It seems that when you watch one basketball related documentary on Netflix you are recommended every other one that’s been made as well. 2009’s “More Than A Game” is the story of young Lebron James’ high school career in Akron, Ohio and the bond he formed with four guys on his high school team. It’s the bond of friendship and a story about what people go through when faced with hardship and adversity, and it is also what happens when someone gets famous enough to be able get people interested in his high school videos.
Let’s look at this pragmatically for one moment. You probably enjoy LeBron James on some level if you like basketball; would you be remotely interested if he told you he was making a movie about his high school basketball career? The idea that this was made and produced by James lends a sort of arrogance to it. There is a lot of locker room, game and home footage, along with interviews with coaches, friends, family, teammates and Lebron himself to the point you wonder if everything was documented with the idea that one day this movie would happen.
“More Than a Game” tends to put everything into perspective with Lebron as a human and how he goes about charting the life he has made. The kids meet each other at 10 and form an immediate bond, playing even junior high school basketball at a high level. They travel far and wide to compete in tournaments in huge arenas and from the moment James and the rest turn 14, they are already living a scale model of an NBA career. Starting out as the “Fab Four” the kids en masse decide to go to St Vincent’s/St. Mary’s High School, “taking their talents there” as one of the kids remarks. They become local heroes, outsell Cleveland Cavaliers games, and get really huge heads about it (watch for the scene in which teammate Dru Joyce III demands a police escort on the team bus as it’s trying to leave one of the arenas the team plays at). While theoretically the movie is about Lebron, the rest of the kids get the same bio treatment, with the main non-Lebron focus on father/son coach/player combo Dru Joyce II and III’s relationship. As the kids dominate each season but come up short in the major high school tournaments, they strive and strive for the one goal each wishes for: to be the best high school team in the country.
Running parallel to this is the rise of Lebron James from poor kid living in Akron to global star/next Michael Jordan. As one star (Jordan) is setting back to earth, the next one rises and the tracking of the hype machine that created James by local media and later ESPN is fascinating to watch. Every aspect of his life from roughly 12 years old on was in some sort of spotlight. To watch a 14 year old James awkwardly cycling through the usual sports interview cliches, selling out 30,000 seat arenas, and handling it as you would imagine a teenager handling it is a bit creepy in an Icarus flying closer and closer to the sun way. There’s a divided view of Lebron here; on one hand he was a gifted player given far too much spotlight for a person his age and his idea of handling it was to indulge in all the traps involving arrogance, petulance, and the rest. On the other hand, we see a kid who is famously loyal to his group, hard working and seemingly avoiding the really bad traps of drugs and violence BECAUSE of the intense and early spotlight put on him. Point blank, it’s creepy to be that famous in your 14-18 years and the attention and idol worship devoted to James and the team (and their reactions to it in present tense interviews) makes it all feel a bit dirty to watch.
“More Than A Game” is inspirational if you look at it in that way, fascinating and well shot. James produced it, so a lot of this at times comes off like Dirk Diggler’s documentary about himself in “Boogie Nights,” while also glossing over such important topics as James getting a Humvee in his senior year (and the controversy of exactly how he managed to get that loan) and his two-game suspension for accepting the gift of throwback jerseys. Watching him in his formative years and how he handled everything gives you both a feeling of admiration at how he was able to recognize his talent early on and not let anything get in the way of it while also feeling malaise at how he was robbed of his youth once everybody anointed him as the special one. What you could take away from this is that James really hasn’t changed at all from the kid he was to the man he is now; he sticks by his group above everything else, and he is prepared for all of the praise and hate you decide to give him.