By any standards, it was a special year for the 2002-2003 St. Vincent-St. Mary High School boys basketball team in Akron.
Led by LeBron James, the team was the focus of national media attention - including broadcasts of its games on ESPN2, a first for the cable network - with cameras capturing every on-the-court move by the future NBA superstar and his teammates.
For a documentary to duplicate such coverage would be unnecessary.
Fortunately, Kris Belman, a heretofore unknown filmmaker from Akron, dug much deeper than superficial game action for the documentary More Than a Game, which opens today in Toledo.
Because of Belman's local ties, the then-senior film major at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles was given unparalleled access to the team - practices, pre- and post-game locker room speeches, even into the homes of the players.
Their faith in Belman has been rewarded with a masterful documentary, a moving, thrilling, insightful work that meticulously captures a season in high school athletics unlike any before it.
More Than a Game sets the stage as the team - Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee, and James - prepares for the national championship amid a hurricane of hype and scrutiny.
This spotlight moment has been a long time coming for the team, More Than a Game points out, as the documentary jumps back a decade or so to when "King James" was still synonymous with the Bible.
"The Fab Four," as they came to be known (later the "Fab Five"), were more than athletes, they were longtime best friends who spent more time together off the court than on it.
Belman wasn't there for those preteen games and sleep-overs, but you think he is thanks to the film's copious inclusion of home movies and family photos. Through these images, More Than a Game chronicles a time in the young lives of James and his buddies when basketball was just a game.
It's only later, as their considerable on-the-court skills manifested themselves, that basketball becomes a key to their future, through collegiate scholarships, the NBA, and European Basketball Leagues.
While each member of the Fab Five receives their fair share of screen time, no doubt it's interest in James that will bring people into movie theaters this weekend. Surprisingly, it's the team's father-figure coach, Dru Joyce II, who emerges as the film's heart.
Coach Dru, as the players call him, is affable and driven; he reads books by legendary coaches such as UCLA great John Wooden for guidance. But nothing prepared Coach Dru for what happens when the media hordes descend on the team because of its star player.
Everyone wants a piece of James - who handles the attention better than anyone might expect considering he's still in high school - and his protective teammates close ranks around him.
The attention got so out of hand the team moved its games to a larger venue to handle the increasing number of fans and hired bodyguards to keep the media at bay. In the middle of this insanity is the wide-eyed coach, who confesses to the camera years later that he simply didn't know what to do in this situation, and that there was no one he could turn to for advice.
As the pressure to win mounts, the coach grows increasingly demanding of his son, Dru Joyce III, the team's undersized but tenacious point guard, and their relationship is strained.
The players can't escape from the high expectations, either. During their junior year - distracted by the overwhelming hype, the film suggests - they lost the Ohio state championship, a startling upset that haunts them throughout their senior season.
No one wants a repeat of that crushing defeat.
But as that season winds down, James' drama involving the purchase of a new Hummer, and his subsequent suspension for accepting jerseys for promotional photos - a no-no that imperils his amateur status - threaten to derail the team.
More Than a Game offers more twists and drama than Hoosiers times two, and by the time the documentary jumps back to the big game, you're so amped up by the events and emotionally invested in the players and coach's success, you can't help but cheer them on.
More Than a Game is more than a documentary. It's also more than a basketball movie. It's a joyous celebration of high school athletics and a unique dissection of a very special season for the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School boys basketball team, the likes of which no one had ever seen. Just ask Coach Dru.
Contact Kirk Baird at:
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