- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

A telling contrast was struck during LeBron James’ visit to the D.C. area this summer while promoting the new documentary about his high school basketball team, “More Than a Game.”

During the screening for the preview audience, it was revealed that Michael Vick — convicted of dogfighting and suspended by the NFL as a result — had been signed by the Philadelphia Eagles. Vick, it has been said, was laid low by his friends and had allowed their behavior to destroy his reputation.

James’ compatriots, meanwhile, had given him mental strength and kept him on the right path, dedicated to accomplishing his goal of becoming the best basketball player on the planet. His coach and his teammates — Dru Joyce II and his son Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis, Willie McGee and Sian Cotton — were all present to talk about the new documentary chronicling their rise to high school basketball greatness.

“More Than a Game” follows the construction of the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School basketball team and its run of three Ohio state championships in four years. But the story begins years before, when coach Joyce put the core of the team together on a traveling youth-league team.

During those early years, he imparted his view on life to the boys in his charge.

“Basketball is like most sports, there’s a lot of life lessons you can learn,” Joyce said, sitting next to James in an interview suite at the Ritz-Carlton. “Teamwork, camaraderie, loyalty, how to deal with the ups and downs, you know? How do you respond to adverse situations on the court and off the court?”

James was no stranger to adverse situations at home: He and his mother lived on the margins of society, moving often and struggling to stay above water. Basketball was a refuge, a place where he and his friends could come together and compete — and beat — better-funded, more fortunate teams.

“When you’re with someone every single day, you go through ups and downs and you laugh and you cry together and everything,” James said of his teammates. “The people you surround yourself with, definitely ultimately either hurts you or helps you. I’m in a position where I’ve got guys around me who not only protect themselves, but also protect me.”

Joyce said his prodigy of a basketball player was looking for more than just protection.

“One thing I want to say about LeBron is that he’s always wanted to be around positive people. Even when he was young, if someone was negative, LeBron didn’t want to be around him,” the coach said. “If you’re on a mission, if you’re trying to do something, you can’t have negative people around you. If they’re pulling on you the wrong way, you’ve got to get rid of them.”

Although most who have shown up for the movie have done so to see James’ rise, director Kristopher Belman made sure to tell the story of his teammates as well. Rebuffing offers to sell the rights to the raw video he shot — originally intended to fulfill a class requirement at the University of Southern California’s film school — Mr. Belman knew there was a deeper story here than highlight-reel footage for ESPN.

“This is coach Dru’s story told through these boys’ dreams,” he explained. “These boys’ stories were there for a reason.”

Surrounded by his subjects on the couch of an interview suite down the hall from Joyce and James, it’s easy to see where the camaraderie comes from: Travis, Joyce II and McGee all get along just as well with the director as they do with one another.

“Kris, aka ‘Cameraman,’ wasn’t really a guy that was pushing up on anyone or trying to be all in depth or make it seem uncomfortable,” Travis explained. “Sometimes he would just turn the camera on and walk away, so you would just look over and see a camera and not think anything about it.”

Travis wasn’t the only one to experience that ease with “Cameraman.”

“No offense to Kris, but I just don’t really remember him being there,” Joyce II said.

Again, trust is always an issue.

“For me, it was all about trust, and I trust Kris,” Travis said. “I just knew that he wouldn’t do anything to hurt any one of us.”

Sonny Bunch

Labor days

The DC Labor FilmFest started Tuesday, but ticket takers and projectionists will be working hard through Monday to bring an eclectic lineup of films focused on work life.

There’s still the festival favorite, “Office Space,” complete with special guests, for example. Mike Judge’s classic cult comedy screens at 9:30 Friday at Georgetown University’s ICC Auditorium (37th Street and O Street Northwest). The film is a hallmark of the festival — what worker doesn’t dream of exacting revenge on an unreasonable boss? For this screening — marking the film’s 10th anniversary — both boss and employee will appear: Stephen Root, who played the put-upon and driven-to-the-edge Milton, and Gary Cole, the nasty Bill.

There are a number of other old and new favorites as well, including “Slap Shot,” the 1977 hockey film starring Paul Newman; “The Grapes of Wrath,” the 1940 ode to the Okies; and “Tokyo Sonata,” the 2008 Japanese drama about downsized workers who don’t tell their families they’ve lost their jobs.

Events beyond the festival proper also are scheduled. This year for the first time, organizers have added a Whistleblower Film Series, aimed at reminding audiences of efforts to restore whistleblower rights for government workers. Free screenings take place Thursday evenings through the end of the month. The next film scheduled is “The Insider,” a 1999 best-picture Oscar nominee starring Russell Crowe as former tobacco company executive Jeffrey S. Wigand, who spills to “60 Minutes.”

The ninth annual festival is presented by the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO; the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute; and the American Film Institute. Most screenings are at AFI’s Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, and a full festival schedule is available at dclabor.org.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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