MoreThanaGameThere are times when documentaries can be the most mystifying types of films out there. In fact, compared to fictional movies, a lot of documentaries go about things backwards. In many cases, directors only have a vague idea of the story they want to tell, and even then they often find that the story they originally wanted to tell ends up taking a back seat to an even more compelling one.

Without knowing the back story of director Kris Belman, one could be forgiven in thinking that that’s exactly what happened to him with More Than a Game. The easy way to classify the film is as the story of now-NBA star LeBron James when he was in high school at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio. James is now a mega-celebrity, having earned the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards during his six years in the league and starring in multiple ads, and if he wasn’t in this film, it probably wouldn’t have been released (or maybe even made in the first place).

However, as he talks about in the interview below, Belman’s idea from the beginning was to focus on the team dynamic, specifically the relationship between four of the starters: James, Dru Joyce, Sian Cotton, and Willie McGee. Belman, who’s from Akron, had read that the teammates had had a tight bond since the fourth grade, and set out to chronicle their senior season for a 10-minute college film project. The team would be going for their third state championship in four years, and would also be vying for the “national” championship as one of the most highly touted teams in the nation.

The St. Vincent-St. Mary's team The St. Vincent-St. Mary’s team

That 10-minute film morphed into a feature-length film as Belman got closer and closer to the team and their coach, Dru Joyce, Sr. Joyce had been the group’s coach in one form or another since the beginning, and as such had a treasure trove of pictures, articles, and most importantly, video that Belman could utilize to tell their stories. That insight proved invaluable, as Belman is able to show exactly how each of them changed (or didn’t change) over the course of their nine years together.

While James’ presence looms over almost everything in the film, especially after he appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated in his junior year, Belman takes care to show just how important everybody around him was to him being successful. Joyce II goes from being a 4-foot-nothing to an integral part of the team with a killer three-point shot. Cotton struggles to find a balance between commitments to both basketball and football. McGee longs to live up to the ideal of his brother. Relative newcomer Romeo Travis struggles to be accepted as part of the group after joining the team in high school. And Coach Joyce oversees everything, from running the team to sweeping the practice floor to serving as a father figure to several players.

LeBron James gearing up for battle. LeBron James gearing up for battle.Belman does a great job of giving equal time to both the team’s triumphs (and failures) and their off-the-court relationships. He also makes normally-static moments like showing still photos and newspaper headlines come alive by employing a graphic artist to make a lot of them appear to be in 3D. And even though the results of the games are well-known to basketball fans, he still is able to find multiple smaller moments to make the bigger picture that much more compelling.

More Than a Game doesn’t quite reach the heights of Hoop Dreams, another stellar basketball documentary, but because of its focus on the team instead of its star, it’s a winner all the way.