Lebron James: 'More Than A Game' - Part II LeBron James is a household name and an international sports icon. But before that he was just a kid with humble beginnings growing up in Akron, Ohio. Some of LeBron's humble beginnings were chronicled in the documentary "More Than A Game." It stars LeBron and his teammates from St Vincent - St Mary's High School and was shot back in 2003. Host Michel Martin talks with Romeo Travis, Dru Joyce, III, and Willie McGee about what it was like being the focus of a documentary and how their friendships have remained intact. Martin later talks with NBA superstar LeBron James, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and his former high school basketball coach Dru Joyce, II.

Lebron James: 'More Than A Game' - Part II

Lebron James: 'More Than A Game' - Part II

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LeBron James is a household name and an international sports icon. But before that he was just a kid with humble beginnings growing up in Akron, Ohio. Some of LeBron's humble beginnings were chronicled in the documentary "More Than A Game." It stars LeBron and his teammates from St Vincent - St Mary's High School and was shot back in 2003. Host Michel Martin talks with Romeo Travis, Dru Joyce, III, and Willie McGee about what it was like being the focus of a documentary and how their friendships have remained intact. Martin later talks with NBA superstar LeBron James, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and his former high school basketball coach Dru Joyce, II.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

When is a game more than a game? So often, we pay lip service to the uplifting power of sports, the teamwork, the camaraderie, the lessons in taming one's own ego for the sake of the group. But you have to wonder, how often is that still really true?

These days, it seems the sports pages are filled with as many stories about court appearances off the field as they are about brilliant moves on it -tawdry tales that often feature a star athlete brought down by lowlife friends and associates, but does it have to be that way?

In a few minutes, we will hear from one superstar athlete, Cleveland Cavaliers megastar LeBron James, about how he was lifted up from a very tough childhood by a very special band of brothers, the teammates he played with from the time he was a small boy, and their coach.

Their story is told in a new documentary, "More Than A Game." Yesterday, we heard from the film's director, Kristopher Belman, who started the film as a college student because he was so inspired by a group of young black men who supported and inspired each other.

Mr. KRISTOPHER BELMAN (Director, "More Than A Game"): One, they were dominating on the basketball court. And you know, 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. There were a lot of people latching on to LeBron, but no one else was going to tell the story of these boys and this coach, and to me, it had to be told.

In a few minutes, we'll hear from the man himself, LeBron James, but first, we meet three of his friends and former teammates. We met them at a hotel here in Washington. Back in 2003, they were all teammates at St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School in Akron, Ohio: Romeo Travis, Dru Joyce III, and Willie McGee. I asked how they all first met, and Dru says he first met Romeo as an opponent on the basketball court.

Mr. DRU JOYCE III: Me and Romeo - our encounter was a little bit different. It was met over a hard foul.

Mr. ROMEO TRAVIS: You raked my eye, man. He raked my eye hard.

Mr. JOYCE III: Basketball foul.

MARTIN: Is that correct, Dru, did you, in fact, rake his eyes out on a real hard foul? Do you recall it that way?

Mr. JOYCE III: It was nothing - there was no intent behind the foul. You know, I was going for the ball, and I got him in the eye. I apologized. If I haven't apologized to you, I apologize. We can drop the ball on that.

MARTIN: That's very manly of you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TRAVIS: It's too late for that.

MARTIN: Here's what I'm curious about. The experiences that are documented in this film really talk about a lot of the issues that people are talking about now, particularly with young people in sports. First of all, the level of attention that you got as student athletes at such a young age, you know, how do you feel about that? I mean, obviously there was fun - Romeo.

Mr. TRAVIS: (Unintelligible) getting younger and younger every day, and they're taking it even younger, I believe. What is it, fifth grade?

MARTIN: There are blogs that are judging fifth-grade athletes.

Mr. TRAVIS: Fifth-graders, you know, those kids, like the college coaches say, when you used to go to recruit kids, you used to go meet their parents. Now you're meeting their handlers. And I think that people need to get away from the kids and let the kids be a kid and play the game. You know, it's still a game. It's supposed to be a fun, and they're stripping a lot of purity from the game with all these ranking and all these handlers and people just trying, you know, to force the kids to be the next LeBron, the T-Macs, the Kobes.

I feel like we grew up too fast at 17, and I can only imagine being in the fifth grade, being pushed to be a star in fifth grade. Like, that's just, like, amazing to me.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that. LeBron's got a forthcoming book, "Shooting Stars: A Memoir," and in it, he's quoted as saying that you all became big-headed jerks. Do you think that's true, Dru?

Mr. JOYCE III: It's definitely true. At that point in our junior year, I think we just kind of made up in our minds that we knew it all, and you know, I think a lot of high school kids go through that, where they know the answer before they even hear the question.

I think that played a major part. We have been there twice. We had accomplished so much, and you know, third time around, it was like, you know, we can go about this whatever way we want to, and we didn't understand the importance of the real leader, the coach, you know.

MARTIN: What brought it back to earth for you?

Mr. JOYCE III: The loss, the loss in the state championship. No better call than that to wake us up.

MARTIN: And Dru, I have to ask you while I have you here. Your coach was your dad. Sometimes he was torn between being dad and being coach. And I just wanted to ask what it's like for you, seeing that played out again.

Mr. JOYCE III: It definitely, it definitely wasn't easy on him because you've got to think at the young age, you just don't deal with the players. You deal with parents, you know, and parents tend to think their child is always the best. So you know, they're coming at my dad like, well, he shouldn't be on the court. You know, my son can do just as much, if better, and that's why he set the standard so high for me. That's why he pushed me the way he did. That was some of the reason why he did, just to prove to people that I did deserve it. And he was setting me up and I didn't even know it. You know, I didn't understand what he was actually doing, but he was actually putting me on a pedestal to prove that I was - my talent was worthy.

MARTIN: This film, to me it makes a really powerful case for the power of friendship. We've seen a lot of girl movies, you know, girl - gal movies where the girls, you know, hang together, but we don't often see young men, you know, supporting each other in a positive way, and dare I say, young black men supporting each other in a positive way.

One of the storylines has been in recent years, and it's the way a lot of these athletes, the people around them do not lead them in a positive direction. So I wanted to ask each of you, what effect do you think your friendship had in kind of helping you get to where you are now? I wanted to ask each of you. Willie?

Mr. MCGEE: I definitely believe that's true for each of us. We had a good foundation. We had a quality family and our - just to lean on when things got hard, as well as each of us. I think one of the great things about us, we hold each of us accountable, you know what I'm saying, from the basketball court and in life, you know what I'm saying? If you did something wrong, we're good enough friends and we're going tell you did something wrong. You shouldn't have did it, you know what I'm saying? But we still going to have your back and we still support you.

A lot of friends, maybe a friend of LeBron's or another instance, you know what I'm saying, may not tell him how he really feels due to who he is, but our friendship and the love for us won't allow us to do that.

MARTIN: Dru, final thought from you?

Mr. JOYCE III: You know, we use the word friendship, but the real definition should be family. We're a family. I think that's the biggest reason why we made it. We have a support system with our parents and mature and older people that tend to take care of us and look after us, and we also share each other's best interests. You know, I know that at the end of the day the people around me have my best interest and that means a lot.

MARTIN: Romeo, in the film, you were seen as kind of the most skeptical of this brother love at the beginning. Accurate?

Mr. TRAVIS: Yeah. That film's very accurate. You know - it was a documentary, you know, so it was...

MARTIN: It's true.

Mr. TRAVIS: It's true. Yeah.

MARTIN: So what brought you around?

Mr. TRAVIS: What brought me around was...

Mr. LEBRON JAMES (Basketball Player): Aw, man…

Mr. TRAVIS: ...stuff like this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And Mr. James has just arrived. I'm sorry. We have an interview here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We're trying to talk to your fellas right here - giving them their minute, so - if we could.

Mr. JAMES: Oh, this…

MARTIN: Then LeBron entered the room, playfully kicking open the door to the hotel suite where we were conducting the interview. He had a new videogame he couldn't wait to show off to his buddies. It was interesting to watch the superstar dubbed King James become just another one of the guys. It was like they were back in high school again - the old gang together. When things quieted down, we sat down with LeBron and his high school coach, Dru Joyce II.

Welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

Mr. JAMES: Oh, thanks for having us.

Mr. DRU JOYCE II (Coach): Thanks for having us. Yes.

MARTIN: Coach, what made you allow this Kris guy to follow you around with a camera?

Mr. JOYCE II: Well, you know, it's kind of funny, we had really closed practice to the media and everything and, you know, he was - I think it was just the innocence of what he was doing. He was working - he's a college student working on a class project, so we didn't feel like he had any ulterior motives, just wanted to do a film. And he was from Akron, so we thought that he wanted to show a positive piece about Akron. So why we allowed him to keep coming back, you have to ask those guys. You know, it was just kind of fun...

MARTIN: Did they get to vote? Did the guys get a vote?

Mr. JOYCE II: No. We never really - it was never really a vote. He just come back and I think there was a couple days that they kind of questioned me, who's this guy and what's he doing and, you know, but after a while, you know, they accepted him. And once these guys accept you, you're good, and that's how it happened.

MARTIN: LeBron, what was it like for you, and by the time Kristopher started following you, and you had already attracted a lot of media attention, and not all of it - it's not always easy to take. And I just wanted to ask what was it like for you and why did you let him in?

Mr. JAMES: For one, you know, like Coach Dru said, he explained to us what the whole situation was with Kris and him being from Akron, him doing a school project, so Coach Dru let us know from first point on that it wasn't going to be just about him following LeBron around; he was going to capture everything. He was going to capture the whole team and the dynamics of the team. And as you see in the film, he absolutely did that.

MARTIN: Now, people know you now as kind of one of the dominant names in international sport, but the film does take you back to some painful times. I'm not sure that everybody who's followed your career necessarily knows that you went through some of those tough times, with your mom, where you, you know, had to move a lot. How do you feel about opening up that time in your life again?

Mr. JAMES: No, it's no big deal for me, you know. Those times are, you know, why I'm able to sit here and talk to you right now, because they made me the man I am today. You know, now today, losing a basketball game, it hurts but when you see what you've been through, you look on it and say well if this is the worst thing that can happen to me, then I'm okay.

MARTIN: Coach, also, same question to you. There were some scenes in this film that are kind of tough to watch, particularly, let's say as a parent. There's one scene where you son is being heckled on the court for his small size. He doesn't seem that small to me, by the way, but...

Mr. JOYCE II: He's grown a lot since then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Was that hard for you, both as a dad and as a coach? I mean obviously, I don't want to tell - give it all away, but he kind of give the doubters what they need to see...

Mr. JOYCE II: Oh, sure.

MARTIN: ...but was that hard for you?

Mr. JOYCE II: Well, yeah. You know, I'm a parent, you know, so any time, you know, people say negative things about your child, it affects you. But also, as a coach, you know, I had to keep it in perspective, that that was just part of the game and fans are going to be fans, and opposing players are going to try and find a weakness. He was tough enough to handle that and to show everyone the kind of player that he was and is.

Mr. JAMES: Little did they know calling him short wasn't the best way to get to his head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: It wasn't the best.

MARTIN: The film describes, I think in a way that I don't think a lot of other media perhaps has, is how much pressure and attention there is on young athletes these days. and I wanted to ask, what lesson do you think we should draw from what it is that we saw? I mean there are scouts, you know, there are blogs following kids who are, you know, 12 years old, 14, 15 years old. What do you think?

Mr. JOYCE II: Well, honestly, that's just the nature of the world that we live in, this kind of Internet generation, so it's not going to change. Is it what you would like? Probably not. We would've, you know, loved to been able to play at the level we were playing at and not have the scrutiny on the team that we had. But I think the best thing that I could do was to help us remain focused, and I tried my best to do that, and these guys were able to stay focused.

MARTIN: What about that, LeBron? I want to ask your opinion about that. There's a scene that stands out for me, is when you guys are in a restaurant. I don't know, like a Friday's or something, and a grown man is heckling you. I mean, you're still a teenager at this point. I don't know if you remember this scene, but it's after the whole situation with the Hummer, where your mom bought you a Hummer H3 and there's a grown man heckling you about all that. And I just want to ask, what do you think about that? Is that...

Mr. JAMES: Listen, I mean you seen what I did is walk right out, went about my business. That's, I mean that happens. I mean that happens. You know, those type of people is what make me stronger and made us stronger. I mean I know a lot of people that wanted us to succeed, it was twice as many that wanted us to fail, and that was one example right there, so I was already - I already had my shield up before that even happened.

MARTIN: Do you think that there is too much pressure on young athletes today? And is there anything that could be done about it now that you're on the other side of it?

Mr. JAMES: There is a lot of pressure. There's a lot of pressure because everybody's looking for the next Tiger Woods and the next Michael Jordan and the next Jerry Rice and all these great athletes that we've had. There's people always looking for them and they want to be the first person to find them, you know, to try to get in on them. So it's a lot of pressure on prep(ph) stars and things like that. But I mean if you love the game and you don't let that get to you, it shouldn't be a big problem. I mean, you know, the money and the fame will come to you, and that's one thing I didn't rush.

I never rushed the fact that I wanted to be in the NBA or rushed the fact, you know, they asked me about the NBA. I always (unintelligible) back to the fact that I love playing with my teammates, I'm happy I'm here at St Vincent - St Mary. There was an article that came out my junior year said I could leave school right now and enter the draft. There was also an article saying that I might transfer to Oak Hill - a huge school - and I never let that type of stuff bother me because I never said it for one, you know, and I know how loyal I was to the guys around me.

MARTIN: There have been a lot of stories in recent months, you know, maybe years, about athletes getting in trouble in part because of their boys - the people around them, and I just wondered if you had some thoughts about what role friendship has played in your life, and why do you think in some cases, you know, friendships uplifts and supports and in other cases it seems to lead people in a not positive direction?

Mr. JAMES: Well, I'm just blessed that I was able to have guys around me that had some of the same goals. The man above gave me a gift and he gave me four guys and a mentor that can help me reach my goal and reach my potential. And we all had the same goal, so it wasn't hard for us to get, you know, off track because we all wanted the same thing.

MARTIN: Given your reputation, though, for being a leader on the court and being an unselfish player and somebody who thinks about the folks around him, do you mind, though, if I ask you about the whole - the handshake thing at the end of the Eastern Conference?

Mr. JAMES: Go ahead. Why not?

MARTIN: What was going through your mind there when you just walked off the court after the Magic game and didn't shake hands with other…

Mr. JAMES: Just time to regroup and get ready for next year. You know, that was the only thing. I was very upset about us losing. They deserved it. They beat us, so it's just time to move on and regroup.

MARTIN: Coach, do you still feel protective of your players, even though they're all grown men now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOYCE II: You know, yeah. You're always going to, you know, feel protective to a certain degree. You know, but just like you do with your children, you train them up the best that you can and then you let them go. You know, I had trouble letting them go, you know, as far as being a coach, I have to admit to that. I think some of the teams that came after them in my high school, they I guess felt the brunt of that. I kept comparing them to LeBron and Dru and Willie and Sain and Roman, and that was wrong. And so I had to eventually let those guys go.

And you know, myself and the other coaches and adults who were significant in their lives, we pretty much set out from the time that they were 10 and 11 that we were going to be positive role models around them. Not just in how we coached them, but how I interacted with my wife, how I dealt with the waitress in a restaurant or a lady at the hotel. Because we did all the traveling, and these guys, especially Bron, he's always very observant. And so we were conscious of that and we - it was just our life and that's how we chose to live it.

MARTIN: Finally, Coach, having made the decision to bring this film into the guys' lives, how do you feel about it?

Mr. JOYCE II: I feel humbled. I feel good about it. What I want people to get out of it is that dreams happen, they can come true. Not just for the kids. You know, I was 45 years old and I had lost my dream to wanting - I came out of high school wanting to be a coach, and I had lost my dream and working with those guys, I got it back. So you can still dream. You can still work towards your dream no matter who you are or where you are in life. If you're willing to take the risk and put in the time, then they can come true, and that's what's happened for me. And I think that anyone who watches the film, young or old, can draw something about that from it.

MARTIN: Coach Dru Joyce II, he stars in the film, "More Than A Game." LeBron James was in it too. They're both here with us in Washington. They allowed us to stop by in a brief visit to Washington.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. JOYCE II: Thank you.

Mr. JAMES: Thank you.

MARTIN: Earlier, we spoke with LeBron James' high school teammates, Romeo Travis, Dru Joyce III and Willie McGee. We thought it was important to note that they all did not go on to NBA careers.

Willie McGee graduated last year from Fairmont State University in West Virginia with a degree in computer science. He's currently applying to graduate school. Romeo Travis and the coach's son, Dru Joyce III, both attended the University of Akron. They are still playing together as teammates overseas professionally, in Germany.

The film that tells their story, "More Than A Game," opens in theaters on Friday.

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