A Hollywood ending: How LeBron James helped Kris Belman survive film school
"More Than a Game" is a soul-stirring documentary about a close-knit group of Akron, Ohio, grade school kids who grow up to be the greatest high school basketball team of their generation. It doesn't hurt that one of the kids is LeBron James, who was such a prodigy that he went straight from high school to NBA stardom. The movie depicts James, who even in fifth grade looked like a man among boys, in all his youthful glory. But its best moments capture the close relationship that James and his teammates have with their coach, Dru Joyce, who emerges not only as an inspirational role model for the boys but a role model for sports dads everywhere.
As it turns out, "More Than a Game," which opens in New York and Los Angeles this week, is also an inspirational model for filmmakers. It was directed by Kristopher Belman, who when he first met LeBron and Co. was just another struggling 21-year-old film student at Loyola Marymount University. It took Belman more than seven years to finish the film, having to overcome obstacles nearly every step of the way. In fact, his success is almost as unlikely as the story of the film's own schoolboy heroes.
Having grown up in Akron just a few years ahead of the LeBron and his buddies, Belman had been hearing stories for years about their mythic exploits on the basketball court. So when he was searching for a school project that could generate a 10-minute film short, Belman thought it would be intriguing to get inside the world of these high-school basketball stars. He learned a virtue that nearly all filmmakers develop sooner or later: persistence.
"At first, when I started calling people at the school, I couldn't get anyone to even call me back," he told me the other day. Even though LeBron and his teammates were still only in their junior year of high school, they were already amid a media frenzy, especially after Sports Illustrated put James on its cover, touting him as the next great hoops star. The school had already been forced to hire a publicist, who told Belman that they'd already turned down appearances on "60 Minutes" and "Late Night with David Letterman."
Although the boy's coach, Dru Joyce, was trying to keep distractions to a minimum, he seemed to sense that Belman was interested in more than just another "Is LeBron James the Next Hoops God?" story. "I pitched him on the idea that this wasn't just a LeBron thing," Belman recalls. "For me, the film was always about these four guys and their special kind of friendship. I guess Dru took pity on me, being this kid so desperate just to get a good grade on his film project, so he finally said, 'OK, you can come film one practice.' "
Belman could tell the team was a little skeptical and stand-offish. But no one kicked him out. And when he heard that the next day's practice was at 7 A.M., he came back again. "No one ever said, 'You can keep coming,' " he recalls. "But no one ever said, 'You have to leave,' either. So I kept coming back all year long. For a long time, I don't think anyone even knew my name. All the guys just called me 'Cameraman.' "
So what did LeBron James think of this strange guy, hanging around practice, filming him all the time? Keep reading:
"We noticed Kris right away the first day because Coach Dru had cut off practices to everyone, so any unfamiliar face really stood out," LeBron told me Friday when he was in town, doing a host of media appearances in support of the film and "Shooting Stars," an accompanying book that James did with noted sports author Buzz Bissinger. "Coach asked us what we thought of having this filmmaker start to tell our story. And when we found out that the kid was from Akron, that he was a hometown boy, we figured he was genuine. So we all said, 'Sure, let him in.' "
Today, having already spent six seasons in the NBA spotlight, James is an incredibly media-savvy athlete-entertainer. In the past few days, he's been on every TV forum known to man, from "David Letterman" to "Jimmy Kimmel" to "Charlie Rose" to Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show." When I sat down with him, he'd just been up on the roof of the L.A. Film School, where he shot a remote appearance for "The Jay Leno Show." He's only 24, but in terms of media years, he's a grizzled veteran, handling his image with grace, care and good humor. It's hardly a surprise that when I ask LeBron who he sees as his career model, he immediately names Will Smith.
As "More Than a Game" illustrates, James learned early on that the media was as fickle as it was insatiable. It could be your unquestioning advocate one day, your bitter adversary the next. At first the high-school hoopsters were treated as basketball gods who could do no wrong. But when that story got old, the sports press found a new angle, picking the team apart, focusing on the inevitable flaws and dissension, blowing up the rare losses into either huge catastrophes or examples of the team's indifference and overconfidence.
"We went through the whole media cycle," says James, kicking off his shoes and devouring a turkey sandwich as he lounged around with a posse of pals between TV appearances. "First we were great and a breath of fresh air. Then we were part of this huge hype. Finally they were saying that the guys and I were too young to be getting all this attention. Ever since the SI cover, everything was magnified and blown up way out of control, because the media is always looking for that young athlete they can label the next big thing."
I asked LeBron what advice he would give to an NBA rookie about handling the media onslaught. "The first thing is that you have to be yourself," he says. "When you're not honest, the media finds out. I've been scrutinized a lot, and I'm going to make mistakes, but I've always learned something valuable from making the mistake, and hopefully people are willing to accept that."
To hear Belman tell it, by the time LeBron and his teammates were in their senior high of high school, they were already feeling the glare from the spotlight. "There were more people showing up to get LeBron's autograph than there were to see the game," says Belman. "Grown men were bringing their Sports Illustrated covers to be signed. Coach Dru ended up having to hire bodyguards just to prevent things from getting out of hand and give some semblance of normality to the kids' lives. It was weird, because they'd stop everyone else from getting into the locker room and then I'd show up and they'd let me in."
Belman has just the right cinematic reference for the experience. "I felt like [the Cameron Crowe character] in 'Almost Famous,' except I was traveling with a high school basketball team instead of Stillwater. It was exactly like a rock 'n' roll tour, with bodyguards clearing the way for the team to get in and out of the building. I wasn't around for the Beatles, but it sure looked a lot like the footage of the girls screaming and chasing after the Beatles wherever they went, except that with us, it was all about a 17-year-old high school basketball player."
Although Belman shot tons of footage that year, he realized he didn't have an ending for the film, much less the financing to complete it. For several years, he shopped it around, but the only offers were from people interested in cashing in on the "LeBron: The Early Years" angle. When Belman decided to shoot footage of the teammates looking back at their schoolboy exploits, he knew he had to reconnect with LeBron, who was by now something of an unapproachable star.
"I finally said to the other guys, 'If you want this story to be told the way it oughta be, you have to get me in front of LeBron,'" he explains. "Finally, Romeo [one of LeBron's old teammates] called me at 11 p.m. and said, 'Cameraman, meet me at the gas station on Route 18.' I brought along a DVD with 12 minutes of edited footage of all the guys. When I got in the car, I said, 'Where are we going?' And he said, 'We're going to LeBron's house.' So I said, 'Does he know we're coming?' And Romeo says, 'Nope.' "
But once they got to LeBron's, everything fell into place. "When I saw that footage, I just went, 'Wow,' " James recalls. "I was really blown away with how Kris had captured what had happened and put it in a chronicle form. I told him, 'Whatever needs to be done, I'm on board.' "
Belman remembers James watching the footage about a dozen times in a row. "Whenever someone would show up at the house, he'd play it again."
Even now, James seems to take more pleasure in recounting the story of his schoolboy years than any of his more recent accomplishments. "Those were the best times of our lives," he says with a broad smile. "No responsibility, no family -- just a bunch of us guys, old friends, living life to the fullest. It was a dream, and we got to enjoy every minute of it."
Now it's Belman's turn to enjoy acclaim for a movie that's been earning rave reviews wherever it has played. He sheepishly admits that he got only a B grade for the short version of the film he turned in for his school project, perhaps because he missed so much class time while he was off filming. But I'm betting that after people see "More Than A Game," Belman won't have to wait another seven years to finish his next film.
Photo of LeBron James in "More Than a Game" from Lionsgate.