More Than a Game (Lionsgate, PG)

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film_more-than-a-game_sm.gifMore Than a Game is uncanny in its adherence to the presentational style perfected in ESPN features.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Even if you're not a basketball fan, you've probably heard of LeBron James, who at age 18 was the number one draft pick in the 2003 NBA draft and went on to become one of the league's superstars. Besides his individual honors (Rookie of the Year in 2003-04, Most Valuable Player in 2008-09), in 2009 James led the previously woeful Cleveland Cavaliers to their first-ever league final.

But no one's born a superstar, and the story of LeBron before he became LeBron is the subject of More Than a Game, a sports documentary by Kristopher Belman. It focuses on James and four of his teammates who led their high school (the Fighting Irish of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron) to three state championships in four years, as well as the USA Today National Championship in 2003.

James was the obvious superstar on the team but the film focuses equally on other members of the so-called "Fab Five"—Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis, Sian Cotton and Willie McGee—who, except for Travis, had been playing together since grade school. Coach Dru Joyce II, a businessman who began coaching basketball after observing his son's passion for the game, is also a central figure in the film.

More Than a Game is uncanny in its adherence to the presentational style perfected in ESPN features. We progress through each season with carefully selected game footage edited for maximum emotional impact, intercut with beautifully-lit interviews with the players and their families giving their deep thoughts on basketball and life, supplemented with more in-depth sidebars on each player. If you're a fan of that type of film, you'll love this one for its skillful packaging of an uplifting story which leads to a happy ending after the principals overcome a few setbacks along the way.

But if you are hoping for something like Hoop Dreams, which uses the story of two young basketball players (also from impoverished inner-city backgrounds, also attending a largely white Catholic prep school) to look more closely at how our society functions, you will be disappointed. Belman is content to stick to the shiny surface of his subjects' success and the interviews are so polished (and their content so thuddingly conventional) that they might as well be scripted. Any conflict is quickly disposed of as a minor obstacle to this steamroller of a tale and he avoids the difficult questions which would have made this film of interest outside the circle of sports fans. And the other players on the team don't exist as far as this documentary is concerned, which is an odd stance for a film constantly preaching the importance of the team over the individual.

Despite opening with a statement that basketball should be a means to an end rather than an end in itself, the film itself is about 99.9% basketball. If these young men ever attended class during their high school careers, you'd never know it from watching More Than a Game. And apparently coaching the boy's basketball team at St. Vincent-St. Mary's is a full-time job, because no mention is made of Dru Joyce teaching or continuing to work at any other job (which would be difficult considering the team's strenuous travel schedule, which reportedly had them flying 15,000 miles in a single season).

There's a lot of money in boys' high school basketball, a subject which is evident but not explored in this film. For instance, where does a high school team get the travel budget to play games all over the country? The kerfluffle over LeBron's Hummer (bought with a loan granted to his mother, presumably against his future earnings) and his suspension after accepting two commemorative jerseys only highlights the hypocrisy of so-called amateur sports: It seems everyone gets to make money but the players. But I am curious as to how five inner-city kids came to attend a mostly white private school: Were they recruited and offered scholarships based on their basketball talents? If so, at least they were getting something in return for all the money they were generating for others.

The bottom line on More Than a Game is that it's a skillful documentary with clearly defined boundaries. Basketball fans will want to see it, as will devotees of inspirational sports movies, but those who dislike blatant emotional manipulation or who would like to see a documentary which asks hard questions and looks beyond the gym will come away disappointed. | Sarah Boslaugh

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