I suppose an explanation is in order.
Friend of G:TB Shlara is both connected and a little bit of a marketing genius. LeBron and his high school teammates from St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School are featured in a forthcoming documentary entitled More Than a Game (Lionsgate). The movie started as a film school project for Akron native Kris Belman, a 10-minute documentary assignment by a novice filmmaker. The fact that it became a feature length film is nearly as unlikely as the story of our involvement.
One of Shlara's friends is responsible for the film's public relations push in Washington, D.C. One online introduction and several incredulous emails later, we received confirmation that G:TB's voice fit with the film's promotional strategy (I know what you're saying, and I agree. I wasn't aware that we had a voice. Again with Shlara's genius.) And that's how I found myself in a room at the Ritz-Carlton interviewing Dru Joyce III, Willie McGee, Romeo Travis, Kris Belman, and yes, LeBron James as part of a panel comprising three real journalists and one still-bewildered blogger.
We'll provide a review of the film itself closer to the October 2 release date - believe me, we've got a ton of material. Suffice it for now to say that I'd highly recommend More Than a Game to anyone who has a father, or children, or friends. This post is mostly about us. Forgive the indulgence; next time we get into the end zone we'll act like we've been there before.
The PR team confirmed the interview with us early last Wednesday. I spent the better part of the next two days trying hard not to puke. What do I wear? What do I ask? Could I talk about mustaches? I wanted the participants to think I knew what I was doing, even though the last interview I conducted was as the editor of the Woodbridge Senior High School newspaper. And that was probably with one of my friends. I didn't want to piss off the professional writers who were doing their jobs. I sure as hell didn't want to let Shlara down in front of her friend. Did I mention that I didn't want to puke?
Before the interview, Shlara, Teejay and I attended a press screening of the film at Regal 14 Cinemas in the District. (We'd have pictures of Teej with Kevin Durant, but for the fact that Shlara is as technology-clueless as she is public relations-savvy). Father-turned-coach Dru Joyce II opens the film saying, "Basketball is a vehicle." In his telling, it's a vehicle to build character, to turn boys to men, to teach even adults the lessons hard won in failure. In the words of Belman, the director of the documentary, it's also a vehicle to tell a story about loyalty. About fathers and sons, brothers - in arms and in fact - and best friends. About sacrifice and redemption and passion. The movie benefits from a cinematically perfect real-world narrative arc upon which Hollywood's finest scriptwriters would be hard-pressed to improve. And in a great many ways, it's about all of us. As it was pointed out to me earlier today, if the St. Vincent-St. Mary's guys had a blog, it'd be like Gheorghe, only with different YouTubes and more posts about sneaker culture.
Gheorghe: the Blog hasn't traditionally been a venue for deep thought. It was conceived by a bored middle manager as a reaction against raging self-importance in sport and society, and evolved into, well, I'm not sure it's evolved much - we're still mostly an exercise in niche entertainment. Over its nearly six years, though, it's become a metaphor for the brotherhood and camaraderie we share in real life, a bond that might have been weakened by time and distance kept intact. A pale electronic echo, in some sense, but real nonetheless. In the same way, the four boys who began their basketball careers at a Salvation Army in Akron, OH (joined later by a fifth) stand in for everyone who's ever laughed with, fought, yelled at, mocked, heckled, and loved their buddies. LeBron and the boys are a mirror image of the G:TB team. A funhouse mirror image, for sure, but the similarities resonated with me throughout this experience.
After seeing the movie, nearly all of my nerves disappeared. (Nearly, but not entirely all. I almost spilled coffee on myself as I killed time before the interview because my hands were shaking so much.) As portrayed on film, and revealed in a question-and-answer session immediately after the screening, Dru, Willie, Romeo, LeBron, and Sian are a likable, friendly, comfortable, natural group. One of them just happens to be among the most transcendently gifted athletes in the world. The interview itself flew by in an instant. I tried hard to be respectful of the other interviewers, and tried even harder to listen to the conversation instead of thinking about my own questions. My only regret was not asking the group their thoughts about Gheorghe Muresan; that'll be the first thing I ask the next time I talk to LeBron.
Thanks to the enterprising Teejay Doyle, Team G:TB purchased a digital voice recorder in advance of the interview, enabling me to capture the transcript that follows. I'll note for the record that I have a substantial newfound respect for real journalists and how hard it is to both conjure insightful questions and transcribe the responses accurately. I think I did okay on the former, and I hope I've done the latter, with apologies in advance to the Fab Five if I missed a word or two. The following reflects answers to questions posed by G:TB only, though as I noted above, we've got tons of material. Enough for a few more of these posts in the runup to the movie's release. Our loyal readers have become accustomed to redundancy as an editorial strategy, so this should be nothing new.
Willie McGee and Dru Joyce II joined us first. These questions are for them.
G:TB: He (Director Kris Belman) got a lot of stuff from you guys, sort of after the fact (note: the film features interviews conducted with each of the players in the present day). You guys sorta opened up and were really comfortable talking about a lot of stuff. Was that because of the comfort level you guys have with each other, or was it just kinda the guys you are?
Willie McGee: I think it was that Coach Dru gave his blessing. At the time we had a lot of media at practices around at times. He said it was a college student doing his project and really gave his blessing for him to be in the gym at times. Like Dru said (note: in response to a previous question), he really wasn't in our faces. He just kinda let things unfold. Plus, he was a good guy, y'know joking around. And after a period of time, we really became comfortable with him. It was like he was a friend who just had a camera.
Dru Joyce III: I think the questions, when we sat down and started doing our first interviews...we're a real comfortable group. We give you realness and if you ask the right questions and get the conversation rolling, we have no problem sharing our story. I mean, because we've been blessed, you know, been blessed with a great opportunity, and who wouldn't want to tell their story. We've got so much to offer.
Willie McGee: All we need is someone to listen (laughter).
G:TB (to Kris Belman, who had just entered the room): We were just asking them how you got them to open up...
Kris Belman: What'd they say?
G:TB: Well, they said they're the kind of guys who like to tell their story anyway. Were you surprised to get that level of openness in some of the interviews and dialogue?
Kris Belman: Well, I think it was kind of two things. I think, first of all, with them loyalty to all five of them and Coach, I think loyalty is one of the most important things. And I think a lot of that was exemplified by the way they grew up. I think loyalty was of the utmost paramount, and, you know, once they did accept me and what I was trying to do I was kind of accepted and that loyalty was given to me. It's one of those situations where when you're on the in, they'll do anything for you. Pretty early on, that trust was given to me. I asked for photos, I called Romeo up and said, 'Hey, I need photos of you', he'd FedEx a giant box the next day of the original baby footprints and original photos of him as a baby. That's unbelievable to me, you know? I'm in college, I'm in L.A., and his family trusts me that much they're sending me his original baby photos. That's the trust that you get when you're on the inside with these guys because loyalty's so important. But as far as getting some of those interviews and so on, I don't know, I feel like it was just because we'd been together for so long at that point I was going back and doing more and more interviews and most of the interviews in the finished film were shot after knowing the guys for five or six years. I think that trust allowed us to go into certain areas that maybe a year in they wouldn't have been comfortable going into.
G:TB (to Dru Joyce III): You could probably look at how tall I am (note to our new readers: not very) and see who I identified most in the film. (laughter from Dru, who stood all of 4'10" when he played for St. VM as a freshman) One of the other things I identified with was that, you know, my Dad was a lot, I think, like your Dad when he was coaching me. And in our relationship there were times when it was kind of strained. For you, watching that again on the screen, what was that like and how do you think that affects you as you want to move into coaching and someday have kids of your own?
Dru Joyce III: I think my Dad did a wonderful job. The film tells the real tough times, it goes into the times that weren't good, but, y'know, our relationship was never broken. I just want to put that in the clear. It was never broken. We were always there for each other. He was always there for me no matter what was going on, that didn't separate us. But, you know, there were tough times where I probably couldn't stand him. I didn't want to hear another word from him. And he was tough on me, but things like that, they pay off. And I'm living the payoff right now. I went to college to play Division I basketball - that was a dream of mine. I'm playing professional basketball - that was another dream of mine. I pay tribute to how my Dad coached me, because he put the basketball in my hand and he made me work, and those things that he taught me can never be replaced.
Note: It's not a spoiler to note here that Willie McGee moved from Chicago as an 11 year-old to escape a tough environment and live with his brother, Illya, in Akron when the latter was a senior in college. And it'll help the next question make a lot more sense.
G:TB: Willie, one of my favorite parts of the movie was your relationship with your brother. I'm 39 years old, I have a 7 year-old daughter, and I don't feel like I'm ready. You're roughly now the same age as he was when you came down. Have you thought about that, and what something like that would mean for you?
Willie McGee: Yes, I definitely have. I definitely give him credit for being man enough to take on the challenge. Because he didn't know what was ahead of him. Two years ago, I thought the same thing. It was at that time that he brought me here and would I be ready to do the same things like that, and I don't know if I would have. But if I had to, I would, for my younger brother. It'd be something we'd go through together and I'd give him everything I had. And I definitely commend him for that.
Romeo Travis enters the room, and Willie McGee leaves
G:TB: You guys played for Coach Dambrot there (at Akron University - Dru Joyce III and Romeo Travis played there after graduating from St. Vincent - St. Mary's for Keith Dambrot, who coached them to two state championships during their first two seasons in high school), right? How was the transition going back to him after playing for Coach Dru (Joyce II)?
Dru Joyce III: It was kind of like a 3-year break. We did 2 years with my father (note: as head coach) and another year while he was the assistant. It was different because he (Coach Dambrot) couldn't approach the game the same way he did as when we were in high school. The passion and his effort was still there, but his philosophy had to change a little bit because, you know, college is a different level. It was kinda surprising to me. i thought, you know, it was just Coach D, we're gonna just pick everybody up from the locker room and we're gonna push the ball until everybody in the gym is tired of looking at us. But that wasn't the case - we had to play a different style. I think it catered more to the rest of the team, but Coach D, what you see is what you get. You seen him jumping in the film, stomping his feet and pointing, still sticking his face right here (puts his hand on his chin) in guys' faces. That doesn't change. That's what he's gonna do.
Romeo Travis: Going to college was like getting demoted.
G:TB: How long did it take you to - sounds like you never got comfortable with it, but how long did it take you to work in that environment?
Romeo Travis: Until my junior year. Well, he was a point guard (gestures toward Dru Joyce III). When you're a point guard they let you lead, but I'm a forward, so it takes a lot longer for me. But once I became pushed to the forefront as one of the better players, it's easy. My sophomore and junior year, that's when it was more like, I can say how I feel and be able to talk to other guys.
LeBron James enters the room with Willie McGee. He's tall, but leaner than I expected. Wore Size 15 Ferragamos. I know because he put them up on the table, completely at ease in the environment.
G:TB: Is there something in the film that really stuck out to you as positive, and is there something that you wish wasn't there?
Dru Joyce III: It's a documentary. It's supposed to tell the truth. I like the film. I don't have any problems. It includes the necessary things for us to get the point across and to tell the story. It's all a positive message, even when we lose our minds a little bit, it shows you that people can get off course but you can always get it back, you can always refocus.
G:TB: When you guys lost to Roger Bacon (in the 2002 Ohio Division II State Championship game. Kind of a spoiler, but it is public knowledge, my friends.), how much did Coach Dru have to push you guys the next year, and how much did you guys just say, 'we're not gonna do that again'?
LeBron James: He didn't have to push us at all. That one loss was an eye-opener for us, so that probably was the easiest coaching year Coach Dru had, our senior year because we was just focused.
Romeo Travis: We governed ourselves that year. If one of us actually did something, somebody else would yell 'get it together'. So it was like that loss changed our attitudes.
At this point a revealing discussion regarding the number of sellouts in the history of Cleveland's Gund Arena (now Quicken Loans Arena) ensued. It was probably my favorite part of the interview.
LeBron James: ...only sold out two times that year [their senior season]; once when we played and once when Michael Jordan came back with the Wizards.
Dru Joyce III: They only sold out [Gund/Quicken] two times in history.
LeBron James: ...hmm, yeah, before then. It's probably happened a few times now. They sell out a lot now. (smiling, eyes twinkling, while the others groan)
G:TB: Alright, so when he does stuff like that, do you guys give it back to him? Is it different now? (Yeah, that's right. I just broke LeBron James' balls. Sort of. A little. Tiny. Bit.)
Dru Joyce III: It's coming right back.
Romeo Travis: What I've learned is, you can't really listen to half the stuff he says. It's just gonna be outlandish. (laughter) It's just gonna be out of control. If you try to [accurately] depict everything he says, you're gonna be frustrated.
G:TB: As you look back, you know, six/seven years ago [when you were in high school], is there something you wish you could have carried forward to today that you don't have anymore?
Romeo Travis: I wish I didn't have to pay bills.
Dru Joyce III: I wish I was still playing with these guys, man. I never had teammates who shared that passion for winning and wanted to work hard to win. At all levels, I just never was on a team that had that same passion. It makes it tough at times. It's frustrating when you get guys out there who really don't care if we lost, it's not a big deal to them. Because it's a big deal to me. And I want everybody to feel like it's a big deal.
G:TB: You still feel it every game? Every loss?
Dru Joyce III: Man, I hate losing. (note: I take it back. This was my favorite part of the interview. Dru Joyce III will be a terrific leader of men, as a coach or whatever he chooses, when he retires from basketball.)
(L-R: Romeo Travis, Your Humble Blogger, Willie McGee, LeBron James, Dru Joyce III)