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Film & Sports: More Than a Game

Rookie director Kris Belman spent 7+ years tracing the arc of B-ball superstar LeBron James and his high school team, aka Akron's Fab Five. The result? A winning, narrative doc that joins Hoosiers and Hoop Dreams at half-court.

More than a game

Dru Joyce III. Romeo Travis. Sian Cotton. Willie McGee. LeBron James. Which one of these does not sound like the others? Well, only one of them is a household name, as the star forward of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who made history by leaping from high school notoriety straight into NBA stardom. But all five young men were stars on what some call the greatest high school basketball team of all time. Three out of the four years this quintet was together, their Catholic school (St Vincent-St. Mary High School) won the Ohio state championship (capped off in their senior year with a national championship title).

More Than a Game, the new documentary from first-time director Kristopher Belman, tells the story of this band of brothers, known in Akron as the Fab Five. Each of their stories is intimately told, woven together from the perspective of someone who has come to know them well. 7+ years in the making, the film is not only a labor of love, but also a tribute to the fortitude of Belman, the leadership of an amazing coach (Dru Joyce II, also the father of one of the boys), and the loyalty found in a team who celebrates each member’s victories, no matter how great or small.

Tribeca sat down with Belman to learn more about this remarkable film's backstory.



Tribeca Film: So you are from Akron?
Kristopher Belman: I am, born and raised.
Tribeca: Is that how found this story?
KB: That's pretty much how I got started. I was from Akron, but I was at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. [In my first year,] I signed up for an introduction to documentary filmmaking class on kind of a whim. I wasn’t really a fan of documentaries. I didn't know a lot about the genre, but I felt compelled to tell [a story] from my hometown. A lot of the kids in my class were making fun of me for being from Ohio—a lot of farm jokes and that kind of stuff.
Tribeca: I know, my dad's from Cleveland.
So you know I wasn't raised in a barn, it wasn't like Witness. I decided I was going to do something from my hometown—that was the goal. At that point these guys were in high school, and they were starting to make a lot of noise. I decided I could definitely fulfill a 10-minute project based on that. That's really what I pitched to the school and the coach. It was tough to get in contact with them because they were getting a lot of media attention, but the fact that I was a student and from Akron originally appealed to them, and they let me come to a practice. It started with one practice and I ended up just keep showing up.
Tribeca: So this started their senior year?
Yeah, which made it more difficult to get in front of them because this was after [LeBron was on the cover of] Sports Illustrated as a junior. [Everything] is kind of pre- and post-Sports Illustrated—that’s how a lot of people looked at it. The week I got in front of them, they had already shut down 60 Minutes and LeBron had turned down Letterman, so I was thinking there was no way they were going to let me travel with them or do anything.
Tribeca: When did all the interviews take place?
I did the interviews throughout my travels with the team; all in all I worked on the film for 7 1/2 years. The first five years it was just me and a camera. The last few years I was able to get some financing, so I could go back and really do things the right way. I decided to re-shoot a lot of the interviews in HD.


More Than a Game

Tribeca: The film seemed to have multiple themes. Was that planned or did the story evolve like that?
It definitely evolved and blew up, mostly with the characters. I knew the reason they let me in in the first place was because I wanted to do a story on all five of the guys and their friendship. The story was never just LeBron, that’s the reason they let me do it. To me that was the interesting story anyway: five guys and their friendship. I think where the story evolved the most was with Coach Dru’s figuring out what he meant to the team and what the team meant to him. Talking to Coach in those first couple of years was when I really got a grasp of it, mostly because he was willing to go there with me in the interviews. It’s one thing to get the factual information in an interview, but I wanted to really get it in a way that resonates and has emotion. It took a lot of time to do that, with all the guys. I don’t think it could have been done in two years.
Tribeca: All the characters seemed to have amazing stories. Did you have a hard time weaving all the stories into a coherent narrative?
That was important to me from a narrative perspective, because two things were important: I really wanted it to appeal to more than just basketball fans, so I felt like it was important to get all the emotions in there [allowing non-basketball fans to] relate to the characters, and then from a film perspective, I wanted the film to appeal to more than just people interested in documentaries. With LeBron being who he is, I figure a lot of people who’d want to see the film are people who might not usually see documentaries. It was important to me as a filmmaker that film appeal to both a narrative and documentary film audience.


More Than a Game

Tribeca: How involved was LeBron, and how hard was it to interview him once he was an NBA star?
They graduated in 2003, and I had another year of college. After I graduated in ’04, there was a two-year lull where I was developing the story. At that point I knew what the main characters’ stories were, but it was almost impossible to get in front of LeBron. It was just the reality of where he was at that point—I'm sure there were like a million people approaching him and his people with all these kind of ideas. So I was simultaneously trying to raise money to finish the film the way I thought it needed to be finished, and also trying to get back in front of LeBron to get his sit-down interview.

All the other guys had committed to helping me out, but it was a rough two years. No one on the financial side wanted to have anything to do with the film unless it was just about LeBron. People were interested in either paying me to direct a film about LeBron or just buying the footage outright.

When I was finally able to raise the money while maintaining my original vision, I was finally able to get in front of LeBron. I edited a 12-minute extended trailer with the best scenes from the footage I had so far. It was Romeo who actually got my interview with LeBron to happen. I was back in Akron and all the guys knew I was trying to get in front of LeBron. I had been in Akron for like ten days, and the last night I was in town I got a call from Romeo. He was like, “Meet me at the gas station on Route 18.” I thought it was like a mob hit. He said, “Get in my car, we’re going for a drive.” Romeo is kind of a crazy guy, but he’s like, “We’re going to LeBron’s house.” [He didn’t know we were coming.] Talk about nervous! I had a DVD with me, and we probably watched this 12-minute piece like 10-15 times in a row. LeBron got really excited and was like, “Whatever you need from me, let’s make this happen.”
Tribeca: So is LeBron really still close with all the guys?
Oh yeah, they are all really close. They are all very busy with their schedules, but when they are in town they are always with each other no matter what.


More Than a Game

Tribeca: Tell us about how the actual process of making the film.

I knew the main story was going to end with the national championship. I sat down with Brad Hogan, my co-writer, and we spent a couple of months really figuring out each individual character’s arc and where in the story it would fit in. I wanted there to be a nice flow, and not just character, character, character, character…

We ended up with about an 18-page outline. I just looked at it last week, and I was surprised with how close to the actual finished edit it is. Six characters is an immense amount of character. I consider Coach Dru to be the main character in the film, but you can’t take anyone out because the movie is about unity and the Fab Five.

Once we had the financing I was able to work with a professional editor, Scott Balcerek, who had directed his own documentaries. Working with him was a whole other learning process for me. When we edited for eight months and uncovered all the holes, we figured out the themes we needed to hit in the sit-down interviews. Then we went back and did all the reshoots with the guys, which left us with another eight months of editing.

Tribeca: Where did all the big names in the soundtrack came from?
The soundtrack that was just released really just came together in the last couple of months. When the film was finished, I didn’t want to put new music into the film; I wanted to stick with the songs of the time, like what those guys were listing to at the time. So the soundtrack is an “inspired by” album. They brought in artists who had seen the film and got the message. I kind of look at the soundtrack as way to get the film message out there and hopefully get people into the idea.

Tribeca: What was the biggest surprise in this whole process?
This thing started in such an indie way. I guess it’s a surprise to see it through, that Coach Dru and all the guys let me into their lives when there was really no reason to. They really let me in, and I am just so amazed with how far the journey has come and how we all stuck together to do it. I saw a lot of parallels in my story with what they were doing. They took a chance on me, and I tried to pay that back by always maintaining that trust.

It's amazing to be on this tour with these guys, and to be able to show this film. We were in London, and nobody really knew much about basketball, but they were really relating to the story and brotherhood. It’s just been amazing to see that human reaction to some of the non-basketball themes.


More Than a Game

Tribeca: So have the guys all seen it? How involved were they all in the process?

Well, I feel like when you are dealing with real life, I don’t like showing the subject the film—I think you have enough pressure already because you are dealing with their trust. I think Coach Dru got a sense about me and told the guys, “Hey, you can trust this guy.” And they listened to him, and gave me their time, their life stories, and let me run with it.

The first time they saw the film was at the Toronto International Film Festival at its premiere—that was the first time any public audience had seen it. It was a miserable hour and forty minutes for me, because I didn’t know if the audience was going to like it. It was a 1200-seat theater and it was packed, and I was sitting next to all of them in a row. It was terrible because there were two different groups that had to like it in different ways, but their reaction was incredible after the film. All the guys weren’t just crying—they were sobbing, they were holding each other. It was just a real honest, emotional display, and it showed how close they still are, and how meaningful that story still is to them. To me, that was my favorite memory—just seeing them afterwards, all holding each other. That love they have for each other—it’s always going to be there. You can just tell.

Tribeca: Was LeBron at that screening?
Oh yeah, he was crying just as hard as the other guys. He might not want me to say it...
Tribeca: So they all loved the film?
They did. A couple of days later LeBron came up with this whole tour idea. We all got an email from him saying he wanted every kid in this country to see this film. He feels like there is a message there for them, and he said, “If we need to take it city by city, that’s what we are going to do.” 

More Than a Game opens Friday, October 2.
Score some tickets today.

Watch the trailer:



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