|“More Than a Game,’’ a story of friendship and achievement, isn’t just for basketball fans.|
LeBron film makes its points
Winning is one thing. Winning with your buddies is immeasurably better.
That is the basic message conveyed by “More Than A Game,’’ the extraordinary documentary about the core group of young men who began playing together as fifth-graders in a Salvation Army-owned gym on a linoleum floor and who, seven years later, found themselves acclaimed as the best high school basketball team in the land. It would have been a nice, heartwarming story under any circumstances. The fact that one of these youngsters was LeBron James takes the enterprise to another level.
Footage of a seventh-grade LeBron would in and of itself make Kristopher Belman’s film, now showing locally at the Boston Common and the Embassy Cinema in Waltham, a must-see for any interested basketball fan. But the beauty of this film is that you need not be a huge basketball fan, or even a major sports fan, to be uplifted by the story. As Dru Joyce II, LeBron’s second high school coach, says at halftime of an important game, it’s not about the X’s and O’s. It’s about relationships, including in one extremely important case that of father and son.
The father is Joyce and the son is Dru Joyce III, who is actually the central figure of the film. Oh, sure, these kids don’t win three state championships or become de facto national champions (there really is no such thing, only what USA Today decides) without LeBron. But the reason the other three members of the self-styled Akron “Fab Four’’ attend St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School is that the undersized Joyce (5-footish) is afraid he’ll never get a chance to play at Buchtel High, but would get a fair shot at “SV,’’ as it’s known, where coach Keith Dambrot is more open-minded. And so, in a one-for-all-and-all-for-one gesture, LeBron James, Sian Cotton, and Willie McGee accompany their little point guard friend to SV. For this they are denounced in the local black community as “traitors’’ and “pimps for SV.’’
That Joyce is even remotely accomplished at all is a tribute to his dad, who got involved in AAU basketball to help out his son. The elder Joyce, truth be told, is far more of a football guy, but his son’s love is basketball, and so Mr. Joyce immerses himself in the world of basketball, always mindful of the fact that he is something of a hoop outsider. But what Dru Joyce II brings to the team when, before the Fab Four’s junior year, he succeeds Dambrot as coach (he moved on to Akron U, where he remains the mentor) is sincerity, life perspective, and an extraordinary moral balance that will be needed when LeBron winds up on the cover of Sports Illustrated while still in high school and St. Vincent-St. Mary’s becomes a national phenomenon.
The ongoing theme of this story is togetherness, and the belief these players have that their success on the court is only partly due to skill. These four are best friends who would do anything for each other, and, as film clips from their early AAU days demonstrate, they are in the business of pleasing each other by passing the basketball.
It is always “us,’’ even though it is clear that one of them is far more equal than the others when it comes to basketball expertise. “LeBron,’’ observes the sagacious Dru Joyce III, “has a little more star power than the rest of us.’’
They eventually become a Fab Five, but not without a great deal of turmoil. Into their midst comes Romeo Travis, a talented but edgy young man who decides that the other four constitute a clique he will never fit into, and who brings daily hostility to a situation that has heretofore been perpetually upbeat. “I would say, ‘Man, you get out of bed angry, or what?’ ’’ says Joyce III.
It takes time and effort and sustained on-court success, but Travis eventually comes around, plugging himself into the “we’’ and “us’’ of the group by his senior year.
Had this group gone 4 for 4 in the matter of state championships, the story might not be so compelling. But after winning their classification as both freshmen and sophomores, they enter an entirely different realm as juniors. Dambrot takes the Akron U job, which the players take as an act of betrayal. The elder Joyce is prevailed upon to take the job, knowing, that “if we win, they are Keith’s kids, and if we lose, it’s my fault.’’
By now they are larger than life. Their home games are moved to Akron U, and even those 5,000 seats do not prove to be enough. They undertake a national schedule, because that’s what big-time high school teams do nowadays. They are doing interviews. They are signing autographs. They become rock stars.
They continue to win, but Joyce sees trouble by the time of the state tournament. He worries about them believing the hype and becoming complacent, and, sure enough, they are beaten in the state finals by Cincinnati’s Roger Bacon.
Bad for them. Great for them.
It is the proverbial wake-up call. LeBron is a natural leader, and he is determined to go out in the proper manner. They spend the winter of their senior year getting in and out of airplanes, administering beatings to some of the best teams in the country. A showdown with famed Oak Hill Academy is put on ESPN. Dan Shulman, Dick Vitale, Bill Walton, and Jay Bilas work the game, Bilas calling James “the best high school player I’ve ever seen.’’ They win by 20.
They are an anomaly in the modern basketball world. The best teenage basketball teams of the day are generally either prep schools able to recruit nationally or parochial teams able to recruit regionally. But SV was a neighborhood team. LeBron, Sian, Willie, and Dru had been together since fifth grade. They had a shared experience unique to them.
And Dru Joyce II was not one of these on-the-make hucksters, seizing the opportunity of coaching a LeBron to move up in the basketball world (he’s still at SV). He was a humble, dedicated parent who had defected from a successful career in the corporate world in order to work with young people and to be a proper dad to his son. The SV experience was a monster, but it is hard to imagine those kids being in the hands of anyone who would be better for them than Dru Joyce II.
There was more craziness before that senior year was over. Remember LeBron and the Hummer? LeBron and the retro jerseys? But it all works out in the end. LeBron and his BFFs get it done.
LeBron is going to win an NBA championship someday. But he may already have had his greatest career satisfaction.