Kristopher Belman was a college student working on a ten-minute class project when he began working on what would become a feature-length documentary that promises to be one of the most successful non-fiction pictures of the year. “More Than a Game” follows the career of future NBA superstar LeBron James, his coach and his teammates at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Ohio, and it was serendipity that brought Belman to the subject—and kept him at it.
“I’m from Akron,” Belman explained in a recent Dallas interview, “and when I was entering my junior year of college, I transferred to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. I really wanted to get into storytelling at that point. I wasn’t sure what aspect of it—screenwriting or directing. But because I transferred in, a lot of times your classes are limited when you transfer. You’re one of the last people to register.
“So I ended up in this Introduction to Documentary Filmmaking class. I hadn’t had a lot of exposure to documentaries, but it seemed interesting enough. I was taking a lot of flak from my new L.A. friends and classmates for being from Ohio—I was really taking a lot of heat, and everyone assumed I was a farmer. I’ve never milked a cow in my life, but I couldn’t convince my classmates of that back then.
“So because the assignment was a ten-minute documentary, I told my classmates I was going to go back and make my film in Akron. They were saying, ‘What’s in Akron?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to make a film and show you.’ Then I had to back it up with something.
“At this point the boys were in high school already and doing some pretty incredible things on the court. I remembered reading an article maybe a year before that had mentioned that four of them had played together since fourth grade and had made a bond that they were going to go to high school together. That really stuck with me. I thought that was a sophisticated decision to make involving friendship. Also, knowing the city and school as I did, these are four African-American kids, inner-city kids, who decided to go to a predominantly white, private school. And I thought that was a kind of unique decision. I researched that, and it was the only school where they felt they could continue staying together. I was kind of blown away by that. I thought that was really inspiring.
“I decided that was going to be the focus of this ten-minute class project. That’s why I approached the school and the coach. I crashed at my parents’ house, and it took me two or three weeks to finally get in touch with someone. At this point everybody was trying to get to LeBron and the school was really hesitant about media—they wanted to maintain some normalcy.
“They finally set up a meeting with Coach Dru [Joyce II], and I remember them saying, ‘Just so you know, we just rejected Sixty Minutes and LeBron just turned down David Letterman, so good luck.’ I’m thinking, okay, I’ve got zero shot at this. But I said, I’m from Akron, and this isn’t about LeBron, it’s about these five boys and about friendship more than anything. I made that very clear. And I said, ‘You have to help me get an A, coach. This is for a class project.’ That was a cheap shot, but it worked. Coach gave me permission to come to one practice and get what I needed for the ten-minute assignment.
“So I came the next day, and I was blown away, not by the things they were doing on the court—which were pretty incredible—but you could tell these guys had known each other all their lives. It just felt that way. They were finishing each other’s jokes and referencing things from years past. It was really kind of a special environment. And I thought, one day’s not enough for this. I remember going home that night and watching my footage, and I heard coach say, ‘Okay, guys, tomorrow practice is at 7am.’ So I thought, I guess he’s talking to me, too. I just showed up again with my camera and nobody said anything. I really just kept coming back after that, and finally it was like I was like an unofficial member of the team that sucked at basketball.”
And gradually the film grew beyond the original ten-minute project. “As the senior year went along and I spent more time with them,” Belman said, “I started learning more about them as characters. I knew what the main story was—they’re trying to win the national championship—but to have a feature-length film, you need to have individually developed characters, and I couldn’t learn that until the season was going along and I got to know them better. In fact, a lot of the things I didn’t learn until the season was over. It was later that I figured out how these individual stories might relate to the main story. The biggest thing that happened was that I realized the evolution of Coach Dru, and what he would mean to the film. Because when I first approached them, I said this was a story about the five guys. But when I watch the film now, I feel like the central figure is Coach Dru. He has the fullest arc, and that was evolving as the season unfolded. That’s when I really felt it could be feature-length. I turned in a ten-minute project for the class, but I really didn’t put my all into it. I was really working toward a bigger picture.”
So Belman continued the project into his senior year, traveling sporadically back to Akron to develop the players’ back-stories. “Then I began a two-year quest to raise financing for the film, and also to get back filming LeBron,” he said. “By this time he was in the NBA, and there were people trying to get to him to do projects. I knew I needed his final interviews to really finish this thing the right way.”
Belman got a B+ for his ten-minute class project. But a couple of weeks before the Dallas interview, the night before the L.A. premiere, he got to show his film to faculty and students at Loyola Marymount. “It was probably my favorite screening, that and the Akron screening, because we got to fill the theatre with all the current film students. I was in one of those seats five years ago. And I had three classmates with me that helped with the project. The support from the university and the students there was one of the most meaningful things to me.”