NEW CASTLE —
I’ve seen it a couple of times now, and I still can’t put my finger on why I find it so compelling.
I mean, it’s more than dreaming big.
It’s more than winning titles.
It’s more than Willie, Romeo, “Little Dru” and Sian.
It’s more than a working father of four becoming a successful high school basketball coach later in life.
It’s even more than LeBron James, the NBA’s reigning MVP and champion, who is arguably the best basketball player on the planet today.
It’s “More than a Game,” for sure.
And that’s more than an apt title for a documentary that captures the spirit and soul of a band of brothers who just happened to become kings of the court.
"More Than A Game" is a fascinating documentary that focuses on five young basketball players — LeBron James, Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee — and their coach, Dru Joyce II.
The boys grew up near each other in Akron, Ohio, and the film offers an intimate look into their lives from age 10 through graduation day at St. Vincent-St. Mary High.
A VIRTUAL SCRAPBOOK
What if you could return to your childhood days and select the key moments — cheers, fears, tears, warts and all — that shaped your life as you know it today?
It appears that’s what director Kristopher Belman was shooting for when he gained unparalleled access to the “Fab Five” while he was still a film student. It was the group’s final season together after winning Ohio state titles in two of the previous three years, and the goal for their senior year was much larger — capture a national title.
Belman’s goal was even more ambitious — explore how boyhood buddies grow up together and eventually coalesce into a team.
We learn that it takes more than talent. It takes more than hard work. It takes more than expert coaching.
In the end, it’s mostly about developing deep, enduring relationships.
FAB FIVE FOR LIFE
James ended up forming what would prove to be lifelong bonds with his teammates, first while playing AAU ball together and later while attending St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. Through grainy home movies, we see their friendships flourish at grade school sleepovers, birthday parties, road trips and, of course, shining in basketball tournaments. The fact that the African-American youths chose to leave the inner-city and attend a predominantly white Catholic school cemented their group even more.
“It was basketball, but it was more like friendship than anything,” James explains. “Our team was like a family. And you play hard for your family.”
As such, the film's most compelling moments occur away from the court.
•McGee opens up about both of his parents being drug addicts, and getting out of the Chicago housing projects to move in with his older brother, who had played for the University of Akron.
•James talks about his mother, Gloria, and how the pair never knew where they might live from month to month. Tear-jerker alert: With no father in the picture and his mom often away for weeks at a time, James selects his four teammates to escort him, arm in arm, to center court for senior night.
Whether you love or hate the current edition of LeBron in South Beach, you can’t help but be taken by the gangly youngster who was forced to grow up much faster than the years would dictate. From being on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior, to being ruled ineligible for a period of time as a senior, James maintained his infectious smile and sunny outlook in the midst of storms brewing all around him.
The dichotomy is no more apparent than quick edits of LeBron dancing on the team bus while mouthing the words to “In Da Club” by Fifty Cent, then shortly afterward facing hordes of reporters — wearing his ball cap backward and a throwback Joe Namath jersey — and skillfully fielding their tough questions.
We also see the developing leader in LeBron as he scolds Little Dru for not listening to his dad during practice.
I’m amazed that with everything James experienced growing up, by all accounts he now appears to be a fantastic teammate, and a doting father and family man.
NOT JUST LEBRON
But even though James is the unquestioned frontman of the group, his teammates get plenty of love in the documentary as well.
•There’s Travis, who transferred in as a sophomore to make an already terrific team a juggernaut. He opens up about his anger issues and the difficult time he had as an outsider trying to fit in with “the clique.”
•Cotton, a football star who would go on to play for Ohio State, reflects on trying to outgrow his clumsiness and become a quality role player on the court.
•Coach Dru, “a football guy” drawn to basketball by his son’s passion, shares how he learned hoops by reading books and watching coaching tapes. We also get a feel for the faith in God that motivates his mentoring of the young men, and how he was forced to scale the treacherous tight rope between dad and coach when it came to working with his own son, Little Dru.
•And speaking of Little Dru, he stars in one of the film's most rousing scenes. Even though opponents teased that he was the team’s mascot, we get to relive the night when the tiny, soft-spoken guard drilled seven straight 3-pointers as a freshman to lead his team to its first state title victory.
A TRUE WINNER
As a parent and coach, I was drawn to the elder Joyce, whose prayerful and wise approach to guiding young men offered a stark contrast to the playful and boisterous team.
He considers himself more of a steward than coach, and proves that you don’t always have to shout to break through the noise.
In a pivotal moment, he shares a valuable lesson he learned through the pain of dropping the state title game to a squad they dominated earlier in the season. One writer quipped about the championship game: “When his team needed him the most, Joyce dropped the ball.”
“I got caught up in the winning,” Joyce laments. “It helped me to realize why I got into coaching. It’s to build young men, not just win games. It’ll always be about more than basketball.”
Chances are, you’ll get caught up in the winning, the no-look passes and spectacular dunks, too. But I’ll be willing to bet you’ll appreciate the compelling personal stories and heartfelt moments even more.
As a sports story, “More Than a Game” scores.
But as an inspiring study of the human experience, it soars.
Maybe even higher than LeBron.
Watch the trailer for ‘More than a Game.’ Comcast subscribers can find it on demand
in the M section of movies.