Romeo Travis. Sian Cotton. Willie McGee. Dru Joyce III. LeBron James. While most will only recognize the final name from the list of five, filmmaker Kristopher Belman hopes that after seeing his documentary “More Than a Game,” more people will realize the significance of the other four.
For those unfamiliar with Travis, Cotton, McGee and Joyce III, they were the four players who shared the court with current NBA superstar James as starting members of the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School basketball team in Akron, Ohio. The team won three state championships between 2000 and 2003.
In “More Than a Game,” which began as a class assignment at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Belman, who is an Akron native himself, returned to his hometown to begin shooting footage for a 10-minute film about the high school team during the players senior year. It quickly evolved into something bigger – a film about lifelong friendship.
During an interview with me, Belman, who is half Mexican, talked about making “More Than a Game,” which opens in Chicago on Oct. 16, and shared his thoughts on whether or not he thinks James will be in a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey after this upcoming season.
Was the idea of making a documentary about the entire team instead of just James a conscious decision from the very beginning?
Yes. As soon as I realized there was a friendship aspect to the story, I wanted to tell it. Doing a film on James would have been the obvious choice. I had professors telling me to challenge myself. If you’re a great storyteller, you can find a way to make any story interesting.
What do James’ teammates represent to him now that he is in the NBA?
I think they represented a simpler time for James. They will always be the boys he played ball with back in the 4th grade. And vice versa. Even to this day, those guys don’t see “NBA LeBron.” They represent a foundation that he’s had since he was a kid. They were there for him when things weren’t great. He’s lucky to have them when things are great. He knows they will be real with him. I think that keeps him grounded.
One could argue that if you put any four high school basketball players on the court with James back then, they could have won a state championship too. Why would you disagree with that idea?
I think the reason they were so great is because they played together for so long and there was a strong friendship. They were one unit. They went through so many things together. These guys happened to have that camaraderie on and off the court.
I read that [St. Vincent-St. Mary] basketball coach Dru Joyce II gave you access to only one practice, but you kept coming back. I’m guessing you didn’t get everything you wanted in one afternoon?
(Laughs) Yeah, one practice wasn’t going to cut it. They weren’t sure about letting an outsider in, but they took a chance on me because it was for school and I was from Akron. It was also important to them that the film wasn’t just on James. I came to that one practice, but I instantly fell in love with these kids. I realized there were some phenomenal stories off the court.
At any time, did you think you weren’t going to be able to finish the film?
Absolutely. It was probably five years in that I thought it wasn’t going to happen. I had been out of school for a couple of years. Student loans were kicking in. James was in the NBA and was very busy. Everyone I was trying to get to help finance the film was only interested in the James aspect. I was offered money to sell my footage on James, but I wasn’t interested in that. I never even entertained the idea to eliminate the other boys’ stories. The heart of the documentary is trust. These boys gave me that.
There is, of course, a lot of speculation in the sports world whether James is going to stay with the Cleveland after this season. In your heart, will he be in a Cavs jersey after this year?
I think he will be. Certainly, this year will be telling in what he will do, but the team is doing their best to surround him with players to win a championship. Nothing matters more to James than winning. If they have a chance to win in Cleveland, I think he’ll stay. If he feels they don’t have a chance, I think he’ll go to where he thinks he has the best chance of winning.