If Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James isn’t the best basketball player in the world right now, then certainly no one would place him out of the top two or three. His arrival in the NBA for 2003-2004 season heralded an end to the “me-first” era of basketball superstars and put a premium on the old-school values of grabbing rebounds, dishing out assists, and generally making your teammates better. James’ ascendancy was also signaled an end to a time when NBA allowed players to be drafted directly out of high school, which might have had something to do with the hoopla surrounding his dominant, nationally televised St. Vincent-St. Mary High School basketball team.
Culled from hundreds of hours of footage shot by director Kristopher Belman—who initially followed the team for a class project—the new documentary More Than A Game follows James and his teammates (Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis, Sian Cotton, and Willie McGee) through five years of playing together. First assembled as an eighth-grade AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) squad from humble Akron, James and company would go on to win several state and/or national championships, sometimes under the intense glare of the cable-TV spotlight. Though he was a major presence on the team through it all, Coach Dru Joyce—father of their small but determined point guard—was promoted to head coach as the boys started their junior year. He continues to coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary, which won its first state championship in the post-James era earlier this year. James and Joyce recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the importance of teamwork, coaching strategies, and days gone by.
The A.V. Club: What has it been like to see this film and to revisit this period in your life?
LeBron James: It’s great. I feel like high school was the best years of my life, so to be able to see the film and relive some of the moments and the great times that we had back in high school is just unbelievable.
Dru Joyce: For me, it’s good too. I think we have a great responsibility in coaching, and I think when you have that opportunity to pour your life into someone else, that’s a supreme kind of responsibility and opportunity, and you need to cherish that. And to see it come into a movie makes it something you can cherish even more.
AVC: Did you know that this film even existed? Was this a surprise to you that this footage was out there and was going to be made into something?
DJ: It didn’t surprise us because Kris was working with us all throughout the process. What surprised us early on was, I guess, how long it took to find someone else to buy into Kris’ vision of what it should be about. And I guess that took a long time, but then once that happened, it was just about us getting pictures and old shots. It’s so funny… my wife, she filmed every game from when my son was 11 years old. And there were so many times I wanted to throw those videos out. They were just taking up space. [Laughs] And I guess God had a plan that I didn’t know. Because I surely wanted to get rid of them, there was more than once that I told her, “We need to get rid of this stuff, it’s taking up all this room.” Because it was in my closet in the house. This is all in my closet, you know?
AVC: Were you keeping these tapes just for home movie purposes? Or do you actually use them as game tapes?
DJ: Oh, we went over some games, yeah. We went over some games, and Dru, LeBron, and those guys would come back, and they’d watch the games. You know, they were kids, they’d have fun with it, but there were times when we’d be on the road, and we did something, or we lost. I’d look at it, and if there was something I wanted to point out to the guys, we’d rally around each other and get in the hotel room and look at a little bit of film. I wasn’t breaking down film, you know, didn’t do that, but for the most part they would enjoy it. But after that, we have no real need to keep the videos around. That’s why I was saying, “Let’s get rid of this stuff.”
AVC: LeBron, there’s a moment in the movie where you’re recalling the AAU championship game, which you lost in the eighth grade by two points, and you wince as if it happened yesterday. Do you really feel those missed opportunities? And how do you process losing?
LJ: I hate to lose. You put yourself in a position where you’re in the title game—and I’ve been in quite a few title games, and I’ve won more than lost—but at the same time, it’s like, when you lose, you never want it to happen again. So being in the eighth grade, definitely no one ever gave us a chance in Orlando at that tournament to make it all the way to the final game and lose by two. We lost to a team to have won it three or four times in a row, but it definitely hurt us, and it fueled us for going into high school.
AVC: [to Joyce] How would you describe the difference in coaching styles between Coach [Keith] Dambrot and you? He sounds like a pretty colorful guy. [Dambrot coached James and his teammates for their first two years in high school, because departing for the University Of Akron.]
DJ: Yeah, he is. I’m a little bit more laidback. Now, trust me, I’m not really easy, but I’m definitely a lot more laidback. Keith was just a fiery little guy. I mean, he’d jump up and down, holler, scream, curse you out.
LJ: He’s like [temperamental former Houston Rockets and New York Knicks coach] Jeff Van Gundy.
DJ: Yeah, but I learned a lot from Keith. He’s able to get a lot more than out of kids than other coaches. And that’s always inspired me, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to be able to do, but there’s definitely… LeBron could answer that better, because I know he felt the brunt of both of us, so he would be able to describe Keith a little bit better.
LJ: See, Keith Dambrot, he didn’t care what time, what place, or what atmosphere we were in, if it was 6,000, 7,000 people in the stands, he was going to show his emotion. He was going to wear it. Coach Dru, he did a lot more in practice, the closed practices, and get on us, and sometimes during time-outs, when we were in a huddle. But Coach Dambrot, it didn’t matter. We could be at a restaurant, and Coach D would go off on us.
AVC: Was it kind of embarrassing sometimes?
LJ: Nah, man. Sometimes a kid wouldn’t know how to handle it at first. But when you’ve got a good sense of how his coaching style was… at the end of the day, when you know a guy’s trying to get you better, it’s okay. He was trying to get us better, and we were winning ball games. We were winning ball games by doing what he wanted us to do, so we were like, “Okay.” If a coach is going to yell at you, at least he’s got to help you win. He can’t just be yelling at you when you’re losing all the time. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is there a difference to what a coach’s temperament should be at certain levels or with certain types of players? Do you have to adjust to the person?
DJ: Honestly, that’s one thing I’ve had to learn. I’m better at that now, and I think I’ve continued to grow, especially when coaching the kids after LeBron. Every year, the kids are just so much more temperamental, and they’re not used to taking constructive criticism. So one kid you can come at it, and you can be rough with, but the next one, you try the same thing, and they go into a shell and you lose them. So if you’re in a game and this is one of your key players and you know he’s really screwed up and you go at him, you can lose him. And now you’re going to lose the game. Early on in the season, I’m pushing the buttons with all the kids to see how I can get them to respond. And that’s a tough thing, because there are some kids that take a while to figure out. But I think a lot of old-school coaches, the ones who scream and holler all the time, would really struggle with kids today. Even Keith Dambrot, I think, as fiery as he is, one thing he always did, is he showed those guys he loved them. And it was more than just coaching with him, too. He was involved in their lives. You just can’t be that kind of scream, holler, scream, holler, then you go to your office and close the door and that’s it, and you think your kids are going to respond to that. It’s not happening.
AVC: Was that something you had to learn in that junior season? [LeBron and company’s junior season—their first under Coach Joyce—ended in disappointment, partly because he couldn’t get control over his team.] What did you take away from that? Because that was a situation where things were a little bit dodgy.
DJ: There were two things that happened. One is that I allowed the referees to get in our kids’ heads, and that really affected a lot of the outcome of the game, because they were making some terrible calls. That wasn’t something that we hadn’t expected, but it was something I didn’t handle correctly. I didn’t keep them focused on playing the game. I got caught up in the bad calls, and as a coach, I can’t get them out of the place that I’m stuck. I was stuck there too, so that’s one of the things that I had to learn, definitely, is that if I want to lead, I’ve got to lead. I can’t get caught up with the referees or something that’s going on outside of the next play. And that’s one of the things. And then the other thing, it was just understanding how rough the press can be on you. Because they were kind of brutal on me, and I’m like, “Dang, I’m just a high school coach.” That’s what I wanted to say, but I was a high school coach of a very prominent team, and when you lose… trust me, players win games, coaches lose them. And that’s been my philosophy from the beginning. I understood that, but even understanding it, it’s hard to take at times.
AVC: What was that year like? The Sports Illustrated thing happens, ESPN started covering games… How did that affect the dynamic of the team? And as a player, how did you adjust?
LJ: I didn’t know how big Sports Illustrated was. I just thought I was being put on the cover of another sports magazine, so I didn’t think it was the big deal that everybody else was making it. And having the four guys around me all the time, that kept me levelheaded. It kept me off of what people were saying about me in the media, and what people thought about our team. We always just kind of threw that to the side and just had fun.
AVC: Did the cameras make a difference? If it’s a game on ESPN, did you feel like you really had to…
LJ: No. Didn’t make a difference.
AVC: [to James] You’re known as a complete player of the old school, somebody who can dish out assists just as happily as you can put up points. Did that come naturally to you as a player, or were you influenced by other players or coaches?
LJ: It just came natural to me. I knew early that this is a team sport and I took that to heart. It just came natural for me. I love the success of my teammates more than my individual achievements. I’ve just always cared more about that since I started playing, and that continues to this day.
AVC: You’ve said that can never really expect to play on a team that’s this tight again. How important in general is team chemistry? And how is it built from scratch, as you have to do in the NBA?
LJ: It’s huge. It’s huge. I’ll never get something like this again. I know that. Because what I’m in now is a business, and guys have to sign onto contracts and they get traded and all that. Team chemistry is still huge, though, because there’s only so much talent can do on the court. And I think chemistry is the other part of that, knowing that person that’s alongside you and knowing he’s going to be there for you any time. That’s on and off the court.
AVC: Do you think it’s considered enough when teams are put together?
LJ: Well, look at the great teams. The great teams that we’ve had in NBA history and high school history and college, they’ve had team chemistry. And that’s why they continue to be successful for the most part, either in that period of time or still to this day.
AVC: You guys logged a lot of miles traveling around the country, which is unusual for a high-school team. Do any road trips stand out as particularly memorable for you?
DJ: Yeah, I wanted to play in Pauley Pavilion [the storied venue that was home to many UCLA championship teams], so that stood out. And then the Palestra [in Philadelphia]. Those two really stood out, because the Palestra was just an old-school venue, the court was right here, and the fans were right there. It was so loud that once the ball was tapped, they couldn’t hear a word I said. I was screaming and hollering, and I knew they couldn’t hear me, so that was just a great dynamic. That was just a great place to play. And then Pauley Pavilion… what was funny about that is, the promoter asked us if we wanted to play there, and I said yeah. And I said, “I want to be in the UCLA locker room.” And when we got to the game, [our opponent] Mater Dei was in that locker room, and I went to the promoter, I said, “Nah, nah. We’re in that locker room.” He actually moved them out of the locker room, because that was part of the agreement. And they didn’t like it, and the game was already tense, but it added to a little bit of the game, the dynamic of the game.
AVC: What about yourself? Any road antics?
LJ: I don’t know, man. We had so many. I think we had so many road trips that were fun, man. I think probably going to Cocoa Beach, Florida, that AAU trip was really fun when we were…
DJ: 11 years old.
LJ: Yeah, 11 years old. The hotel we were in, it was on the beach and everything, we were just kids, man. We played well that tournament, too. That was the first travel tournament that we drove to. We drove to Cocoa Beach, Florida in two cars and I ain’t been back since.