Seven years ago, Kristopher Belman, then a film student at Loyola-Marymount University, turned to his hometown of Akron, Ohio, to film a ten-minute short about five young boys playing basketball. He didn’t predict screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, LeBron James, Dru Joyce, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee and Romeo Travis elevating the St. Vincent’s-St. Mary’s Fighting Irish to National Champions in 2003, or Mr. James’ entrance into the NBA directly from high school, winning the Most Valuable Player award for the 2008-2009 season.
“Basketball is a vehicle, not a be-all and end-all. Use basketball; don’t let it use you,” says Coach Dru Joyce II. The five boys formed a pact since the eighth grade to stick together on through high school. From the inner city, some came from normal households, others from broken families including Mr. James, with a teenager mother and absent father. After beginning with the Shooting Stars, a difficult choice brands them traitors by their classmates. In the film’s only reference to race, they pass on the largely black Buchtel High School for the private, mostly white, St. Vincents-St. Mary’s. There they stand a better chance of recognition, sharpening their talents under Coach Keith Dambrot.
Offered a position as head coach at University of Akron, the disciplinarian Mr. Dambrot is replaced by Dru Joyce II. Mr. Joyce loved coaching, but family and financial responsibility kept him in the corporate arena for years, until Mr. Dambrot’s departure opened an opportunity. While highlight reels, home footage, and locker-room pep talks, practices, games and outtakes demonstrate the rigidly-scheduled lives of the Fab Five (as they called themselves), Coach Joyce emerges as the central figure of this unfolding story of personal success. He left a good paycheck for the strenuous, selfless task of guiding these kids into a future of opportunity. His son, barely 4’10”, gets the brunt of it. The coach is determined to let people know that everything Little Dru gained was earned. It was. The pint-sized, oft-mocked Dru averaged eleven points per game, even scoring seven three-pointers in a single game.
As the team starts playing a national schedule, wins state championships and becomes nationally-ranked in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), it becomes evident to Coach Joyce, and Mr. Belman, something big is happening. The boys are now flown to games. LeBron James becomes the first high school student in 30+ years (since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. Courtside (and hotel-side), girls clamor; hundreds, even competing teams, wait for LeBron’s autograph. “As a first year coach, how do you manage this?” ponders Dru.
Mr. Belman has done something extraordinary here. I’m not much of a sports fan, but the documentary is less about basketball than universal human ideals and goals. From years of raw footage and pick-up interviews, his team assembled and edited an engaging narrative, creatively incorporating a few visual effects. Figures in the story pop with three-dimensional depth from static photographs. Montages morph images from various angles creating a time-lapse from stills. Mr. Belman also retained creative rights, insisting to distributors courting him after Toronto that the focus remain on the five friends as a group rather than be shifted entirely to LeBron James. Will the decision, contrary to the infinite wisdom of studio marketing executives, pay off? Seated behind me, one of the members of Plano East Senior High’s basketball team in attendance for a public screening, said before the film, “This better not be about LeBron’s life story… there better be game highlights.” During the film I could hear him gasp repeatedly in awe of each one of the Fab Five’s physical skills.
And talent they did possess. Having mild spastic diplegia from Cerebral Palsy, I envy what some athletes can do with their bodies. In gradeschool and junior high, these five boys demonstrated physical abilities unheard of for their age. It is truly remarkable seeing the skills they employ in the game. It’s easy to view these feats as merely showy tricks, but put yourself in my shoes and expend 75% more oxygen than the average human being just walking—hundreds of mental calculations per second most upright beings take for granted. The magnitude of their control, concentration, agility and dexterity, is no less than phenomenal.
I recently interviewed Mr. Belman and when asked if at the start he thought these boys would be where they are today. He replied he had no idea how far they’d go, but knew with practice and perseverance any endeavor was well within their reach.
The question may arise, naturally, whether African-American inner city youths benefit from being taught that basketball is the way out of poverty and anonymity and into success. While other films may paint a limitless fantasy, this documentary pragmatically reinforces that this level of success is not achieved without work, that instant fame is not without its pitfalls.
Having complete creative control, and the trust of the team, Mr. Belman was able to show us the downsides to sudden fame, such as when LeBron is accused of taking gifts—a $50,000 Hummer which, upon further investigation, wasn’t gifted but financed by his parents. In their junior year at SVSM when cohesiveness disintegrates between Romeo and the other four, it negatively impacts their game and ultimately costs them the championship. Their loss feels crushing to us, not just because of a winner mentality in our culture but rather that Mr. Belman is adept at organizing a narrative structure—their rise, stumble, recovery and victory.
At one point, Coach Dru wonders whether or not they deprived these kids of a normal childhood. The game was something the kids loved. They willingly put in countless hours of practice. The coach pushed them, but no more than they pushed themselves. There’s no inference of “pageant mom” indoctrination or whoring out their kids for a meal ticket. Footage spanning their years affirms that no childhood was lost in the friendships retained from grade school through high school. Their bonds were forged on the court; their play-time was the game. Don’t we each wish to do for a living what we are most passionate about?
In closing, we’re told that aside from LeBron, two of them went to play professionally in Ulm, Germany, Dru got into college basketball, and Willie McGee is working on his graduate degree in Computer Science.
While the film doesn’t dwell much on their academics, Mr. Belman, on hand for Q&A at the screening, informed the audience that each of the students earned above a 3.4 GPA while in high school and, playing on evenings and weekends, avoided missing a single day of class—making their achievement all the more spectacular and inspiring.
Rubin Safaya’s interview with writer/director Kristopher Belman can be read here.
More Than A Game • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 105 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG for brief mild language and incidental smoking. • Distributed by Lionsgate