Kristopher Belman was in school when he returned home Akron, Ohio, to work on a 10-minute piece for a documentary film course.
He chose to do something on a local high-school basketball team that featured LeBron James, then gaining national attention and now the National Basketball Association's reigning most-valuable-player. Using his "student filmmaker" card, Belman talked his way into one practice - then kept coming back. Eventually, he had shot the basketball-video equivalent of early films of the Beatles playing in Hamburg.
The documentary Belman shaped from that footage, More than a Game, is made buzz-worthy by James, but he's just one part of a fly-on-the-wall story about a high-school team that also includes Romeo Travis, Willie McGee, Sian Cotton, Dru Joyce III and their head coach, Dru Joyce. The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, and James and his teammates, seeing it for the first time, embraced in tears when the credits rolled.
It's 'LeBron's movie,' but is it a LeBron James movie?
A lot of people see him on the poster and see his name and they assume it's his film, but when they come out of the film they've learned about these other characters that maybe they relate to better than LeBron, and certainly Coach Dru's character is the most universally relatable. My hope is that whether it's Willie or Sian or Coach or whoever, there's a character that as a fan of movies you can relate to, not just as a fan of sports.
Do you still shake your head sometimes at what you were on hand to document?
There's just so much drama in run-of-the-mill life, I'm always amazed by that. Things that couldn't be scripted that just happen. There you are in the national championship game and they're losing at half-time, it's the last game they'll ever play together, it's the apex of the film and they're down by four. They were bummed out, I was freaked out for the future of the film.
And you're expecting Coach Dru to be all fire-and-brimstone and instead he delivers that completely atypical speech, going right into the hearts and souls of the players.… That was the perfect example of something you couldn't script, and it was one of the most powerful moments in the film.
Was it difficult to convince LeBron to help complete the film?
It wasn't hard to convince him, but it was impossible to get in front of him. There was a two-year period when I was trying to raise financing for the film and at the same time get back in front of LeBron so I could finish the film, and he was pretty inaccessible at that point.… I went back to Akron with a 12-minute trailer and took the other four guys to dinner and said, "Hey, I hate asking you about this but I need someone to put me in front of LeBron."
It was the last night and I was heading back to L.A. and the phone rang and it was Romeo, and it was like, "Hey Cameraman, meet me at the gas station on route 18 … we're going to LeBron's house, we're going to surprise him." We kind of cold-called him, but he invited us in and I popped this DVD in and he watched about 10 times in a row and after probably the 10th time he was like, "All right, whatever you need from me, I want to finish this the right way, let's do it."
Do the players know your name yet?
They still call me Cameraman, but after Toronto it's just my nickname. They know my name is Kris, but "cameraman" is what's in their phones and what shows up on my e-mails. I will always be Cameraman to them, but I'm okay with that.