From The Daily Show to NPR’s Fresh Air, LeBron James has been all over the media ticker tape to hype More Than a Game. With his marquee name and plenty of parquet squeaks, it’s a must-see for the basketball obsessed and a hearty yes for those who relish a rah-rah documentary. Others might wish that Kristopher Belman’s debut shone a harsher light on, say, underage athletic celebrity while relating the championship dream of an unseasoned high school coach and five hoop stars led by Ohio’s then-teenage King.
But what Belman does focus on is fabulous in itself; in particular, he eschews Bron hoopla to flesh out his familial, all-for-one bond with coach Dru Joyce and teammates Little Dru, Romeo Travis, Sian Cotton, and Willie McGee (together they form the “Fab Five”). What’s more, the doc catches James in a rare off-guard position when he’s forced to discuss his single-parent childhood and his affection for mom. At our press conference he iterated, “To become the father of the house so fast definitely made me who I am today.”
Belman’s seven-year chronicle began as a “ten-minute documentary piece for his school project, which he got a ‘B’ on” cracked James. This final cut is full of grade-A material, with fascinating home footage that dates back to 1997, childhood photos, and candid remembrances of selling duct tape for jerseys as well as kissing babies once the tidal fame hit. Although this is the LeBron Show (like Truman, we’ve seen this dude’s maturation as a prime-time event). it gives the superstar’s invaluable supporting cast their moment alongside his, providing hiphop-scored uplift on and off the court as they bolt from AAU nobodies to nationally ranked intimidators. The we-good hubris during their junior year leads to the high-flyers’ inexorable return to earth, but also paves the way for their storybook redemption — even then, there’s a hiccup when the media-sieged LeBron is briefly suspended for accepting two throwback jerseys. This is a tale based on fact, after all, even if it’s a bit editorialized for narrative purposes.
The “point A to point B” arc is full of personal cruces, but fortified by a legitimate camaraderie and an easy humor, the highlight being the understated end credit that reads “LeBron decided not to go to college. He found seasonal work in Cleveland.” While we learn that Romeo’s initial a-hole syndromes reflect a broken-up home and that Willie is inspiringly raised by his barely-older brother, it’s the relationship between Dru II and undersized Dru III that forms the emotional core outside of James’ dear-mama. Dru the Elder comes across as a well-meaning and thoughtful man who stepped up from assistant to head coach after the initial one, Keith Dambrot, left for the University of Akron — later, this proves ironic when St. Vincent’s moves their games to the university to accommodate the rabid demand.
“My son was young and he wanted to play basketball,” coach Joyce explained at the podium, “I just wanted to be involved.” There’s an earnest, thought-out tenor to his voice, one that turns rueful in the film when reflecting on the personal toll that the coach-player relationship had on his father-son one. The family tie is fantastic now, of course, and Joyce embraces his role. “That’s the great thing about coaching: You have an opportunity to pour your life into someone else’s life. I’m even more excited about what they do down the road.”
LeBron is, well, zooming down that road, and he handles it all with relative ease. Even though his responses hint of rehearsal and his build is absolutely herculean, there’s still an inner-child near the surface and he was especially graceful when fielding a few kids’ oh-oh-oh questions (Q: What size shoe do you wear? A: “”I walk around and just relax in 15s. But when I play, in basketball games, I wears 16s because I need a little more room for all the cutting and moving I do.”). He was also diplomatic about Obama’s roundball skills. “I haven’t actually seen him play live. It’s hard to see, you know, how good someone is on TV unless you see them play over and over and over. If I get the invite, I will fly myself down to DC.”