With the NBA All Star Game behind us and March Madness just around the bend, two new DVD releases about basketball should keep all you round ball junkies appeased when there isn’t a game on. Both films are true stories; one is essential viewing for any film fan, not just sports aficionados; the other is worth of a rental when you are looking for inspiration, but nothing more.
More Than A Game is director Kristopher Belman’s wonderfully made documentary about the “Akron Fab Five,” a group of high school basketball players from St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Ohio who became national champions back in 2003. You may have heard of his team as they had a basketball phenom on their team by the name of LeBron James. However, the movie isn’t “LeBron James: The High School Years.” Instead it’s a gripping drama about the power of friendship.
Belman, an Akron native, was a film student going to school in Los Angeles and needed to complete a 10-minute documentary class assignment. He decided to return to his hometown to find his subject matter somewhere in the rust belt. Once there he read an article about the St. Vincent-St. Mary’s team, who were in the midst of a national championship season. What intrigued Belman about the team was that James and his three best friends, Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton and Willie McGee, had played together since the 4th grade and had decided that they would stick together throughout high school, even though it meant enrolling at the catholic school when Joyce decided to transfer in order to get playing time on the court.
For Belman, he had a lot of convincing to do as there was a media storm surrounding James (he had already graced the cover of Sports Illustrated) and head coach Dru Joyce II (father of the player) had closed off practices to avoid distractions to his team. But Belman assured Coach Joyce that he would fade into the background while he got the footage for his 10-minute documentary. He also played the “I just want to get an ‘A’ on my class project” trump card.
Belman showed up with his digital camera and began rolling tape. After that one practice, he realized that the story of the Fab Five (which also included Romeo Travis) was bigger than a documentary short. It wasn’t just about a great basketball team, it was a story about how these five young men stuck together and wanted top keep their friendship intact and would always remain loyal to each other. After overhearing Coach Joyce tell his players when the next practice would take place, Belman decided to just show up with his camera and continue recording. He would either be allowed to keep making his movie (even though he was unsure what it would be) or he would be asked to leave. He was never asked to leave and Belman kept showing up until not only was he a fixture at the games and team practices, but he gained the trust of the players and coaches and was given access to the team bus and locker room during pivotal moments in the season.
More Than A Game does more than just follow the uplifting and controversial season of basketball. Belman went back to the beginning, detailing the incredible journey of the five young men. The director did heavy research on the players and their background, explaining where they all came from and how their friendship was formed back in youth basketball. Through archival video footage and extensive, sometimes brutally honest interviews with the players, the coaches and family members, an inspiring and powerful story unfolds in More Than A Game, a story that can and should be appreciated by everyone, not just basketball or sports fans. What’s more, the movie is rated PG so it can be enjoyed with the kids. Check it out!
Hurricane Season, starring Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker is inspired by the real life events of New Orleans basketball coach Al Collins, who brought together a group of high school boys from different parts of Katrina ravaged New Orleans to form a basketball team that would go on to win the 2006 Louisiana state championship. The team was composed of boys from different schools, some of them from arch rival schools. Not only did they all have to overcome the odds of living in destitute and trying to pick up their lives in a city that was a dead zone, but also they had to overcome their own insecurities and dislike of each other.
The true story of Collins and his kids is uplifting and was the basis for a Sports Illustrated article and a report on Sportscenter. It should have been a remarkable movie. In fact, I believe there was a great dramatic film in the works that came undone once production went into the editing room. I say this because as I watched the 24 deleted scenes included on this DVD, there were plenty of moments in those scenes that, should they have made it into the film, would have made this a much better picture. Tim Story, a competent director, pieced together his scenes and story like one of his action movies rather than a slowly developing dramatic film. When it should have been Hoosiers, the film was paced more like Fantastic Four.
It’s a shame because there are some winning qualities to Hurricane Season, starting with Whitaker. He reigns in his typical huffing and puffing to give an impassioned performance. Likewise, the young actors who play the boys on the basketball team all hold their own with the esteemed Whitaker, in particular Robbie Jones, who portrays hot-headed, show boating Brian Randolf, an elite basketball player with a domineering father. Randolf has a bucketful of swagger that gives the film the edge it needs to keep the story from veering too far into schmaltz. Isaiah Washington, the exiled Grey’s Anatomy star also does a fine job in his limited screen time, as does Taraji P. Henson, who portrays Collins’s wife.
The real problem with the film is that there was too much story to tell in the limited time the film provides. Thus, we get a partial development of Collins and his family trying to rebuild their home, a hint at the struggle of the players trying to survive, an acknowledgment that Washington’s coach is struggling. When the director should have been delving into these plots, he chose to give us silly comic relief, like the boys accidentally chewing laxative gum or the school janitor/bus driver cracking jokes.
All of that said, there were moments of Hurricane Season that got to me, as it’s one of a handful of dramatic features that have tackled the subject matter of New Orleans and the aftereffects of Katrina. Indeed, watching the footage of the devastation in that city was sickening; a gross reminder of how horrible the circumstances were and how much the government fucked up in their response to the catastrophe. Someday, I hope that a stronger film comes along and tells a riveting story about the perseverance of the people and the city of New Orleans. Until then, Hurricane Season will have to do.