Hoop Dreams, one of my favorite documentaries, created quite a stir when it released in 1994. The film features two high school basketball players who hope to make it to the NBA and follows them through a series of highs and lows. It's remarkable for its scope—spanning five years—and its intimate perspective into these young men and their families. When it was shut out of the Best Feature Documentary category at the Oscars, people raised a fuss. (Since when do people care about documentaries?) And in 2007, the International Documentary Association named Hoop Dreams as the greatest documentary film in history.

The new documentary More Than a Game is a cousin to Hoop Dreams. It tells the story of NBA superstar LeBron James's high school basketball team in Akron, Ohio, and their quest to win a national championship. The film's six main characters are: LeBron; teammates Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee, and Romeo Travis; and their coach, Dru Joyce II. (Read our interview with Coach Joyce here.)

LeBron and his teammates take the floor

LeBron and his teammates take the floor

As in Hoop Dreams, the narrative of More Than Game spans several years. Also, in both films the main characters share a goal, and the players' off-the-court stories add weight to their on-the-court successes and failures. Furthermore, both started out as smaller projects that grew into feature-length films. Hoop Dreams was meant to be a 30-minute PBS feature, and More Than a Game was originally just a 10-minute class project for then-college student Kristopher Belman.

But while the style of Hoop Dreams reflects its PBS origins, More Than a Game feels more like a child of ESPN. The editing is faster, rap music enlivens the in-game highlights, and the story arc is neater and tidier. There's also a guy named LeBron who dunks the ball a lot. Much of this comes at the cost of the thoughtfulness and intimacy which made Hoop Dreams so compelling. Plus, and perhaps most notably, More Than a Game tells much of its multi-year story through backward-looking interviews, but Hoop Dreams captures its subjects in the present at every step along the way. Thus, in Hoop Dreams the changes over time in each character are much more pronounced.

Still, More Than a Game succeeds on its own terms. It's a fun, entertaining ride, and its central message—that relationships are the most important part of a game like basketball—is worth telling.

The movie opens in the middle of the action. The St. Vincent-St. Mary High School boys basketball team, headlined by senior LeBron James, is in the locker room just moments away from playing for a national championship. The coach is giving his players a pep talk. The anticipation builds, the players walk onto the court, the ref throws up the ball for the tip-off …

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The Coach and 'Little Dru'

The Coach and 'Little Dru'

And then we cut away, and for the next hour and a half, we learn about the nine years that led up to this game. Only at the end of the film, after we've gotten to know each of these characters, do we get to see what happens to them and their championship dream.

One remarkable aspect of this story is that four of the five high school teammates—LeBron, Dru III (or "Little Dru"), Sian, and Willie—actually played basketball together as early as fifth grade. They started out on the same youth traveling team, and as they spent more time together, grew into a group of close (and talented) friends dubbed "The Fab Four." This young set of friendships forms the emotional core of More Than a Game.

Just as remarkably, "The Fab Four" were led at that early age by Coach Joyce, who had wanted the chance to coach his son, Little Dru. No one could have guessed that Joyce would coach these players again years later at St. Vincent-St. Mary.

To see clips of a scrawny, preteen LeBron in action is undeniably cool, especially if you're a basketball fan. Indeed, it's fun to watch his in-game highlights and see him blossom throughout the film into the athletic marvel he is today. Every other basketball highlight in the film includes LeBron.

A high school basketball dynasty

A high school basketball dynasty

Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by how balanced the overall attention toward each character is. It could have easily become the LeBron & Co. Show, which would have been a real problem for a film that celebrates relationships. And one of the chief pleasures of More Than a Game is not just getting to know each of these guys, but getting to know them through each other. One teammate laughs about how Little Dru "was 4'10" on a good day" his freshman year. Another mentions more soberly that Willie, who was raised by his siblings, came in as the most mature of the bunch. Each interview in the film gives another glimpse into someone's personality or character, and the composite picture shows how much these young men leaned on one another. LeBron, who moved ten times between the ages of five and eight, admits that he was desperate to make these friendships last.

Still, these younger voices need a counterbalance, which is where Coach Joyce comes in. He is the film's chief spokesman. At one point he tells his players, "Basketball is a vehicle—use it, don't let it use you." At another he tells us, "The love they had for the game was because of one another." Yet Joyce, who is a Christian, says it took a disappointing finish to his stars' junior year (by their high standards) to realize God was calling him to teach them more than basketball. "It was about helping them become men," he explains.

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Joyce then begins to impress seven character traits on his team: humility, unity, discipline, thankfulness, servanthood, integrity, and passion. These values are a change of pace for a team that had fully embraced its escalating celebrity status, but they bring a turning point in the team's story, illustrating how an emphasis on character can bring a greater sum from the same parts.

Team prayer before a game

Team prayer before a game

As already mentioned, More Than a Game started out as just a 10-minute short for Kristopher Belman's film class. But the team kept doing remarkable things, and Belman kept hanging around. Some of the footage he captures is uncomfortable, like when LeBron sharply rebukes a sulking Little Dru in a team huddle. Some is deeply moving, like when Willie leaves the court after a big win and makes a beeline for the older brother who raised him. Some is just funny. More Than a Game doesn't lack for tonal variety.

But in the interest of a neat and tidy story, most of these tonal shifts come in neat and tidy chapters, which feels too simple for a documentary about several different characters. I left wishing that the film could have probed a little more deeply into each person's individual story. But with 105 minutes, six main characters, and some basketball to show, there is only so much time to go around. On top of that, the overall story arc is predictable.

So it's a fairly conventional film, and it doesn't give much fodder for thought. But it is an entertaining record of an unusual sports saga and one of the most remarkable dynasties in high school basketball. And it also delivers an inspirational message about friendship that many young athletes need to hear.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. At what point does a famous athlete become an idol instead of a role model?

  2. Do you think sports activities for youth more often engender good or bad character?

  3. How can we teach younger athletes to prioritize relationships?

  4. Which of the players in More Than a Game most impressed you? Why?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

More Than a Game is rated PG for brief mild language and incidental smoking.

More Than a Game
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for brief mild language and incidental smoking)
Directed By
Kristopher Belman
Run Time
1 hour 45 minutes
LeBron James, Dru Joyce, Romeo Travis
Theatre Release
October 16, 2009 by Lionsgate Media
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