“More Than a Game” is an inspiring story that works very hard to remind you it’s an inspiring story at every opportunity.
“Hoosiers” looks subtle by comparison — and this is a documentary.
It traces the origins of LeBron James before he was a superstar forward with the Cleveland Cavaliers, when he and his high school teammates rose from being scrappy Akron, Ohio, kids to three-time state basketball champions. With his first film, director and co-writer Kristopher Belman combines old home videos and TV news footage with fresh interviews with James, his buddies and their coach, Dru Joyce II.
Feel-good speeches and proclamations abound, frequently accompanied by the swell of uplifting music. (“Our kids just had a never-say-die attitude,” recalls the coach, speaking in one of many sports clichés, even though the tears in his eyes at the memories seem genuine.)
Too often, Belman also states the obvious; we could have figured out for ourselves, for example, that Joyce served as a father figure to James, who was raised in the projects by a single mother who gave birth to him at 16.
The fact that James’ talent and discipline allowed him not only to overcome his childhood hardships but thrive on a stratospheric scale is a compelling story in itself — and to his credit, he’s not the sole focus of the film, even though he’s an executive producer. It’s also sort of charming to see James go back to his old bedroom and show us the exact spots on the walls where he had plastered posters and pictures of Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson — the very guys he plays against now at age 24. Back then, though, skinny Bron-Bron was already mixing in no-look passes at 12 and dunking at 14, as we see from old clips.
But “More Than a Game” takes plenty of time to let us get to know his teammates, their back stories and how they found a way to work together and win, first as members of the Shooting Stars youth team and later at the private, mostly white St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, where they all agreed to go so they could stay together.
Among them is Dru Joyce III, the coach’s son, who was “generously listed as 5-2” as one TV commentator observed, even though he was closer to 4-foot-11. The kid had a hell of an outside shot even then, though, and now plays professionally in Germany alongside fellow high school teammate Romeo Travis. Rounding out the “Fab Five,” as they liked to call themselves, are two guys who went on to play football: Sian Cotton at Ohio State and Walsh University and Willie McGee at Fairmont State University.
That they stuck by each other through the ups and downs and the scrutiny of nationwide fame would seem difficult at such a formative age; that they continue to consider themselves brothers to this day would seem even rarer, even without the added dynamic of James’ colossal success.
All the pieces are there for an extraordinary and moving tale; if Belman had just let it play out for itself, “More Than a Game” could have been more than your typical sports movie.