More Than a Coach for urban faith

The Fab Five and Their Mentor: Coach Dru Joyce II (front) with his championship team from Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School; (from left) Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton, LeBron James, Willie McGee, and Romeo Travis.

When he was leading LeBron James’ high school team to a national championship, Coach Dru Joyce wasn’t thinking about fame and glory but how to teach his guys to be both successful basketball players and successful human beings. The team, which in addition to James included Joyce’s son Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee, and Romeo Travis, made national headlines for their spectacular play.

Joyce began coaching the boys in 1997 when they were a part of a Northeast Ohio youth travel league. He juggled that role with a job in corporate America, until he became their full-time coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School during their junior year.

In the new documentary More Than a Game (Rated PG), viewers get an intimate look at the journey of the “Fab Five” and their devoted coach. Like a 21st-century Hoop Dreams, the film shows how the team dealt with the ups and downs of basketball and teen pressures. But More Than a Game features the added twist of documenting what life was like in the midst of the growing frenzy that surrounded a hardwood prodigy and future NBA superstar.

UrbanFaith chatted with Joyce, a former youth director at his church, about coaching that remarkable high school team and how it feels to have their story presented on the big screen.

URBAN FAITH: How did this film come into being?

More Than a Coach for urban faithCOACH DRU JOYCE: I was coaching the St. Vincent- St. Mary High School basketball team, and it was the team’s senior year. We had closed the practices to the media and the public — even to families. It wasn’t a very popular move, but I didn’t want anyone in the gym distracting us from our goal that year, which was to win the last game of the season — and that, of course, would be the national championship. We had taken our eyes off of that goal and got caught up in our success the previous season, so I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again. I wanted us to stay focused.

But then the school’s public relations director came to me accompanied by a young college student named Kristopher Belman. She explained that Kris was working on a class project, and that he wanted to create a ten-minute documentary about our team. She asked if he could follow us around for a couple days to put this documentary together. I could tell that Kris didn’t have any kind of ulterior motives, so I allowed him to come into a practice that first day. The team was looking at me like, “Coach Dru, who is this guy?” But he stayed in the background and just blended in. After a few days, we forgot he was even there. The guys warmed up to him and eventually started referring to him affectionately as “Camera Man.” He became part of the team.

Did he know from the beginning how special this documentary could be?

As the season went on, and Kris was recording it all on film, he said to me, “Coach Dru, there’s a bigger story here.” And I said, “The only story we’re trying to do is this basketball stuff right now.” But after that season was over, he came to me and shared his idea about turning the film into a full-length documentary. From that point forward, he stayed with us for the next seven years. And a lot of the credit for how More Than a Game came together goes to him. He was offered lots of money for that early LeBron footage, but he believed he had a larger story to tell, and he wanted to tell it with integrity. Over time, he had a lot of doors closed in his face, but he finally found people who believed in his vision.

So the movie is more than just “LeBron the Early Years”?

Yes. [Laughs.] I think people will be surprised when they see the film. LeBron is the star, no question. Without his name, people wouldn’t be talking about this movie. But the film is about more than just LeBron. It’s about more than just basketball. It’s about five guys and their coach. And we all have back stories, and Kris does a good job of interweaving those stories into what’s going on during that senior season. He has created a film that I believe will be inspirational to both kids and adults.

Everyone has a dream, but sometimes in life things happen and we lose sight of our dreams, get tied down to the everyday cares, and never really follow through on them. These kids had a dream to become the best basketball players that they could be, and that led them to win a national championship. But more than that, they were a group of guys who were committed to each other, and that’s what the film is really all about.

And you had a dream, too.

I did. From an early age, I had a dream to get my teaching certificate and coach football. But I ended up with a career in corporate America. I was thankful for that, but it wasn’t really where my heart was. But God eventually allowed me to achieve my dream, and it started by my working with that special group of guys.

What was it like coaching your own son on this team with all these other talented athletes, especially LeBron?

To be very truthful with you, I was very hard on Dru. I had seen other dads coaching their sons and letting them do whatever they wanted, and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to give preferential treatment to Dru. There were whispers that the only reason Little Dru is playing is because his dad is the coach, and I wanted everyone to understand that he earned everything that he got.

So, I was very hard on him. And, frankly, it hurt our relationship. That was a tough part of this journey for me, to recognize that Dru and I needed to keep our relationship sacred. As a child, you want to please your parents. And I’m sure there were times when Dru wondered if he could do anything right as far as I was concerned. I had set a standard for him that was so high that other guys could make mistakes but Dru couldn’t.

Eventually, I asked him if I was being too hard on him. When he said yes, it brought me crashing back to reality. I started to work at changing things. I knew I needed to be his father first.

What advice would you have for coaches or other youth leaders today who are working with kids in urban — as well as rural and suburban — environments that are filled with so many distractions and dangers?

First and foremost, as coaches and youth leaders, we have to understand the great responsibility and opportunity that we have to be able to pour our lives into the lives of a young people and help develop them into adults. I think sometimes coaches want to separate who they are as people from the coaching, but you can’t. Who you are as a person is who you are as a coach. You need to recognize that the kids are watching everything you do.

How do I treat my wife in front of them? When we go to a restaurant, how do I deal with the waiter who messes up my order? They’re watching all of those things. In my case, I knew I needed to show them what it takes to be a real man, not this false manhood that we sometimes want to glorify. We talked about being a servant, about being thankful, about living with integrity. Young people need to understand that they are a part of something that’s bigger than them.

What about the NBA fantasy that a lot of young people have today? The odds are that they won’t be the next LeBron James. How do you balance that with motivating them to pursue their dreams?

I knew early on that I never wanted to kill any young person’s dream. LeBron is 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, and blessed with natural talent and speed that most kids can only dream about. But I look, for instance, at my own son. He was a little scrawny kid growing up. He wasn’t the fastest and couldn’t jump as high, but he wanted to play. I talked to him all the time about how we were going to nurture his dream and help him achieve it, but that he needed to also have a Plan B, because what happens if your physical abilities are taken away through injury or something, what do you have left?

The kids who fail to have a Plan B and develop their minds as well as their physical skills need to know that at some point in their lives, that ball is going to stop bouncing. You don’t know when that day is going to come, and if you’re not prepared when that day happens, then life is going to chew you up. But an education can help ensure that life won’t chew you up.

How has your faith played a role in coaching basketball and in the experiences documented in the film?

I try not to compartmentalize my faith. The way I go about life is based on the principles that I’ve learned from my pastor and that I’ve experienced growing up as a Christian. The whole idea of having a vision that I’ve tried to communicate to kids started because of my faith in God. It was all based on my belief that you have to speak positive things into existence, and that all started with my faith in Christ. I saw it with my pastor. He started our church with just four people, and now we’ve got more than 2,000 people and one of the largest African American churches in Northeast Ohio.

More Than a Coach for urban faith

LeBron James takes the court during the heyday of his storied high school career at St. Vincent-St. Mary's in Akron.

As you look at LeBron James’ life now, do you think the values you tried to impart to him stuck?

There are seven principles on a placard on the wall of our gym that I always encouraged the guys to aspire to. They are: Unity, Discipline, Thankfulness, Servanthood, Integrity, Passion, and Humility. I told them that if they pursued those things, they would become good, productive citizens in society. I didn’t beat them over the head with “this is how to be a Christian,” but I let them know that these were Christian values that I believed they needed to incorporate into their lives to be successful.

I’ve seen a lot of these values in our guys and in LeBron today. He’s got discipline, he’s grateful for what he’s been able to achieve, he gives back, especially through his relationship with Nike, and he tries not to let the fame go to his head. He’s very down to earth.

What about the incident after the playoff loss last year where LeBron failed to shake hands with the Orlando Magic players following the game and then didn’t speak to the media?

I know that shaking hands is part of the game, but I don’t necessarily think the act alone makes you a good sport. You can get some of the most unsportsmanlike handshakes and glares when you’re walking through that line after a game. But you do it as a way of demonstrating your sportsmanship, so on the professional level it does have value for the kids who are watching.

LeBron took a lot of flak for not shaking hands after that game, but I know LeBron, and I know he’s not a poor sport. He does hate to lose, and his passion got the best of him that day. I talked to him about it later, and I understood his feelings. He said to me, “You know what, I was wrong for not talking to the media, because their job begins when my job ends. I was wrong for that.” But as far as shaking hands, he said that during the 82 games in the regular season no one usually shakes hands after the game. I personally think the media blew it out of proportion. He didn’t shake hands the previous year following the playoff elimination in Boston, but he did talk to the media that year, so they didn’t make a big deal about it. But since he didn’t talk to the media this last time, I think they decided to make a big deal out of him not shaking hands. He told me that he emailed Dwight Howard [of the Magic] and congratulated him. And to me, that shows his good sportsmanship.

But you understand why folks would make such a big deal out of it, right?

I do. He’s one of the NBA’s top players. But I think the media hype was a bit out of control last year, too. I think LeBron learned a lot from that. Did he want the media hyping him and Kobe [Bryant] that much? No. He knew that he had a job to do to get past Orlando. If he would’ve had his druthers, there wouldn’t have been that “Kobe vs. LeBron” hype. I read some of the things that were written about him later, people calling his character into question, and it was terrible. Those people really don’t know him.

What do you hope will stick with audiences the most after they see More Than a Game?

I hope they’ll get a realistic picture of the journeys of these five young men and their coach. The movie shows that what’s most important in life are the relationships that we have, and you’re going to see five guys who have built significant relationships that they’ll have for the rest of their lives because of who they are and how they believe in each other, and that’s a message that’s bigger than just basketball.

Photos courtesy of Lionsgate

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