father; future high school phenom James searching for stability as a lanky kid raised by a young, troubled but strong-willed single mother Gloria; an incredible 1999 freshman-year 27-0 run to the State Championship; the volatile addition of Travis, a loner who in the beginning clashed with his more close-knit teammates, but eventually settled into St. Vincent-St. Mary’s band of brothers. Yes, the much-heralded James went straight to the NBA. But the fact that his teammates went on to have fruitful college careers is also a source of pride.
“When I started with these guys they were 10 and 11 years old, so I knew they were very impressionable and that if you could use sports and use it in the right way you can make some good things happen.” glows Coach Dru of his boys. Belman, an Akron native, had also witnessed “good things” from Coach Dru’s kids. After transferring into Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, he enrolled in an “Introduction to Documentary” film class and was given an assignment of making a 10-minute short film. Belman saw the St. Vincent-St. Mary basketball team as a great subject. But more than just a sports profile, he wanted to document the young boys’ unconditional “brotherhood.”
Belman: “It’s a story about friendship and family. That’s the story I said [I wanted to make] on day one. I became one of their teammates. I just couldn’t play basketball [laughs].” But in the beginning Belman’s interest in filming the team was met with some resistance.
“Coach Dru was like, ‘This kid from Akron wants to come to one practice,'” muses James about the first time the players were told of the documentary. “And we like, ‘We don’t know about this coach! Monday’s practice turned into a Tuesday practice and he was there again. Next thing you know he’s there the whole season. It almost seemed like he was just part of the team. We felt like the season was going to be special.”
Never mind that Belman received only a B for his college project (“We were a little worried about that,” chuckles James). After six years of shooting footage, which also documents the unprecedented rise of LeBron James–the first amateur athlete to grace to cover of Sports Illustrated–the young auteur had enough film for a full-length feature. “But I thought it was a bigger story than just LeBron,” says Mason, Jr. who saw potential in the film early on. When Belman needed funding to finish More Than A Game, it was the hardcore basketball fan and veteran music producer behind hits for Jennifer Hudson, Chris Brown, and Whitney Houston who came out of his own pocket to finish the film. “The money I was making from producing was going straight to the documentary,” adds Mason, Jr., the producer of More Than A Game. “I thought the one element that was incredible was having these other teammates and their coach…[that] was just as important.”
Yet between being ranked nationally no. 1 in the country and winning the 2003 High School National Championship game, the film also highlights the damaging price of fame. Team infighting, family turmoil, scandal over James’ well-documented $55,000 Hummer and throwback jersey gifts and his eventual suspension by the Ohio Athletic Association are not glossed over. “We didn’t use that as an excuse at all,” says McGee of his team’s turbulent journey. “We still were able to push through it. We had a good foundation with Coach Dru [and others]. They say it takes a village to raise to raise a child. We had a great village.”
And at the core, that’s what More Than A Game is all about. So while you may see James and his megawatt star power journeying between New York and Los Angeles for paparazzi-mobbed red carpet screenings, making appearances on the no. 1 late-night talk show Late Show With David Letterman and sitting in on the highly-rated ladies gab fest The View–all engagements listed in LeBron’s itinerary for the week–remember that it all starts and ends with the team. –Keith Murphy