Before Being An NBA Superstar, LeBron Was Just 'Bron'

Basketball superstar LeBron James is an international celebrity. James is an Olympic champion, as well as the reigning Most Valuable Player of the NBA. And now, he can add movie star to his list of accomplishments. James is the subject of a new documentary film "More Than A Game," which was shot while he was a student at St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School in Akron, Ohio. In the first of a three part conversation on the film, host Michel Martin talks with the project's director Kristopher Belman.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, legendary blues harmonica player Phil Wiggins tells us what's playing in his ear, but first LeBron James.

No one can deny LeBron James is a rare talent. At 6'8", 250 pounds with a chess player's cold logic on the court, he has the rare combination of size, speed, skill and focus that make him one of the greatest basketball players alive today.

But skills are not all you need to get to the top and stay there. So often, the sports pages are filled with stories not just of great exploits on the playing field but dumb decisions off it, decisions that are often aided and abetted by a star player's coterie of low-life friends and associates.

But does it have to be that way? A new documentary, "More Than A Game," tracks the remarkable relationship between the superstar LeBron James and the band of brothers that came together on their high school basketball team.

Tomorrow, we'll bring you our conversation with LeBron James, three of his closest friends former teammates and his high school coach, Dru Joyce. But today the director of the film, Kristopher Belman. A native of Akron, Ohio, Kris was studying film in Los Angeles when he returned home to shoot a 10-minute short as a school assignment. I started by asking what gave him the idea to make this film about one of his hometown high school basketball teams.

Mr. KRISTOPHER BELMAN (Director, More Than A Game"): We have - like you said, I was in Los Angeles at the time, at Loyola Marymount University, and I was originally from Akron. So I had only been in L.A. a couple months at this point. I transferred out, and so I was a junior in college, and honestly, a lot of my classmates and my new friends in L.A. really gave me a hard time from being from Ohio and being from the Midwest.

So they all assumed I was an expert at milking cows. You know, they thought I lived in an Amish community, and they thought…

MARTIN: Stop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BELMAN: No, serious. Like, they asked me what it was like living in the movie, "Witness," you know what I mean? They compared me to the movie "Witness."

So it was all good-natured, of course, but I felt semi-compelled to show them a little bit of where I was from. And so I had also simultaneously signed up for this class, introduction to documentary production, and I decided to kind of kill two birds with one stone. I was kind of resolved to go back to my hometown and tell a story from my hometown. So really that was a driving force. It was kind of, I guess, being mocked by some of my friends was the initial driving force, and a lot of that ties into the film, the pride of being from where I come.

I think - I feel like I've recently come to grips with this. When you move away from where you grew up, I think you tend to have even more pride of where you came from.

MARTIN: But why did you pick this team?

Mr. BELMAN: Honestly, I had read an article that four of these boys had played together before entering St. Vincent-St. Mary, and to me that was really interesting. To me, the fact that these boys didn't choose an obvious school - St. Vincent-St. Mary was a primarily white school. It was a Catholic school, and you know, the background some of these boys came from, I just figured that was an interesting decision. They were having some success in high school. This LeBron guy is definitely having huge success, but I was interested in the idea of these guys going to school together.

MARTIN: Just to bring people up to date on this who haven't yet seen the film, it's that they were playing in kind of a community league, right?

Mr. BELMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: And they - at that point, they were the Fabulous Four, and they had been friends for years, very, very tight, and they decided they wanted to go to school as a package, and they were under some pressure.

They're African-American kids. Do they stay in the community and go to the powerhouse, kind of the black school, so to speak, or do they go to St. Vincent-St. Mary, and that was not an easy decision.

Mr. BELMAN: There was a lot and lot of pressure. It's one of those situations as a filmmaker, you wish you were Coach Dru when he was getting some of that flack from the community, and obviously, you know, I didn't know them when they were in eighth grade, so I wasn't around them at that point, in talking to them, yeah, they had a lot of scrutiny. They were going to go to Akron Buchtel, which was a predominately black powerhouse basketball team. It was the obvious decision.

It was pretty much where they were going, and Dru, the coach's son, who at that time was only about 4'10", as LeBron says, on a good day, it became obvious that the coaches weren't going to give him a fair shot, and the boys had a pact at that point. They were best friends for life. They were going to high school together. So as soon as Little Dru said I'm not going there, all the guys said all right, well, we're following you where you're going, and he chose St. Vincent-St. Mary because the coach there he had developed a relationship with, he knew would give him a shot despite the fact that he was pretty short for his age.

MARTIN: He was short for his age.

Mr. BELMAN: He was, yeah. He's all grown up now, but he was definitely short back then.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. BELMAN: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: We'll have a picture on our Web site so you can see that he's definitely grown up, but he was short. So what made you stick with the project, even after you did your 10-minute short. Did you have a sense that this story was going to have legs or that LeBron James was going to become this phenomena? Or did you just like the kids?

Mr. BELMAN: It was kind of a combination, I guess. Not so much the LeBron factor. He was growing and growing and becoming so powerful. But to me, what those boys were doing was just so unique to me. One, they were dominating on the basketball court, you know, and the fact that they were doing it together and they were staying friends and there were no egos and jealousies getting in the way, to me that was special.

I was also really drawn to the friendship, and I thought that what they were doing broke a lot of stereotypes, these males, 16 years old who aren't afraid to tell each other their feelings or show their emotion for one another. I think males in general stereotypically don't express that kind of emotion. And Willie, one of the characters, Willie's sister told me once. She said males in general don't do this. You know, and African-American males specifically are probably even worse about this kind of thing, you know, showing emotion to one another. So these boys are very special.

They're a lot of people latching on the LeBron angle, but no one else is going to tell the story of these boys and this coach, and to me it had to be told. It was the most fascinating thing to me.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that. Is the story you set out to tell the story you actually wound up telling?

Mr. BELMAN: Yeah. I don't know. I mean, I feel the most proud of that because I was given this unbelievable opportunity when a lot of people were trying to get into the high school and kind of surround themselves with LeBron and they were kind of rejected, I was given this opportunity because I sat down and I said this is the story I want to tell. And eight years later, through a whirlwind of a journey and all these things, and after a while financiers come in and, you know, it becomes a legitimate production, all those things, this story still ended up exactly how I set out to do it, you know. And it was never really an idea to do anything other than that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with filmmaker Kristopher Belman. He made the new documentary "More Than A Game." It's about a powerhouse high school basketball team from Akron, Ohio. LeBron James was in it too.

Mr. BELMAN: Nice little add-in.

MARTIN: You know, this film touches on a number of things that are really big issues in sports today. One is, we think of kids sports now as being so crazy. I mean there are people scouting 11 and 12-year-olds. But your film makes the point that there are actually two sorts of sports worlds. There's the haves and the have-nots.

And you also make the point, when these kids started out, they were still doing carwashes to raise money to travel. And I'm just wondering, what do you think about that? Is that part of the story too, that it's almost like this world that's in hyper-speed and everybody else is still on horse and buggies, or I don't know. I'm not sure what conclusion to draw from that, but...

Mr. BELMAN: You know, I think it's important for the audience to see it and kind of raise questions in their own head. You know, to me there was a certain charm from this group of boys that were from this small town that went out and did the carwashes, like you said. They went door-to-door and sold duct tape, as coach says in the film, which is - it always - it makes me chuckle.

But you know, there's these boys and they were in it for the period. They were doing it for the love of the game. They wanted to go out and make a trip down to Florida, which they didn't have the money to do. So they go out and they, you know, it's a complete grass roots campaign to get them where they want to go.

And so to me, yeah, there's absolutely a charm to that. And the flip side to that is all of a sudden they're juniors in high school and they're being flown places and they're, you know, being put up in hotels and you kind of see the opposite spectrum of that, and as the film shows, that kind of catches up to them and they have to go back to their roots their final year together.

So you know, I think it's important for people to see someone like LeBron James, who right is in a basketball world that, you know, he'll freely admit is a business. He still loves the game, but the NBA is a business and, you know, there's still elements of that that he can draw to and go back to and reflect on that are the reasons he's where he's at today.

MARTIN: It's a fun movie and I think people are going to draw different things from it depending on, you know, who they are. But one of the things that the film shows is on the one hand, you know, the tremendous pressure we're putting on these young kids, the tremendous scrutiny to these student athletes, I mean, who really are kids. On the other hand, tremendous opportunity.

I mean, I'm not sure a lot of people remember that LeBron had a tough go early on. He was moved from pillar to post. He actually lived with Coach Dru's family for a time. He lived with another coach earlier. Sports really has been his way out. And so I wanted to ask if this film changed the way you think about sports.

Mr. BELMAN: You know, it absolutely has, and I think - I'm hoping it changed the way a lot of people view sports because these days you see there's just so much negative media surrounding professional athletes or sports in general, whether it's kids that are pressured too much or professional athletes making mistakes that influence their family and things like that. But what this film really kind of showed, and Coach Dru says it from the beginning, the first line of the film, you know, he says that basketball's a vehicle. You know, use it to get things that you might not get in other ways in life.

And for some of those guys, it was to get a college education. Some of those guys, they're the first in their families to go to college and, you know, they understand the importance of that, education first, but they use basketball to get there. LeBron is in the NBA now. Of course, he's a professional and he's doing his thing. But you know, I think there absolutely are so many lessons that can be learned from sports and so many different positive things that don't necessarily get the spotlight and the attention and that's what this film was trying to show.

MARTIN: On the other hand though, there are a lot of people who think that we are just way too invested in sports, particularly among - let's just say it -among African-Americans, and increasingly among Latinos who are looking for a way out because of the number of Latinos who are dominating baseball...

Mr. BELMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...for example, and a lot of people worry about that. They say, you know - and I wonder if you think about that, whether this is yet another sort of, because most kids are not going to make it. Most people are not going to be LeBron James.

Mr. BELMAN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Even, you know, the four original Fab Four are playing professionally overseas.

Mr. BELMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: But I don't know what your thoughts are about that.

Mr. BELMAN: Well, you know, it's interesting because it's definitely something you think about. Do people see this and think, well, jeez, you know, all these kids want to go to the NBA, or you know, basketball is the dream, that's what they want to do. And I think early on that is the case for a lot of kids and probably a lot African-American athletes, you know, professional being the highest level. As kids mature and if they have the right guidance, they're surrounded by the right people, in this film, in this instance, Coach Dru was that mentor.

Coach Dru use to tell them all the time, only one of you is probably going to end up getting paid to do this. The rest of you need to figure out how to use this to get to college so that you can coach, so that you can help others, so that you can do these things. So you know, that's definitely something that happens in a lot of people's minds, I think. But as they getting older and mature, if they're surrounded by the right people, then you know, they can kind of transition that into other successful avenues in life.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, what's this phrase? It's kind of a - it's kind of a male weepy in a sense. Because it's like the idea of - you know, you're on the verge of the big game and are you going to make it? You're not going to make it. There's some drama in this film, and I have to ask you, did you feel bad when things didn't go their way or did part of you go, you know, this is really great for my film?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BELMAN: You know, this is where you feel so - where I felt so conflicted as a person, because absolutely, there are moments - LeBron James is suspended. And at this point I've spent a lot of time with the guy. The personal side of me does feel bad because I've earned his trust, there's a mutual respect, and you know, and then the flip side of me is making the film - you have to walk that line - and right away I'm thinking, oh my gosh, this is awesome for the movie. You know what I mean? So you definitely...

MARTIN: But you felt bad about it.

Mr. BELMAN: I definitely felt bad about it. But you have to, you know, you have to put it in the film and a lot of those downs, they ended up turning into ups and it just made for a better film. Absolutely.

MARTIN: You know, in a way, you grew up with those guys too. I mean, you were, you know, in college when he started there in high school, so you're older, but in a way you grew up in your profession in the same way that they were growing up...

Mr. BELMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...in theirs, in what has become theirs.

Mr. BELMAN: There's, you know, there's a large parallel, I think, between kind of my personal story and what those boys went through, and it speaks to the greater theme of the film. The greater theme of the film being, you know, never be afraid to chase your dream at any age. Those boys had a dream from the time they were in fourth grade and accomplished it their last game together as seniors in high school.

Coach Dru had a dream that he didn't even start chasing until later in his life. You know, he was in his 40s starts chasing his dream. That's an amazing message. For me personally, this film was me chasing my dream and, you know, I stayed with it for eight years and a couple of those years were really bad because, you know, I didn't really know how to get things going. I didn't know how to get the financing.

There's some really down moments and someone like Coach Dru was actually a pretty big mentor to me. He'd say, Kris, you know, just stay the course. You've been doing it right so far, keep at it, you know, eventually it's going to happen the way it needs to happen. And those kind of things meant the world to me. And I, you know, and my dreams kind of came true along with theirs, which is, you know, I guess it's just part of the story.

MARTIN: And also part of the story now is that LeBron is actually - LeBron James is actually putting a lot of effort into promoting this film. And I'm just wondering why - not that he shouldn't - but I'm just wondering why. It's a documentary. It's not like it's...

Mr. BELMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: It's not a sneaker.

Mr. BELMAN: You know, honestly, to him it's those four guys that are in the film with him. To this day, they're still best friends. I'm not just saying that, but they are. You know, I go home in Akron, I go by one of their houses to say hello and all of them are there. You know, they're playing cards, they're - videogames - they're making fun of each other. It's like nothing's changed.

And we premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September and like a couple of days later me and a couple of other people got an email from LeBron and he just said I need every kid in the country to see this movie. I believe in the message. I feel like kids need to see this and be inspired and if we have to take it city to city, that's what we're going to do.

And we're like, okay, I wonder if he means it. And the next thing you know, we're starting to get a list of cities that we're coming to. I mean, it's incredible. He really believes in the message. And the second part of that is I think he loves traveling with those guys. He does so much press on a daily basis, it's his life. It's, you know, it's probably become a job to him. But when he's doing it with those guys, it's not a job anymore. I think he likes seeing them go through what he goes through on a daily basis and it just makes it so fun for him.

MARTIN: What's next for you?

Mr. BELMAN: You know what? I'm reading a lot of scripts right now. I definitely do want to do another documentary at some point. I fell in love with the genre and have such a respect for it. But I kind of want to try something completely different, so I'm looking at narrative options. And I don't anticipate my next film will take that long, but I want to be on something that if it does take that long, I'm all for it, you know. Because I would've been on this one for 15 if that's what it took. I just I loved being a part of that journey. So, you know, we'll see. A couple of months maybe I'll pick something, but you know, it'll definitely be in the near future.

MARTIN: Kristopher Belman, his new film is called "More Than a Game." It's a documentary that tells a year and the life of the Fabulous Five at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School basketball team in Akron, Ohio.

Mr. BELMAN: That's right.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BELMAN: Thanks for having me. It was wonderful.

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