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Interview with More Than a Game director Kristopher Belman

October 21, 2009 - 9:59 am

Back in 2002, Kristopher Belman started shooting what was supposed to be a 10-minute film project for a class he was taking at Loyola Marymount. He got permission to film a high school basketball team from Akron, Ohio, which was nationally ranked and had a shot at the national title. As he kept shooting footage, he realized that he had stumbled upon more than just a teen hoops squad. What he’d found were five best friends, four of whom had grown up together, who were each other’s cheerleaders and support group, kids who had stood next to each other year after year, trying to fulfill the same dream. His documentary, More Than a Game, which opened here in San Diego last Friday, is about more than just basketball or hoop dreams, it’s about kids from challenging circumstances who lean on one another to succeed. It’s pretty intense stuff, but you’re never in doubt whether or not they’re going to be successful. Why? Oh, did I neglect to mention that one of these young men turned out to be LeBron James?
Now, it’s tough to imagine that More Than a Game would have ever gotten a theatrical release if LeBron hadn’t turned into, well, LeBron, the NBA superstar who led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the best regular-season record last year. But he did, and in terms of the film, the rest is history. But Belman doesn’t focus exclusively on King James, at all. In fact, in many ways the focus is on the other players around him. Some of that, he says, was that by the time James was a senior in high school, the buzz around him was already intense.
“He was the hardest to break down and get to trust me,” Belman tells CityBeat. “I don’t blame him, by any means. He put up those walls pretty early, and they’re getting thicker every year.”
That said, James did open up to Belman, both when he was still a high-schooler, and again in 2007, when the filmmaker conducted interviews with all five players and their coach, including a six-hour session with King James, in the apartment the King grew up in.
“It definitely meant a lot to me and the film that he was able to put down those walls for six hours,” he says. “That’s a long interview. He’s not in this project for anybody. He cares about the story and he cares about those friendships. This is his chance to give something back”
Also focused on in the film are Sian Cotton, Willie McGee, Romeo Travis, Dru Joyce III, and the team’s coach, Dru Joyce II, all of whom give very telling, personal interviews about their time in high school. Even though some of the early footage of James is fascinating—he was so obviously a man amongst boys at such an early age—what’s interesting is that to all of them, he’s just ‘Bron, one of the guys, on equal footing with everyone else.
“I love telling people this is not a LeBron James film,” says Belman. I know people know a ton about LeBron, but they’re gonna know more after they see this film, by learning about Willie, Dru, and these guys, and how they’re foundations for him. Those guys, they are so proud because the way they see LeBron today, they don’t see him as LeBron, [the icon]. And they’re closer than they ever were.
That said, LeBron James certainly figures prominently in the film, along with Coach Dru Joyce, whose part didn’t become clear until the interviews Belman conducted in 2007. “Coach Dru was never a character I imagined,” he says. But it’s those interviews that give context to the high-school footage, and tie the film together. Even so, that means that the entire process took seven years to complete. “For right or wrong reasons, getting back to LeBron took several years,” says Belman.” But raising the money to finish the film took a while as well. It was a challenge. It’s interesting because throughout that whole time you’re wondering if this is ever going to get done. But looking back, seven years isn’t that long. It couldn’t have been done in any shorter amount of time. The amount of trust that they gave me—every year that went by—grew. And I was always trying to tell the same story I first told them. It wasn’t just about LeBron. It was about these five boys.”
And if anything, watching the bond between these young taught Belman a thing or two.” I certainly value friendships more than ever after making the film,” he says. “After graduating, I couldn’t get in front of LeBron for two years. I had the hardest time raising money [to finish the film]. And I was being offered a lot of money to sell the footage. I had to cut loose a lot of friends who told me I was wasting my time. That’s unfortunate, but that that made me realize the guys who stuck with me, the guys who let me crash on their couch, how much I value them.”

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