Sports documentaries tend to follow a formula, mostly having to do with either the athlete in question’s rise to or fall from glory. Archival footage is interspersed with talking heads, declaiming the subject as the fastest/toughest/greatest/baddest of all time.
There are exceptions, to be sure. This year, to name one, James Toback’s “Tyson” transformed the formula by focusing on a single voice: Tyson’s.
Kristopher Belman’s “More Than a Game” goes in the opposite direction but works its own changes on the form. Though it tells the story of the rise of basketball’s already legendary LeBron James, it frames it as part of a larger story about friendship and teamwork. The film winds up being about a group of young men who grew up together and, even as James blossomed into a ready-for-the-NBA star, retained the bond that made them the greatest team of schoolboy players ever assembled.
Belman begins with the team’s final game together: as the St. Vincent- St. Mary Fighting Irish of Akron, Ohio, playing for the national championship. But Belman’s focus is not on James, the team’s nationally known star, but the team itself and its coach, Dru Joyce.
That’s Belman’s method throughout. James gets his screen time, but Belman isn’t there to polish the King James myth. Instead, he wants to examine and expose a friendship that grew among teammates from pre-teen years to graduation, shaping their lives even more than it did their games.
So he starts with their initial grouping on an Akron AAU team of youngsterss that played for a national championship just before high school. He follows them to high school, where, as freshmen, they led their team to a state championship. And he captures the media mayhem – including negativity and jealousy from people in their own town – that came after James graced the cover of Sports Illustrated before the start of his senior year.
As he follows the team’s up and downs, he provides portraits of each player, as well as the coach, Dru Joyce – an accidental mentor who gave up a thriving business career to focus on this team and spend more time with his son, Dru Jr. Yet, in candid moments, he admits to the camera that he was harder on his son than he should have been, that he let the coach-player dynamic temporarily damage the father-son bond.
Each of the players has a story that is unique, whether of hardship or of hard choices: At one point, Sian Cotton, a crucial member of the Fab Four, has to miss a key game to pursue his college future. And, of course, James becomes the focus of controversy over whether he has received disqualifying gifts (remember the “throwback” jerseys?) that could end his senior season prematurely.
Eventually, of course, Belman has to get to James’ story: his peripatetic existence as the child of a teen-age mother who struggled with poverty; his lack of a male role model until he met Coach Dru; the sense of family he derived from being part of this team as a pre-adolescent; and how it shaped the young man he became.
But James is just one member of this team – and Belman’s film gives heartfelt evidence of the strength that their unity gave them, as individuals and as a well-oiled machine on the court. Belman’s point is that, in this setting, it was never the LeBron Show, with James and supporting cast. It was always a group effort, one from which James derived strength in the same way his teammates did.
Ultimately, the true hero of this film is Dru Joyce Sr., a father and coach who preached teamwork, not victory. That’s the message of “More Than a Game” and it’s a worthy one that makes for exciting filmmaking.