- More Than a Game (2009)
Kristopher Belman’s More Than a Game chronicles LeBron James’s career as a high school basketball prodigy in Akron, Ohio. It focuses in particular on James’s close-knit relationship with four of his teammates at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. The Akron Fab Five—which included James, Sian Cotton, Dru Joyce III, Willie McGee, and Romeo Travis—composed the nucleus of what was arguably the best team in American high school basketball history. The teammates—whom Travis joined after their freshman season— won three Ohio state championships (2000, 2001, and 2003) and one national championship (2003). While at times formulaic, Belman’s documentary offers a fascinating portrait of high profile amateur athletics in America and chronicles the early history of one of the world’s biggest sport stars.
The film opens to a black screen paired with the familiar gymnasium sounds of basketballs bouncing and sneakers squeaking. The voice of Dru Joyce II—Dru Joyce III’s father, who coached the boys’ AAU teams prior to high school and took over as St. Vincent-St. Mary’s head coach following their sophomore season—emerges to assert that “basketball is a vehicle to get from point A to point B. “Use basketball,” he sternly advises. “Don’t let it use you.” Joyce’s opening statement—a terse but forceful declaration that is emphasized by its lack of visual accompaniment—implies that More Than a Game will offer a critical examination of high school athletics. Instead, the documentary provides an entertaining but predictable celebration of the Fab Five’s dominance while at St. Vincent-St. Mary—a tenure wherein the team lost only one game in four years.
After Joyce’s brief preface, the film transitions to the 2003 Ohio State Championship game—the Fab Five’s final game together and a contest that secured St. Vincent-St. Mary the national title. It then uses a combination of archived footage and interviews with players, coaches, parents, and journalists to reflect on the trials and tribulations the team faced en route to the championship and the friendships that helped the Fab Five persevere despite those obstacles. The techniques Belman employs to create this drama, however, are often forced and ineffective. For instance, the film notes that when Romeo Travis initially joined the team he was an outcast who clashed with his peers. Belman emphasizes Travis’ surly demeanor by using dark lighting for the interviews with him. Despite the threat Travis initially posed to the team’s chemistry, he is later represented as an essential, loved, and caring member of the group. The documentary fails to explain his seemingly dramatic transformation from ill tempered to gregarious. Its treatment of Travis’ initial rebellion and eventual recuperation thus comes off as a gimmick used to emphasize the team’s ability to overcome adversity. A similarly contrived moment occurs when Belman [End Page 144] explores James’s suspension during his senior season for accepting several gifts—an incident that the Ohio High School Athletic Association ruled forfeited his amateur status. Undefeated and ranked first in the nation, St. Vincent-St. Mary was forced to play without its star. The team won the game, James was reinstated shortly thereafter, and St. Vincent-St. Mary proceeded to win the national title as if nothing had happened. While these issues likely did present significant obstacles to the team, Belman’s depiction of them fails to convey this adversity in a moving or convincing manner.
Despite the film’s many formal missteps, it touches on several issues relevant to those interested in the cultural politics and increasingly big business of U.S. high school sport. Most poignantly, it investigates the immense pressure and scrutiny that James and the rest of the team endured as a consequence of his celebrity. During his junior year, James was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and touted as “the chosen one”—an unprecedented distinction for a high school basketball player. Seeking to capitalize on this young star, Adidas sponsored St. Vincent-St. Mary’s team and...