For a cable channel, ESPN has had a rather perverse effect on how sports narratives are told. You can be sure that any 90-120 minute sports profile is going look clean, feature interviews that never go deeper than what happened on the field or the ten minutes before or after, and all poverty-related hardships that can be vanquished with hard work and sport.
More Than a Game, released on DVD this month with not much beyond the film itself, could be any number of other middling ESPN productions if it wasn’t for the rare access Kristopher Belman got to Lebron James and his “Fab Five” high school teammates in their senior year. That was the year when anyone with NBA League Pass went crazier than Charles Barkley over James, and we all acted like lionizing a high-schooler was wrong while we lionized a high-schooler. Belman’s access is a rare thing with ESPN-style documentaries, as he was able to capture James before he became “King James” during a year that included jetting around the country, becoming national champs and a Hummer-related scandal involving James’ mother.
More Than a Game’s individuality ends there, unfortunately, since Belman is hardly concerned with anything that didn’t happen on the hardwood. What kind of impact did the James celebrity show have on the childhoods and expectations of his teammates (all of whom aren’t as famous, or as well-paid, as James)? How could a school afford to send its players across the country to play teams, and how could that have possibly been good for the team’s education? Is it crazy to follow high school kids like they’re sports stars?
Belman doesn’t allow you to consider those things, since they’re never, ever addressed. Instead, we’re left wondering for 90 minutes if five friends will win the national championship they’ve been dreaming about for their whole basketball-playing lives. Since this happened in 2003 — and Google exists — you already know what happened.
Perhaps I was expecting More Than a Game to be an update of Hoop Dreams, by a wide margin the best sports documentary. Hoop Dreams is a success largely due to the failures of its protagonists and the questions it raises about race equality, predatory coaches, poverty, and whether basketball is providing kids with dreams or setting them up for failure, and the unblinking eye it turns on these issues. The ideal More Than a Game viewer is probably a LeBron James fan, excited to see the movie that Drake did a song on the soundtrack for (Drake’s “Forever”, which features Eminem, Lil Wayne and Kanye West, had a bigger profile than the film). That person would like a little archival footage, a few brief interviews about high school basketball games, and footage of LeBron dunking. A lot.
Boy, on that front, More Than a Game delivers in full; I’d venture to say 30 percent of James’ high school dunks are shown here.The footage of the team playing as middle schoolers is perhaps the most enlightening re: James future talent; it’s clear that he’s on a different level than the rest of his team, moving with the grace of someone not still in the throes of puberty, like the rest of his teammates (including the then four-foot and change Dru Joyce III). The film’s first triumph comes via Joyce, who gets put into a game as a high school freshman and is nearly laughed off court for being so short, before putting in a bunch of three-pointers and essentially winning the game for his team.
Belman’s pervasive shallow storytelling sinks that moment, however, when it ignores a variety of interesting side stories in favor of presenting a triumphant sports narrative. He allows Joyce III to talk about the team’s coach — his father Dru Joyce II — and how they always fought and had a bad relationship due to the dad living his dreams through the son, but it never gets deeper than just stating the obvious. How Joyce’s mother felt about her husband treating her son like just a kid he was coaching we’ll never know. In addition, the apparently tumultuous early lives of LeBron (who bounced around projects with his mother), Romeo Travis (ditto) and Willie McGee (who was bounced from his sister to his college-aged brother and his wife when he was in elementary school) are given similar treatment, even though McGee’s story would work just as well as a movie on its own.
Belman really tips his hand in terms of how he’s going to portray these players in the interview portions, because no one is pushed particularly hard. LeBron seems like he gets close to tears while discussing his relationship with his mother, but nothing comes of it. Same goes for the other four’s emotional moments. Whether that is because these five have had a considerable amount of media interaction and already know that not much is expected from them from journalists (all journalists are typically looking for is a, “We gave it one hundred percent out there today,” really), or whether Belman was too close to his subjects is the subject for another documentary, probably.
All of More Than a Game’s weaknesses are understandable, I suppose, since if it were different, the film would have gone off the rails and sprawled to something like four hours. Plus, the film is probably going to be ultimately successful; its running time allows it to be played perfectly in a two-hour block (with ads) on ESPN with no cuts. It’s just that it never takes the time to show more than the game.