There have been so many documentaries about basketball in recent years—The Year Of The Yao (about Yao Ming), The Heart Of The Game (about a high-school girls basketball coach), Through The Fire (about Sebastian Telfair), and Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot (about a street basketball tournament), to name a few—that it takes something special for one to rise above the standards of, say, an ESPN doc. Kristopher Belman’s More Than A Game seems to be in a position to manage that: An Akron native, Belman caught onto the LeBron James phenomenon early enough to have his camera around when King James and friends first started dominating Ohio high-school basketball, eventually turning their high-flying exploits into a traveling road show. That phenomenon had never been seen before, and with the NBA’s subsequent ban on drafting players directly out of high school, it may never happen again. Belman could have taken any number of angles on the story, too, given how the media hoopla amplified questions about the restrictions that are and aren’t placed on young student-athletes, and the hypocrisies of their exploiters and guardians alike.
Instead, More Than A Game glosses over the controversy in favor of a more intimate look at James and company, which is understandable, considering all the footage Belman gathered from five years of hanging around practices and games. From the 8th grade, when they were first brought together in the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) league, through their four years at the mostly white St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, James, his teammates, and their coach, Dru Joyce, formed a lifelong bond that survived the media pressure cooker. More Than A Game presses positive themes of friendship and how the game can serve as a vehicle for turning boys into men, and Belman deftly rebottles the excitement of the moment. But while he’s correct in batting away manufactured scandals like James’ impoverished mother buying a Hummer (on a loan supported by James’ future earnings) or his ineligibility due to accepting two vintage jerseys as a gift, Belman doesn’t look into the bigger problems of James’ team jet-setting across the country during the school year, or the spectacle allowed to build up around him. He cares most about what happens on the court, which is diverting and fun as far as it goes, but not close to the whole story.