The Family that Plays Together
LeBron James' childhood coach and mentor discusses family, faith and why basketball is truly More Than a Game
In the white-hot glare of worldwide celebrity there are no shadows, there are only outsized figures of triumph or scorn. They are presented to us as fully formed creations, media amplified surfaces without depth who occupy our fantasies until something else inevitably takes their place. This strange and rare sort of fame — which basketball phenom LeBron James enjoys — generally obscures the flesh and blood reality behind the image. A great deal of the power behind Kristopher Belman’s documentary More Than a Game comes from its ability to trace James’ career back to the time when he was an 11-year-old AAU basketball player, back to the Salvation Army gym in Akron, Ohio, where he befriended three other young players: Sian Cotton, Willie McGee and Dru Joyce III. That “Fab 4” soon moves way beyond being a talented basketball team. Along with their coach Dru Joyce II, they become a surrogate family whose deep bonds will eventually be sorely tested over a nine-year period by their enormous success as well as LeBron’s incredible talent and star power. Below, Coach Dru Joyce II shares some of the stories with Busted Halo that go beneath the surface, to add some shadow and depth to one of the planet’s most recognized faces.
Busted Halo: One of the things that struck me is that More Than a Game is a film about family and its many different forms. The original Fab Four, the nucleus of the team, got together when they were around eleven years, and LeBron, Sian, Willie and your son Dru very quickly become a family of sorts with you being sort of a father figure. What do you think it was that helped that familial bond to occur so strongly between them?
Coach Joyce: [When they were young] we kind of did this a little different than a lot of travel teams. A lot of travel teams might practice early when they put the team together, but then after they start travelling they stop practicing. But when the guys were young we didn’t do it that way. The motto for our organization was “teach them how to play and the winning will take care of itself.” So we practiced a lot and we spent two or three nights a week sometimes driving an hour away just to find a place to practice. But we spent a lot of time together in the car talking and them talking. So those were just opportunities for those guys to continue to bond. They first recognized each other’s abilities to play basketball — because all of them were very good — but that just kind of opened the door to the friendship that they had for one another. They said in the film that they looked out for each other. They cared about each other, they shared everything. That just grew from the time spent and the experiences that they had together.
BH: There’s a moment when Romeo comes into the picture in high school and he talks about how the original four hung out together. They were — in his words — kind of “touchy-feely” to a certain extent, or sort of affectionate, and he was not used to that. In fact, I think it was Willie at some point who said when these guys would sleep over at each other’s houses — which sounded like it was all the time — there was a sense that they would really talk about what their feelings were, which was unusual to him. When do you remember seeing that start taking shape in their relationship?
CJ: Oh it took shape early on, like fifth grade for Dru, LeBron, and Sian. The bond happened fast and we were traveling on the weekends during the travel season. Once that was over, during the summertime those first few years, a lot of the time they were at my house and they would just be bodies there sleeping on the rec room floor. [Laughs.] They didn’t try to put on any airs. They cared about each other. They let you know it. They laughed and had good times with each other.
BH: Education was a huge part of your family and your trajectory as an adult in terms of just succeeding, etc?
CJ: Honestly, yeah. When you consider that neither of my parents graduated high school but my mom worked around and for educated people she understood the value of an education and there was no question with me —I was going to college. I went on to graduate and I was the first person in our family to graduate from college. So that was quite an achievement for us. But I kind of lost my dream in that process. When I went to college I was going to go there to become a teacher and coach football but then I got involved in corporate America and it brought a lot of rewards to me and my family. But as I got more and more involved in the coaching, I guess it’s one of the kinds of things, you know, God gives you a dream and it doesn’t leave. Sometimes you might sweep it under the rug or hide it in a closet but it’s still there. And as I continued to work with the young men, that desire to coach and be a part of developing young lives just radiated out. And there was a point where I just had to question, “What am I doing that’s really of value?” But I continued to work all the way through 2004.
My wife and I, we were presented with an opportunity — I believe now, but at that point I kind of felt like the company was putting me out to pasture. They were taking me out of the large account that was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and to an account in Syracuse, New York. And I would have to travel there once a week. But I told my wife after I left that meeting, I said, you know, hey my mouth said ‘yes’ to the transfer but my heart said ‘no’. And with no job in sight — just a buyout we negotiated with the company and our savings – we started out on a faith walk. We just believed that we were going to build a life around the basketball and the coaching. And you know, God has blessed us — and we’ve been able to do that.
BH: That’s great. So you’re full time coaching at St. Vincent-St. Mary [High School in Akron, OH]?
CJ: Yeah. St. Vincent-St. Mary as a full time coach but that’s not how I earn my living. I put on what is now probably if not the largest, one of the largest travel basketball tournaments in the country. At the end of April this will be our fifth year. We put on a tournament that brought, last year, 528 teams to the city of Akron for a weekend tournament of over 5,000 athletes. There were 12,000 visitors and over $3.5 million to the local economy. And that’s kind of how we earn our living now, putting on those basketball tournaments.
And then I do a second one which is much smaller, and then I do some basketball camps and some clinics and things like that. But that’s how we are blessed and continue being close to basketball. It’s called the King James Shooting Stars Classic. I went to LeBron with the idea and told him I wanted to use the name The King James Shooting Stars. When he was young the name of our team was The Shooting Stars, we were called the Northeast Ohio Shooting Stars, and when he went into the NBA I told him I wanted to change the name to The King James Shooting Stars. He supports the AAU travel teams, but we changed the name.
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