It started as a school project.
At the time, Akron native Kristopher Belman was a junior at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles taking a film class that required him to shoot a 10-minute documentary. Immediately, he knew he wanted to film something that would bust the stereotypes of the Californians around him. “I was subject to a lot of ridicule,” he laughs. “ ‘What is there in Ohio? You must be a farmer.’ I was determined to make a film that was based on something hometown-related.”
Around the same time, a high school junior named LeBron James was dazzling people well beyond Akron. Eight years later, Belman finished his documentary, More Than a Game. To be released in theaters Oct. 2, the film tells the story of the bond between the five starters on the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School basketball team, including, of course, James.
Belman, now 28, flew to Akron, attended a practice and realized that 10 minutes would never be enough. “I really felt like what these boys were doing was enormous,” he says. “I could tell it was special.”
In that instant, the college assignment morphed into a passion that required him to ditch school — again and again. “I was probably flying back twice a month to Akron for extended periods of time,” he says. “I would make up illnesses and miss college, flying back maybe to take an exam.”
In doing so, he racked up a lot of frequent flier miles — but also five figures of credit card debt. It made him nervous, but that feeling was trumped by the excitement of witnessing the Fab Five in action. After earning the trust of coach Dru Joyce II and the players, he was given near total access, even traveling with the team to out-of-state games. “I felt like I was touring with an up-and-coming rock band,” Belman says.
Belman did manage to graduate from college, with lots of debt and hundreds of hours of footage. He got a job at a coffee shop and tried to secure financing to turn the footage into a movie: He got a lot of offers to buy the film outright but couldn’t find anyone who supported his vision. “They didn’t care about the coach,” Belman says. “They didn’t care about the boys. They just wanted to make the LeBron James highlight reel.”
Belman turned down six-figure offers and pressed on. In 2006, he found financing to finish the project “the right way.”
When the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, all five teammates were there: James; Sian Cotton, who is playing football for Walsh University and hopes to go pro; Dru Joyce III (the coach’s son) and Romeo Travis, who are both playing basketball in Germany; and Willie McGee, who is starting a master’s program at the University of Akron.
Belman was concerned about how the film would be received, but seeing the former teammates sitting together watching the film was perhaps what got to him the most. “They gave me eight years of their life to put them on screen,” he says.
As the film ended, Belman’s eyes were on the five. “[They] stood there and hugged and cried,” he says. “That made it worth whatever sacrifices I made.”
See an advance screening of More Than a Game during Capitol Theatre’s opening gala benefit Oct. 1. For more information, call (216) 961-4242 or visit gordonsquare.org/capitol.