"More Than a Game" directed by Kristopher Belman


Ask anyone for a four-word summary of "More Than a Game", and you're likely to get "the LeBron James documentary" as a response. While it's easy to summarize the movie as such, that doesn't even come close to covering the range of subjects covered in this 2008 release.

PLOT SUMMARY


Score: 4.5 out of 5

Real NBA teams: Yes, briefly

Fictional NBA teams: No -- it's a documentary

Notable NBA players involved: LeBron James, obviously, and Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan (among others) appear during clips of interviews

Best basketball moment: In the epilogue, Belman shows the highlight of LeBron's "no regard for human life" dunk on Kevin Garnett. I know it's a copout to choose an NBA highlight as the best moment from this doc, but I LOVE that dunk.

Worst basketball moment: The loss to Roger Bacon at the end of their junior year. It's a great moment in the narrative of the movie, but you can really feel the pain and frustration of the players as they melt down near the end.
"More Than a Game" starts off just before the 2003 Ohio Division II state championship game between Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary and Kettering Archbishop Alter. If St. V-M won, it would likely be declared the 2002-03 high school national champions. The documentary then jumps back to 1999, when an unknown AAU team from Akron -- coached by Dru Joyce II, who only took up coaching basketball to support his son -- nearly won the AAU national championship for their age group. They faced a highly-regarded team from California in the title game, and nearly pulled off the upset, but LeBron James's halfcourt desperation heave at the buzzer was just off, and they fell by two.

Over the next hour-plus, the movie documents the journey of that group, who grew up together, played AAU ball together, then went to Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary together, as they attempt to "finish the job" and get the national championship recognition they barely missed out on in the summer of 1999. The movie covers the meteoric rise of James, Dru Joyce III, Willie McGee and Sian Cotton as freshmen state champs at St. V-M and the rocky addition of Romeo Travis to the group the next year. The next year, they appear to be on their way to a national title a year ahead of schedule, as LeBron makes the leap from local star to national celebrity, but an upset in the state title game leaves them disappointed, and resolved to bounce back better than ever the following year.

As seniors, Akron's "Fab 5" face the impending end of their partnership, LeBron's continued celebrity and the backlash that comes with that, and one of the toughest schedules ever put together for a high school team. In the end, the movie comes back to where it started, with the 2003 state title game, and covers in the ups and downs of that game in painstaking detail, with St. V-M emerging victorious, completing a four-year journey.

REVIEW

I probably should have had someone else review this movie, since my fondness for LeBron is pretty well-known, making me less than an objective viewer when it comes to anything LeBron-related.

Of course, as I mentioned in my intro, this isn't just "the LeBron James documentary." It's stronger for focusing on the other subjects, particularly the Joyces, rather than just being "LeBron before the NBA." In many ways, the story of the team and the group of friends is much more compelling than LeBron's story by itself.

Like any good scripted movie, this documentary is at its best when the subjects are dealing with conflict, either internal or external. The insight into the relationship between James, Joyce, McGee and Cotton and the "outsider" Travis (who transfered into St. V-M as a sophomore) was incredibly interesting, and I loved how Belman introduced it after the success of the sophomore season, then let it linger in the background of the junior year before bringing it back in the aftermath of the loss to Roger Bacon.

As great as the early stuff is -- particularly the AAU footage of a young LeBron -- the documentary really hits its stride when it gets to the part of the story that most of us know: LeBron's explosion onto the national scene in his junior and senior years. Part of that is a natural consequence of Belman's access to the team (he wasn't filming them for a documentary during their first two years at St. V-M), but it's what sets this team apart from any other successful high school team.
Given how we've become immersed in the LeBron circus for the past eight years in the NBA, it's easy to forget just how extraordinary the level of attention LeBron received in high school was. The senior year coverage was particularly insightful with the initial backlash against LeBron. I'm loathe to use this word, but LeBron's been dealing with "haters" since 2002, which has to be draining on an individual.

If you're watching the documentary for some insight on LeBron James's psyche as a player, particularly in the aftermath of "The Decision" and the 2011 Finals collapse, it's not always evident on the surface, but the overall documentary does present a picture of what LeBron's comfort level is, and it does touch on the lack of a true father figure in his life. Also, I found it particularly interesting that Joyce, who'd been LeBron's coach for his formative learning years, didn't have a basketball background before his son got into the game. You have to wonder how much of an impact that had on LeBron.

As great as everything with LeBron is, the heart of the movie is coach Dru Joyce II and his son Dru Joyce III. The latter gets his "one shining moment" as a freshman in the state championship game, when he came off the bench to hit seven three pointers and propel St. V-M to victory. It's like Ollie from "Hoosiers" coming in to hit those free throws, but it's really happening. If you can watch the 14-year-old Joyce ("generously listed" at 5-foot-2) come in and hit those 3s and NOT smile, you might be dead inside.

The elder Joyce gets his time to shine at halftime of the championship game in 2003, and Belman does a nice job building to this. At various points in the film, the director introduces the viewer to Joyce's reluctance to take the head job at St. V-M, his unorthodox introduction to the sport of basketball and his insecurity over the loss in 2002, and it builds to the first half of the 2003 championship game, where Alter takes a lead into halftime. Joyce's halftime speech isn't quite Al Pacino in "Any Given Sunday" or Kurt Russell in "Miracle", but in that moment he finds the right words for THAT group of players, and they go out and get the national championship. Even if you already knew the result of that game -- and obviously I did -- it was still cool to watch.

THE BASKETBALL

Because Belman wasn't following St. V-M from the '99-00 season on, a lot of the early games in the movie rely on archive footage, and the AAU tournament that starts the narrative in motion is actually shown using old home video. But the actual on-court product is polished, and captures both the skill and unity of this team. Plus, it's great to see that old footage and remember just how much better LeBron was than everyone else on the court, particularly in his junior and senior seasons. It seems absurd to say that a 17-year-old should have been playing in the NBA, but LeBron had pretty much outgrown high school in all ways by his senior year.

There was one thing that bugged me about the basketball, and that was a game that wasn't shown. They briefly mention LeBron's junior year showdown with Carmelo Anthony, and you see one quick clip of Carmelo dunking, then a headline about LeBron winning the one-on-one battle, but there's no real footage from the game, nor is the outcome ever mentioned. It's disappointing, especially given how much they focus on the St. V-M/Oak Hill game during LeBron's senior year.

NBA EQUIVALENT

If we're picking a moment from LeBron's career, it's not quite the "48 special" or the game-winner against Orlando. Wanna know what it is? It's Game 6 of the 2007 conference finals against the Pistons. Everyone is watching because of LeBron, and LeBron is the compelling storyline, but he gets a lot of help from his supporting cast, led by an undersized guard who bombs away from 3.

BETTER OR WORSE THAN A LOCKOUT?

Better. But I couldn't help see LeBron's resolve following the 2002 loss to Roger Bacon and the way he tore things up in '03 and wonder if we're going to be denied a LeBron Revenge Season by the lockout.

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