Sunday, January 29, 2012

LeBron James, Movie Star

Find More Than a Game on Video

LeBron James, Movie Star

(from 9/29/09)

More Than a Game is more than a documentary about basketball and the emergence of LeBron James as a high school superstar when he made the cover of Sports Illustrated and led St. Vincent-St. Mary's of Akron, Ohio to a national championship. This exciting, uplifting, surprisingly tender documentary reveals that James and the other, equally interesting members of his posse, the "Fab Five"--Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee, and Romeo Travis--are the products of strong parent figures, true friends, and a caring coach--Dru Joyce II--who all provided comfort, confidence, direction, and love. Young athletes will learn the valuable lesson that these inner-city African-American kids did: when chasing one's dreams and achieving success, talent is less important than character, work ethic, and a commitment to the team. In anticipation of this Friday's New York opening, I was present at a lively press conference last week at which James, McGee, Coach Joyce, director-producer-writer Kristopher Belman (who filmed the acclaimed basketball team as a college project), and executive producer and score composer Harvey Mason, Jr. answered questions from adults and young reps from the Kidsday section of Newsday. I also briefly interviewed Bellman.
PRESS CONFERENCEQ: Coach Dru, what part did education have in the lives of the players on the team? I ask because we don't see a lot of that in the film.
Dru Joyce II: Education always came first. In the film you see that the team traveled all over the country to play games, but the kids never missed a day of school. All of them graduated from high school, and three of the five kids have college degrees.
LeBron James: I don't have mine.
DJ: You can buy a college.
LJ: But we were really educated, really. Willie is working on his Master's.
Kristopher Belman: Basketball was the vehicle that we used to show friendship, family, surrogate fathers, and all kinds of other things that are off the court. They decided to go to a private school together. It wasn't an easy decision going to an all-white school. They went to classes and didn't just play basketball But scenes in the classroom didn't serve the narrative, so I chose not to include that.
Q: LeBron and Willie, you didn't have a father to raise you, yet you excelled in your life. And the same with the Coach.
LJ: Speaking for both me and Willie, it just made us become young men, maybe faster than we wanted to but becoming the man in the house very fast helped us throughout our childhood and life. It made us who we are today; it definitely made me who I am today. Not having that in-house father made me grow up to protect my mother and protect everything that went on with my mother. I was blessed by that.
Willie McGee: I would definitely echo that. We didn't use that as an excuse at all. We still pushed through and did the best we could and prevailed. LeBron and I had a good foundation with my brother, Miss James, and Coach Dru. We had good people around us. They say it takes a village to raise a child. We had a great village.
DJ: We talked about my dream of being a high school coach. For me it was being a dad trying to stay involved with his son's life, when he was young and wanted to play basketball. One thing led to another. It wasn't planned that I'd become his coach, but that's how the events played out. I was a little different from most dads, I went at it a little tougher, but I enjoyed working with him and the other boys.
Q: What's your relationship with your son now?
DJ: Great. We definitely had to repair things. As I say in the movie, at one point I had sense enough to ask him if I was being too hard on him. He told me yes. This was four-five years in. I kind of backed off. In his college days, after games, he was the first person I called and I was the first person he called. We have a great relationship now.

Q: How does it feel to have been such an integral part of your son's life, and being a role model for these men who are now very successful?
DJ: Oh, it's great to have had that opportunity. The great thing about coaching is that you have the opportunity to pour your life into someone else's life. When I started with these boys they were ten and eleven years old so I knew they were impressionable and that I could use sports to make good things happen. I'm blessed to have been a part of it and to see them now and I'm even more excited about what they do around the road.
Q: LeBron, what was your impression of Kris when he first came to film the team? And what was your reaction when you saw him on your doorstep with the trailer?
LJ: At first, Coach Dru had to calm us down. He told us, "A kid from Akron is coming to one practice." "We don't know about this, Coach. You already closed practices to the media, but now you're letting someone from the media in? We don't care where he's from." Coach Dru said, "Just give the guy a shot, he's just doing a school project." Kris came to a practice and he wasn't intrusive. He stayed in the background and got what he had to get, and it was cool. Monday practice turned into a Tuesday practice and he was there again. "Coach, what's going on?" Then it was Wednesday practice and Thursday practice, and the next thing you know, he's there the whole season. He became really close to us and it was almost like he was part of the team. We wanted him to get the footage because we felt that season was going to be really special. He even let us carry the cameras sometimes and film each other. For sixteen and seventeen-year-old kids, that was cool. When he came with the trailerI still remember to this dayI had about ten people at my house, people sitting on the couch and on the floor and we watched the footage. It was like, Wow! And this was the early stages before I did my interviews. When I saw that I said, "I'm down, let's get it going."
KB: When I showed up at his doorstep it was five and a half years in. I think at the heart of the documentary is trust. When I met everyone, it was just me and the camera. You spend time with them. They realized I was never trying to exploit the LeBron fame aspect, but was interested in the story of friendship and family. I said that on Day One. Friendship and respect was earned over time. I became the member of the team who couldn't play basketball.
BoyfromKidsday: LeBron, did you like being in the movie?
LJ: Honestly, in high school we had no idea it was going to be a movie. It was a ten-minute documentary piece for Kris's school projectwhich he got a B on! I felt cheated, too, that we didn't help him get an A. We were always saying, "Kris, can we see some of the footage. We want to see why you got a B." We graduated in 2003, so it's now six years later. We never thought we'd be in movie theaters. Never.
Harvey Mason: I wouldn't change the grade or Kris wouldn't have found me to produce the film.
BoyfromKidsday: Do you know you were going to be in the NBA?
LJ: I always dreamed about playing in the NBA. It got to the point in my junior year where it started to become a reality and I thought, "Okay, I can really do this." I've only been in the NBA six years, though it seems like it's been ten to twelve years, and I've accomplished so much. I don't think I can say that I knew that all this would have happened by nowbut I knew I could be successful at the highest level of basketball.
GirlfromKidsday: What size shoe do you wear?
LJ: This is a little strange. I wear a 15 and a 16. When I walk around and relax I wear 15s but when I play I wear 16s because I need a little more room for the movements I do. You're awesome by the way. The rest of you can leave. We can just have an interview by ourselves.
Q: Coach, what was the hardest time for you and the most enjoyable?
DJ: The hardest was the loss in the title game in LeBron's junior year and my first season as a head coach. The newspapers weren't too kind to me. I was a first-year coach on a nationally-ranked team. The headline came out: "When the Team Needed Him Most, Coach Joyce Wasn't There." That hurt because I'd pretty much given my life to working with these guys. After a few days I moved on from that and realized that was just someone's opinion and I wasn't going to let it shake me. We just continued to work hard. The most enjoyable time was when we won the title. It was the culmination: we did it, we put it back together, we fixed what was broken, the dream was fulfilled.
Q: LeBron, talk about your friendship with the others in the Fab Five and what kids watching the film can learn from it.
LJ: Those four guys are more than just my friends. They are like my brothers. I felt I wouldn't have been where I was without those four. Kids can get a lot from the movie. Kids always have dreams. Sometimes they feel their dream is unreachable. As kids we had dreams and Coach Dru gave us a way to get past a lot of obstacles and make our dream a reality. I think it's important for kids to understand that.
WM: I agree. We can show inner-city kids that there's no need to make excuses, you can still prevail. As long as you do your best, that's all anyone can ask. Everybody's not going to be LeBron James in the NBA, but as long as you have a heart you can go a long way.
KB: I think at the heart of the film is dreams. Chasing your dreams is one of the hardest things you can do in life. These boys surrounded themselves with the right people to obtain theirs. They overcame so many adversities and so many situations at such a young age, and they did it because of each other. When you chase your dreams people will tell you that you're wasting your time, because they're too afraid to chase their own dreams. It was my dream to become a filmmaker and I had a lot of people tell me during the long process of making this film that I was wasting my time focusing on people other than LeBron. They didn't realize the inspiration Coach Dru gave people or that Willie's story--that he had an older brother as a surrogate father--could inspire people. I lost some good friends who thought I was wasting my time. I was fortunate to meet up with Harvey Mason, who understood the importance of dreams to this film. If you surround yourself with the right people and keep chasing your dreams, that's what it's about.
HM: I was attracted to that story. I felt it was a bigger story than just LeBron, as much as we all love him. It is about dreams and how these guys and a coach work for each other, not just for LeBron. Winning a championship was their dream and their goal and they accomplished it. The dream Kris and I had was to work together to make this film a reality. It has worked out for us so far.
Q: Coach, what part did faith play in your story with these young men?
DJ: My faith is in everything I do. I dont separate my faith or compartmentalize it. I'm a believer. When I started this journey I was a dad trying to help his son. As this thing grew, I realized that God had given me a special place to do a special work. That's how I approached it. I didnt beat them over the head with the Bible. We did have Bible studies, but I felt it was more important that I live the life. Then these observant, intelligent boys would glean from it what God wanted them to.
Q: And you LeBron?
LJ: Every day I thank the Man Above for giving me the ability that I have and that's not just on the court but in life, too. He gives everyone challenges and obstacles throughout life and He looks down to see how you're going to overcome them and how you're going to benefit from them. I've taken full advantage of my talent but at the same time I know these abilities that I have come from above, and that keeps me humble on and off the court--being the father that I am, the friend that I am, the teammate that I am, and me just being who I am as LeBron James the man. The Man Above put Coach Dru in my life and he was great.
WM: Coach Dru was a huge part of my life, too. I remember joining the AAU team as a youngster and going to church with Dru, and me joining the church they went to. It made a huge difference to me. One thing always stands out: Coach Dru always said, "You can never win the basketball game if you're not winning the game of life. Once the clock strikes double zero, you still have to live your life." I always remembered that. Coach Dru brought a lot of positives to all our lives, including with our studies. I remember when he was the JV coach and ran study halland he didn't let anybody out! When we lost our junior year we dedicated the next season to winning. We had a lot of sit downs. We had the team pastor come in and speak to us about the same things Coach Dru believed in. It was definitely a turning point in my life.
Q: Harvey, talk about the soundtrack.
HM: Having LeBron be a big part of the movie, we wanted to make sure that the music related to him. We communicated a great deal with him while putting together the soundtrack. We asked him if he liked songs and how they sounded.
Q: LeBron, does Obama have game? And are you going to play on the new basketball court at the White House?
LJ: I haven't actually seen him play live. I've seen a few clips of him on tv, but it's hard to tell how good anyone is on tv unless you see him play over and over and over. If I get an invite, I would fly myself down down to D.C. and play on that court, absolutely, and I'll be on his team so he wins.
LJ: Can we end with a final question from one of the kids?
BoyfromKidsday: Do you like playing in the NBA?
LJ: Yes, it's the best league this world has to offer. I'm a competitor and love to compete against the best and the NBA has the best athletes in the world. To be an inspiration to kids like yourself means more than anything. I want to inspire kids like yourself to want to be better or be the next LeBron, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul or---who's your favorite player?
BoyfromKidsday: You.
LJ: Good answer.
ONE-ON-ONE WITH KRISTOPHER BELMANDanny Peary: When Coach Dru says at the beginning to make sure basketball doesn't "use you," what does he mean?
Kristopher Belman: The film opens with Coach Dru saying that basketball is a vehicle to get you from point A to point B, but use it, don't let it use you. Whether it's basketball or another sport, or something in life--for me it's filmmaking--I think you can find ways to seek out your dreams and find the positive and improve yourself as a human being. Those boys happen to have used basketball as their vehicle to develop a talent. But they didn't want to get caught up in some of the perils that come with sports. There are negative aspects to sports these days. These boys focused on the positive. Coach Dru really pushed that on them.
DP: How would your film have been different if they didn't win the championship that senior year?
KB: That's a great question. I'm not sure how I would have ended the film. Obviously their chasing a dream, which is the "A" story of the film, would not have been accomplished.
DP: You didn't say, "Thank, God, they won!"?
KB: I'm not going to lie to you. I don't think anyone was as nervous at halftime as I was. Those guys were nervous being behind, but I was sweating bullets. I contemplated pushing Coach Dru aside and giving the speech myself. "Come on, guys, get some rebounds!" If they'd lost, it would have changed the film for sure, but as long as they learned what they needed to, which they did, they would still be triumphant on a personal level. They went on to do great things in life--some in school, some in basketball, LeBron doing his thing--and they all did it together, so there would be a "win" there. It wouldn't be as much of a Hollywood ending as winning the title but there is a personal victory for the individual characters. They had arcs to their stories and each would have been victorious in their own right. They really were winners even before that game started. That's what Coach Dru's halftime speech was about: "Look around the room, you guys have already done it on every other level possible--personal, family, all that. Let's just take care of the on-the-air story."
DP: I really like "Heart of the Game," the documentary about a girls team in a Seattle high school.
KB: Yeah, me, too, absolutely.
DP: Well, that became a film about a coach. I look at your poster and it says, "More Than a Team, More Than a Coach." All of a sudden it's not LeBron but the coach being promoted. Did you know Coach Dru would have that big a part in your film?
KB: Not when I started. I was definitely focusing on the friendship of the five guys. But I knew that inherently Coach Dru was going to be an important character because at that point he had the most life experiencehe was the authoritative voice in the film. I didn't know his story about not even chasing his dream until he was in his forties. And I didn't know he'd go back and reflect on his wins and losses as a person with the team. I didn't know those things would happen, but I started to uncover that as I was going through my journey making the film. I learned about him and his dreams.
DP: The kids grow as people. Did he grow as a person, too, in your opinion?
KB: Absolutely. That junior year for the five boys, he definitely got caught up in the winning and losing. He wasn't coaching for the right reasons all the time. The hype around LeBron and the team the pressure of being a first-year coach on that level got to him. I think that's why they crumbled in that big game. He takes a lot of the blame for that loss. But he grew as a person and in their senior year he really changed who he was and his philosophy and the guys fell in line and they did it together.
DP: I have a question about the editing. You have Coach Dru saying that he has learned that it's not about winning or losing, and about three minutes later, he makes Willie a bench player in his senior year. He did that because he wanted to win.
KB: I don't necessarily think it's contradictory. He's not just about winning and losing but they were playing high stakes basketball and certainly winning was still an objective. I dont think he would have made the decision if he thought Willie couldn't handle it as a person and the rest of the guys couldn't handle it. It ended up being a positive. Willie looking at that situation and accepting his role for the betterment of the team was the reason Romeo joined the four long-time friends as a friend too and they became the Fab Five. So if that decision wasn't made, they don't win as people. I think Coach Dru had the foresight, coming from such a grounded maturity, that he was able to make that decision for the right reasons and not just because he wanted to win.
DP: Was there a negativity or resentment at all in regard to LeBron James being so much better than everyone else and having a future in the NBA that the others wouldn't have?
KB: A lot of people ask that. It's interesting but those guys weren't about that. He was never anything to the other four boys than LeBron, the same LeBron they knew when they were in the fifth grade. There was never any jealousy. They were all good players. Junior year success went to all their heads and that's why they lost.
DP: Could you see that?
KB: I saw glimpses. I saw little bits of cockiness here and there and then you see it affecting them and the coaches warning them about it. They don't necessarily heed the warning and it ends up being the reason for their downfall. As a filmmaker you walk a fine line and you care for these guys because you have to so you can take them places they wouldn't go normally. But at the same time, if something bad happens you have to stay true to the film. You have to be objective and report those things and make it work for the narrative. So I walked a fine line of being their friend and on their side and being objective, and was so fortunate to be part of an amazing journey.

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