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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

LeBron James film is a lesson for rookie directors

'More Than a Game' captures James' road to stardom, and helped Kristopher Belman survive film school.

September 29, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

"More Than a Game" is a soul-stirring documentary about a close-knit group of Akron, Ohio, grade-school kids who grow up to be the greatest high school basketball team of their generation. It doesn't hurt that one of the kids is LeBron James, who was such a prodigy that he went straight from high school to NBA stardom. The movie depicts James, who even in fifth grade looked like a man among boys, in all his youthful glory. But its best moments capture the close relationship that James and his teammates have with their coach, Dru Joyce, who emerges not only as an inspirational role model for the boys but also as a role model for sports dads everywhere.

As it turns out, "More Than a Game," which opens in New York and Los Angeles this week, is also an inspirational model for filmmakers. It was directed by Kristopher Belman, who, when he first met James and Co., was just another struggling 21-year-old film student at Loyola Marymount University. It took Belman more than seven years to finish the film, having to overcome obstacles nearly every step of the way. In fact, his success is almost as unlikely as the story of the film's own schoolboy heroes.

Having grown up in Akron just a few years ahead of James and his buddies, Belman had been hearing stories for years about their mythic exploits on the basketball court. So when he was searching for a school project that could generate a 10-minute film, Belman thought it would be intriguing to get inside the world of these high school basketball stars. He learned a virtue that nearly all filmmakers develop sooner or later: persistence.

"At first, when I started calling people at the school, I couldn't get anyone to even call me back," he told me the other day. Even though James and his teammates were still only in their junior year of high school, they were already amid a media frenzy, especially after Sports Illustrated put James on its cover, touting him as the next great hoops star. The school had already been forced to hire a publicist, who told Belman that they'd already turned down appearances on "60 Minutes" and "Late Show With David Letterman."

Although Joyce was trying to keep distractions to a minimum, he seemed to sense that Belman was interested in more than just another "Is LeBron James the Next Hoops God?" story. "I pitched him on the idea that this wasn't just a LeBron thing," Belman recalls. "For me, the film was always about these four guys and their special kind of friendship. I guess Dru took pity on me, being this kid so desperate just to get a good grade on his film project, so he finally said, 'OK, you can come film one practice.' "

Belman could tell the team was a little skeptical and standoffish. But no one kicked him out. And when he heard that the next day's practice was at 7 a.m., he came back again. "No one ever said, 'You can keep coming,' " he recalls. "But no one ever said, 'You have to leave,' either. So I kept coming back all year long. For a long time, I don't think anyone even knew my name. All the guys just called me 'Cameraman.' "

So what did LeBron James think of this strange guy, hanging around practice, filming him all the time? "We noticed Kris right away the first day because Coach Dru had cut off practices to everyone, so any unfamiliar face really stood out," James told me Friday when he was in town, doing a host of media appearances in support of the film and "Shooting Stars," an accompanying book that James did with noted sports author Buzz Bissinger. "Coach asked us what we thought of having this filmmaker start to tell our story. And when we found out that the kid was from Akron, that he was a hometown boy, we figured he was genuine. So we all said, 'Sure, let him in.' "

Today, having already spent six seasons in the NBA spotlight, James is an incredibly media-savvy athlete-entertainer. In the last few days, he's been on every TV forum known to man, including "David Letterman," "Jimmy Kimmel," "Charlie Rose" and Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show." When I sat down with him, he'd just been up on the roof of the L.A. Film School, where he shot a remote appearance for "The Jay Leno Show." He's only 24, but in terms of media years, he's a grizzled veteran, handling his image with grace, care and good humor.

I asked James what advice he would give to an NBA rookie about handling the media onslaught. "The first thing is that you have to be yourself. When you're not honest, the media finds out. I've been scrutinized a lot, and I'm going to make mistakes, but I've always learned something valuable from making the mistake, and hopefully people are willing to accept that."

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