More Than a Game -- Film Review

This year, you're not going to get a more exciting or thought-provoking movie filled with memorable characters and dramatic events than "More Than a Game."

The film from hitherto-unknown documentarian Kristopher Belman is a sports movie only in the sense that Errol Morris' "The Fog of War" is a war movie. The six years he spent following, filming and editing interviews with a group of young players and their coach from Akron, Ohio,, have yielded a rich story about the achievement of self-worth and friendship on the basketball court.

No doubt, the film will quickly become known as the LeBron James movie because the NBA superstar, generally accepted as the game's best player at the moment, is one of the five kids who emerged from a town better known for manufacturing tires to splash their exploits across national sports pages. But his is only one of several intriguing subplots that carry this movie to a triumphant conclusion. The film looks to score with audiences who don't even care about basketball.

In his third year of undergraduate studies, Belman began following the city's already-famous high school basketball team led by the young phenom. Through fizzy family videos and photographs, he is able to fill in the events that lead up to the march by the team from St. Vincent-St. Mary's to the 2003 High School National Championship Game.

It starts in 1997, when Dru Joyce II agrees to coach his son's traveling youth basketball team. Dru Joyce III is so tiny that he looks like the ball boy. But the point guard's ball-handling skills and ability to hit long-range three-pointers is phenomenal. The other neighborhood kids include Willie McGee, staying with a brother after escaping a troubled home life in Chicago; Sian Cotton, who needs a scholarship if he wants to go to college; and a skinny kid named LeBron James.

The "Fab Four," as they dub themselves, beat everybody in sight, then travel to Florida to play in the AAU (11 and under) tournament. They lose but decide to stick together through high school. When it is clear that Dru, because of his size, doesn't stand a chance at an all-black school, the group chooses to play for a private, mostly white school, provoking hurt feelings in Akron's black community.

Dru's dad comes aboard as an assistant under the hard-driving white head coach, Keith Dambrot. A 27-0 season is capped by a state championship in which the undersized point guard throws up seven consecutive three-pointers that hit nothing but net.

A second season brings distractions: Transfer student Romeo Travis is a selfish and perpetually angry loner, and James' growing celebrity threatens team cohesion. The coach's decision to accept a college job following the last game, thus reneging on a promise he made the four kids, leaves a feeling of betrayal.

The feeling vanishes when Coach Dru is offered the coaching job at SVSM. Trouble is, he is more of a football guy. He questions whether he can guide such a talented, now nationally recognized team.

Over the next two seasons, things become increasingly dramatic, exciting and tense. Forces work to pull the Fighting Irish apart. McGee loses his starting job, and Travis continues to be a distraction -- but not half as much as James does when he becomes the first amateur athlete to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 36 years.

Belman neatly works in all the backstories of players and their families at the most telling moments throughout the film as he charts the ebb and flow of the team's fortunes. Indeed, the struggles of James (one of the film's executive producers) and his single mom aren't mentioned until late in the picture.

You can't script a better third act. And Belman (along with co-writer Brad Hogan) is astute enough to realize that the real action is not on the court. Coach Dru makes a comment that sums up the film's theme: His real job is not coaching a sport but helping his boys become men.

Belman clearly earned the team's trust, so his access to one of the sport's biggest stories in the early century was unprecedented. In hooking up with Harvey Mason Media and Interscope Records, he had the money to give the final product the polish it richly deserves. This is one helluva good movie that craves the eyeballs of as many American high-schoolers as it can possibly get.

Opened: Friday, Oct. 2 (limited)
Production companies: Lionsgate and Harvey Mason Media in association with Interscope Records present a Harvey Mason Media production in association with Galley Boy and Spring Hill Prods.
Director: Kristopher Belman
Screenwriters: Kristopher Belman, Brad Hogan
Producers: Harvey Mason, Jr. Kristopher Belman, Matthew Perniciaro, Kevin Mann
Executive producers: Maverick Carter, LeBron James, Jimmy Iovine
Directors of photography: Chris Lytwyn, Johnny Ching, Travis Cook, Kristopher Belman
Music: Harvey Mason, Jr.
Editor: V. Scott Balcere
Rated PG, 102 minutes