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More Than a Game

How Basketball Saved Five Lives

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

The first words that come to mind after watching More Than a Game, a borderline hagiographic documentary about NBA superstar and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, his longtime friends and fellow basketball players and their championship-winning high-school basketball team, are “slick", “sentimental", and “superficial". It’s also affecting, poignant, and, on occasion, insightful, and for basketball fans (and especially for LeBron James’ fans), worth the price of a DVD rental or catching it on ESPN (where, given the subject matter, it’ll inevitably air). Non-basketball fans, however, will find a documentary that prefers its stars on the court, where they can work their basketball magic, than off the court, where they can’t.

Written and directed by Kristopher Belman, More Than a Game follows LeBron James, and his friends, Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee, and later, Romeo Travis, over the better part of a decade, a group local sportswriters would dub the “Akron Fab Five.” Meeting in an Akron neighborhood, the four friends played basketball from the age of 10 onwards. Dru’s father, Dru Joyce II, a one-time corporate executive (and former football player), became, despite his inexperience, their de facto coach during their pre-high school years. Joyce II took the team to Florida for a basketball tournament. They did better than expected, losing the final game to a more experienced, better financed team.

As high school approached, LeBron and his friends chose St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, partly to be coached by Keith Dambrot (he went on to coach at the University of Akron). Joyce III joined as an assistant coach. With James starting as a freshman, St. Vincent-St. Mary’s won the Division II state championship. They won a second Division III championship the following year, but lost a year later when St. Vincent-St. Mary’s moved up to Division II. Dru Joyce II had become the head coach of the basketball team before their junior year. When James petitioned to enter the NBA draft, but lost, he returned to St. Vincent-St. Mary for his senior year, setting the stage for another run at the Division II title.

By then, of course, James had become a national celebrity, winning accolades for his basketball skills from national sports writers and even Michael Jordan, who declared James a better player (at his age) than another high schooler-turned-NBA-superstar, Kobe Bryant. James, however, then became involved in two incidents, one involving his mother, which threatened his eligibility to play high school basketball. In one of the interviews Belman intersperses throughout More Than a Game, James becomes visibly upset when recollecting the controversy. Despite James burgeoning fame and guaranteed NBA career, James and his friends remained close. If there were any complications or problems in their friendship, Belman steers clear of them.

Belman had access to extensive videotape footage of James and his friends competing on basketball courts. He begins More Than a Game with James’ final game as a high schooler, playing for the Division II state championship, then cuts away for the duration of the film's running time. It adds a modicum of suspense where, given the events are eight-years old, it wouldn’t be present. Belman turns on the slickness too heavily at times, though, overusing a CG extrusion technique that adds dimensionality and movement to still photographs.

While LeBron James gets most of the screen time, Dru Joyce II is actually the more compelling figure. He describes, often in moving detail, how and why he became a basketball coach, to become closer to his basketball-loving son, how he learned to appreciate what basketball could contribute to team and individual building, and more surprisingly, the difficulties he experienced in his dual role as father and coach to Dru III, a basketball player who opponents often underestimated for his short stature. When he gives Belman a tour of his home office (he continues to coach St. Vincent-St. Mary High School’s basketball team), bookshelves packed with basketball-themed books, it’s obvious Joyce III has found his true calling.