Yet if handled right, years of basketball playing can pay off in other ways—with an amazing sense of discipline, the gift of mentorship and friendships and other values that are impossible to place a dollar sign on, yet can transform lives immeasurably. And it is that side of basketball, the one in which genuine change can come about through the effort involved in serious practice and playing, that makes the new documentary More Than a Game a powerful experience even for those who don’t know what NBA stands for.
Directed by first-timer Kristopher Belman, who spent seven and a half years shepherding his project to the screen, Game follows the rise of NBA superstar LeBron James from a troubled, single-parent childhood to the productive, healthy role model and MVP he is today. Yet the story is about a lot more than him—it’s also focused equally on each of the members of the basketball team he started playing with in fourth grade and continued playing with intact, against all odds, all the way through high school and into the record books as perhaps the greatest high school basketball team in history.
The key to their success were the family-style bonds that the boys on the team formed together under the guidance of Coach Dru Joyce II, whose son Dru Joyce III was a key player. By the time they hit high school as freshmen, following a vow to all stay together at the same school even as they controversially ended up at a largely white Catholic school rather than following expectations and staying in a largely African-American school, they had formed such a seamless series of play together that their play seemed almost psychic in its fluidity.
Yet while Game also features exciting and healthy doses of game footage that will astound James’ fans with his youthful prowess, each player gets their own moments to shine. The most stunning sequence of the film—and the most crowd-pleasing—comes when the extremely short Dru Joyce III gets to show up taunting enemy fans at one game by unleashing seven 3-point shots in six minutes of game time.
“Coach Sherwood told the boys all the time, basketball is a vehicle to get from Point A to Point B and a way to achieve goals you couldn’t otherwise,” explains Belman in an exclusive RELEVANT interview. “People know LeBron went to the NBA straight from high school, so that’s his A to B, but at the end when we show the different paths the players took within and away from basketball, it means a lot more.
“These boys built a structure and family through basketball for their lives,” says Belman, who started this as his debut filmmaking project while he was a junior in college after hearing about the team for years while growing up in their hometown of Akron, Ohio. “Willie’s getting his MBA, Sheon is pursuing his dream of playing in the NFL but pursuing his degree, which is most important. Basketball allowed them to do all those things without family, because they grew up without dads and the coach was a surrogate father for all of them. Basketball provided the opportunity for them in the physical sense of attending college, and the metaphysical—including their faith. Coach Drew expressed the importance of faith and belief in being truly successful.”
In fact, it’s that ingrained sense of faith and ethics that Belman believes has “helped LeBron to keep his head straight. He knows the workout on the court and preseason training are only a portion of it.” Belman adds that the fact James has counted on the same core friends since the fourth grade has given him the foundation to stay grounded amid the infamous peer pressure and temptations of life in the NBA.
“A lot of players who skip college can’t handle it, but LeBron’s unique because he has these friends and Coach Drew is still in his life and looks out for them,” Belman says. “He’s living the dream for all of them, and they won’t let him blow it. They’re keeping his nose clean. That’s what separates LeBron from many players, and he knows that.
“As we all get older, we have less friends and drift apart due to family, but it brings them closer. These days when all the negativity is out there in sports media, we focus on the bad thing that happened. Their story is rare but remains more important than ever,” Belman says. “Some of our best screenings were for non-sports fans. We had a great response in Singapore last spring and the people said they were moved by LeBron’s story, Coach Drew and the rest. I hope people will look past the basketball and see universal life lessons.”