It's always risky to mix sports metaphors, but it's hard to resist the notion that the basketball-themed "More Than a Game" is a knockout of a sports documentary. Destined against its will to be known as "the LeBron James movie," it is all that, and a good deal more.
James, of course, is one of the NBA's most impressive players, someone so gifted that he was drafted in 2003 by the Cleveland Cavaliers right out of high school. Given that this film is coming out around the same time as his autobiography, "Shooting Stars," it may sound like part of a calculated media blitz, but the film's origins are considerably more complex.
"More Than a Game" has been in the works for quite some time, before most people outside of his home state of Ohio knew about James. Director Kristopher Belman, also from Ohio, was a 21-year-old graduate student at Loyola Marymount University when he heard about James and his teammates at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School and gradually wangled his way into being able to film the team at home and on the road during its junior and senior years.
Now, six years after that senior season, Belman has assembled a fascinating mixture of footage, including his own coverage, home movies shot by the team's family members, extensive local TV reporting and candid contemporary interviews with James, his teammates and his St. Vincent coach Dru Joyce II, who starts the film by stating, "Basketball is a vehicle, not a be-all and end-all. Use basketball; don't let it use you."
As James knows more than anyone, and as the film makes clear, this is not just about him; it's about the teammates who were with him since forever, starting when they were young neighborhood kids playing on a linoleum floor in a Salvation Army gym.
As much as anything, "More Than a Game" is a sincere but unsentimental tribute to the value sports can have in people's lives, how, with the help of the right adults, athletics can in a very real and tangible way rescue kids from dead-end adversity and give purpose and meaning to what they do. Really.
Also, because it is a quintessentially human activity, sports inevitably brings out the worst in people as well as the best, and "More Than a Game" doesn't hesitate to show how the goodness can get perverted, how self-centeredness, ambition and money can tarnish everything they touch. There are more ups and downs and twists in the road in this story than a fiction writer would dare invent.
The tale begins years before high school, when Dru Joyce, motivated by the passion his son, invariably known as Little Dru, shows for basketball, agrees to coach a traveling youth team called the Shooting Stars.
Its core was four kids -- his son, James, Willie McGee and Sian Cotton -- who clicked on and off the court, kids who wanted to be family as much as they wanted to score points. This was especially true of James, who never knew his father and was born when his unwed mother was but 16. These players, each of whom gets a considerable back story, surprised everyone by almost winning their age category in the 1999 AAU National Championship Tournament.
Everyone expected the Fab Four, as they called themselves, to go to their local Akron public high school, but because Little Dru, who was only 4-foot-10, felt he would get a better chance to play at mostly white St. Vincent under coach Keith Dambrot, all the kids, in an all-for-one move, followed him there.
This did not go over well in the neighborhood, where the boys were called traitors and accused of "pimping for St. Vincent's." The players had the last laugh, however, when Little Dru, often mistaken for the ball boy, threw in seven eye-popping three-pointers that resulted in a state championship.
Even then, nothing came easily. The team's fifth player, a transfer student named Romeo Travis, proved to be a loner who didn't fit in off the court. Then Dambrot left for a college job, leaving Little Dru's dad little choice but to take over, even though the new position did not help his relationship with his son.
In the team's junior year, the sky fell on Akron. Sports Illustrated dubbed James "The Chosen One" and made him the first high school athlete to be on its cover in decades. All the resultant publicity went to the team's head in a major way. Though the film leaves out some elements, such as James' request that the NBA make him eligible for the draft at the end of his junior year, it is for the most part quite candid about what went down.
The Fab Four's senior year at St. Vincent's, when the team rededicates itself and attempts to finish the year as the No. 1 high school squad in America, is the framework on which "More Than a Game" is built. It's a tribute to the film that when coach Joyce said he'd gotten so caught up in wins and losses that he forgot that making men out of his boys was his main mission, we know it's not hype or spin but the unvarnished truth.
MPAA rating: PG for brief mild language and incidental smoking
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing: At the ArcLight Hollywood and the Grove,