‘More Than a Game’ Is About More Than LeBron

What happened to brotherhood? For real! What happened to young black men working together for a common purpose?

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When More Than a Game opens (in select theaters) on Oct. 2, one scene is all it’ll take for people to understand what the documentary is really about.

The star of the film, LeBron James, and the rest of his teammates on the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School basketball team are being escorted out by family members in celebration of their “Senior Night.” Introduced last, LeBron walks out not with his mother with whom he has a close relationship, but rather, his four teammates: Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis, Sian Cotton and Willie McGee. LeBron, the biggest star on his team even then, wants all to see that he and the four men he has his arms around are more than teammates—they’re brothers. It’s an emo moment. It’s authentic. And it works.

And over and over again, this is the message first-time director Kristopher Belman slams in your face—without breaking his wrist on the rim. The documentary follows Joyce, Travis, Cotton, McGee, James and their coach, Dru Joyce II (father of Joyce III), through the ups and downs of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and high school basketball. It just so happens that one of them turns out to be the biggest star in the NBA and one of the most famous and sometimes bratty men in the world.

Mixed with home-video footage of their early years, Belman’s film tells the story of five young black men and their coach from their humble beginnings in an Akron, Ohio, Salvation Army gym, to the culmination of their fantastic finish as national high school basketball champions. But in More Than a Game, basketball is to the film what Coach Joyce tells his players it is to life: only a vehicle to help turn boys into men.

More Than a Game is not like Hoop Dreams, the critically acclaimed 1994 documentary about the competitive world of high school basketball and college recruitment. It’s about young black men coming together through basketball. It’s about an older black man being a father and a coach to not only his son, but also to his four teammates. The movie is about bonds between men. And therein lies its beauty.

To let many Hollywood documentaries tell it, the only time black men come together like LeBron and company do is when they’re being jumped in a gang. To let today’s hip-hop tell it, it’s every man for himself. To let Michael Jordan tell it, as he did so eloquently in his recent Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech, there may be no “I” in “team,” but there is an “I” in “win.” How far have we strayed from the early ‘90s when the most popular clique in the country was the Fab 5, the nickname given to the starters of the University of Michigan men’s basketball team? (In More Than a Game, James and his teammates dub their own starting five the “Fab 5.”)

Since the mid-to-late ‘90s, when players like Jordan were single-handedly beating teams, and rap groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan had members going solo, the idea of young black men working together for a common purpose has come undone. As Mos Def once rapped in “Thieves in the Night,” “Get yours first/ Them other ni**as secondary/ That type of illin’ that be fillin up the cemetery.” By the way, that line was taken from Mos and Talib Kweli’s 1998 album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star (Rawkus)—the only album they made as a duo before both going solo.

Whether it’s music, movies or sports, let’s keep it real, the term “brother,” as applied to non-blood-related men, is only something we say to sound hip. We don’t really see true brotherhood being demonstrated between black men, at least not in the most popular forms of entertainment—sports included. And when we do, it gets muted. Take for example the difference in promotion between last year’s film Miracle at St. Anna, about a group of four black soldiers in World War II directed by Spike Lee, and the promotion of this year’s World War II film, Inglourious Basterds, about a group of Jewish-American soldiers in World War II directed by Quentin Tarantino. You could say one was a bigger vehicle, with Brad Pitt at the helm, but really, the undeniable fact is Tarantino’s film received a way bigger push than Lee’s. More people should have seen Spike’s movie.

We all know what happens to LeBron once the film is over—he becomes the best player and main attraction on the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team. More Than a Game will be known as LeBron’s movie. After all, he is credited as an executive producer; he’s doing most of the press to promote the film; he figures most prominently on the movie’s poster. But from the opening to the closing credits, More Than a Game is a documentary about more than LeBron, it’s a documentary about brotherhood, for the win.

Jozen Cummings is a former editor at VIBE and lives in Harlem. His new blog is Untiligetmarried.

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