Last summer Director Kris Belman brought the story of five Akron, OH high school basketball players to life on the big screen. More Than A Game is an inspiring journey that epitomizes the power of basketball, friendship and hard work.
Belman’s documentary follows NBA superstar LeBron James and his four talented teammates: Sian Cotton, Dru Joyce III, Willie McGee and Romeo Travis through the trials and tribulations of high school basketball in Ohio and James' journey to fame.
Today, More Than A Game is playing on Demand, Pay-Per-View and now DVD. In honor of the DVD release, Director Kris Belman shares his candid responses to the movie, his love of sports and future prospects.
Weplay Q&A with Kris Belman
What were your youth sports experiences like and how impactful were they to your childhood?
Sports played a big part of my childhood--I loved being part of a team, and seeing how hard work paid off in actual game situations. While I played every sport I could, my favorite was baseball. I played catcher/first base, and played for my dad who was the coach. I didn’t realize it then, but being part of a team was very influential to the things I do today, in the film world. The team is different now, but it still takes hard work from everyone on the team to get the job done-and to do it well. That is probably the best lesson I took from youth sports.
Do you have a Fab 5 story of your own from any sport?
In fifth grade, I was part of an undefeated grade school basketball team. What part you ask? I was the part that sat on the bench! My best friends and I didn’t get much playing time--until halfway through the season when the starters had to quit the team for academic reasons. The next few games were like the Bad News Bears--we were getting blown out! Our goal was to win the last game of the season, which was against our rivals. We were not the most skilled players, but we practiced twice a day to come together as a team-and it was amazing to see the improvement. Ben Holt stopped shooting at his own basket, Jason Hamilton stopped trying to trip the referee, and Tom Eppich-who only had one arm because of a surfing accident-ended up hitting the game winning shot against Tom Stuber Academy in the last game of the season. It was an experience I’ll never forget, and to this day those guys are still my best friends. They were actually in Toronto for the premiere of “More Than A Game” at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Kri's Fab 5. Best friends still to this day- Akron Premiere of MTAG
What do you want kids, parents and coaches to take away from the film?
The biggest lesson I want everyone to take away from this film is the power of dreams. The Fab 5 had a dream--it seemed impossible (winning a national championship), but they had that dream. They kept after that dream for 9 years, and in their last game together, they were able to accomplish it. That is a powerful message. When most people hear about the film, they assume it’s the “LeBron James” story, but that is only a small portion of the film. There are 5 other characters, and one common goal--and through hard work, YEARS of sacrifice, and playing together as one team, they are able to reach that goal.
What was most impressive to you about Coach Dru and the Fab 5?
I’m so grateful that Coach Dru allowed me to be a part of this journey. They were going through so much as a team, he could have seen me as an added distraction, but he took a chance. I remember very clearly, when he heard I was a student, he gave me access to one practice. “Come to practice tomorrow, and get what you need to get for your class assignment.” That practice came, and I was just so impressed by these characters-on and off the court. I knew I had to come back. So I just showed up the next day at practice, and nobody said anything. The next thing you know, I’m on the team bus, in team hotels, and at all the games...I was like the unofficial member of the team who was terrible at basketball.
What was the coolest part of your experience making this film?
It was just so rewarding to see the film finally come together after working on it for 7 years. My favorite memory was the premiere of the film at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival. Coach Dru, LeBron, Dru III, Romeo, and Willie were all there, sitting next to me. It was the first time they had seen the film, and it was in a public audience of 1200 people...talk about nerve racking! When the film was finished, there was a giant standing ovation, and the guys just embraced each other-very overtaken by the moment. That was a very personally rewarding moment for me.
What did you learn most or take away personally & professionally during the making of the film?
I see a lot of parallels in the journey I went through making this film-and the journey I was telling within the film. I have always wanted to be a filmmaker-and to tell stories. Making this film was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took 7 years of balancing school, working at a coffee shop, going into debt to fly back and forth between Akron and Los Angeles. I ate a lot of Ramen Noodles throughout that period, but it was a story that had to be told. I felt that if I didn’t tell this story, nobody ever would. To finish the film in the way I set out to seven years earlier taught me that if you set a goal, work hard, and sacrifice, you really can achieve that goal.
What are your favorite sports movies and why?
My favorite sports movies are Rudy and Major League. Rudy has so much heart, and is based on a real life story---someone who had a dream, and wouldn’t let anything in the way of that dream. I’m also a huge Notre Dame fan, so it was pretty easy to get me in the theater for that one.
Major League is quite different from Rudy as it’s a sports comedy, but it is probably my favorite sports film of all time. Growing up in Northeast Ohio sets us fans up for quite a bit of sports failure--and that film really captured that essence perfectly. It made it okay for us to laugh at the tradition of losing we had grown so accustomed to, and yet let us continue to dream about coming out of that slump. It really is the perfect combination of comedic and heartfelt emotion. Also, I was at the Indians game where they filmed all the crowd scenes for the big game at the end, so if you pause the film on the first crowd shot after Wild Thing (Charlie Sheen) strikes out Haywood, you’ll see me sitting there eating cotton candy...enjoy.
What part of the making of the film was the most challenging?
The biggest challenge was getting people to see that this is more than a film about LeBron. After working on my own for five years, I knew I needed some financial support to get this film finished in a way it deserved. I felt the story warranted professional editing, musical support, and visual effects--all things I could not afford on my coffee shop salary! Everyone I met with, however, was only interested in the LeBron angle. He was the “safe” play--and people didn’t want to take a chance telling a story about friendship and brotherhood. Finally I met a music producer named Harvey Mason Jr, and he saw power in the story I was trying to tell. Not only would he help finance the film, he was going to produce the score for the film--something that really takes the film to another level in my opinion.
What kind of films would you like to make next?
I’m looking to tell stories with great characters-whether they be fiction or non-fiction. I felt spoiled being part of such an amazing story with “More Than A Game,” so I’m definitely going to be picky with my next film.
With LeBron shooting another film this summer, do you think he’ll do well as a real actor?
LeBron has a natural camera presence, as we’ve seen in many of his commercials. I’m sure he’ll be able to hold his own quite well.
What scenes were cut that you wish would have made it into the film?
There aren’t any scenes that were cut out, but a lot of basketball hi-lights didn’t make the film...they made it feel too basketball heavy. It was hard editing some of them out because they are plays that are incredible for a high school team, but it was a decision I had to make.
At what point in the journey did you know that you really had something special?
After SVSM takes over the #1 ranking in the country, there was a giant shift in the way their team was perceived. A lot of people started to feel that they were getting too much media exposure, too many privileges and too much attention. This resentment really started to take its toll on the team, and yet the way they stuck together as friends allowed them to overcome the situation. To me that was special--they were only 17-year-old kids at that point, and yet they were facing something most adults never have to face. I knew that the story had the chance to be on the big screen at that point.
If you had to go back, what would you do differently?
There would be times when we’d be sitting in the edit room, and Scott (my unbelievably talented editor) and I would see a shot that is out of focus, or something interested on the screen that I didn’t pay attention to-and I’d get down about it. At the end of the day though, I was a student when I started this film learning as I went. If I didn’t have that degree of “student” in me when I was filming this, it never would have happened. One of the reasons Coach Dru let me be a part of this journey was because I was a student. The guys trusted me because I was close to them in age. They didn’t see me as a filmmaker or member of the media, and that allowed me to go places with them emotionally that others couldn’t get access to. When I reflect on things like that, I realize I wouldn’t change a thing in my process.
Follow Kris on Twitter: @krisbelman