It may be over seven years since Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary Fighting Irish Fab 5 have played formally as a team and almost a year since More Than a Game played in theatres, but their story as a collective continues to this day at LeBron James's annual King's Academy basketball camp. Based on the University of California, San Diego campus, the five-day event is ostensibly designed to teach youths fundamental basketball and teamwork skills, but a day spent at the camp revealed it to be--not unlike the story told in the film--something much larger and deeper than would suggest on the surface.
What is initially most striking is just how large (literally) and complexly structured the whole camp operation is. This year's edition hosted no less than around 620 campers this year, all between the ages of 7 and 17 and broken into age range groups, and they were all spread into about 60 teams, each with its own coach; said teams were then grouped into 9 conferences run by a designated commissioner. There were 16 basketball courts running simultaneously at various corners of the UCSD campus, with locations varying from six courts inside the campus's main arena (which were generally reserved for the youngest kids, for obvious reasons) to outdoor courts to secondary gyms to tennis courts converted into basketball courts. The person at the helm of the entire operation and responsible for it running smoothly is none other than St. V's venerable Coach Dru Joyce II, often seen throughout the day on his trusty golf cart shuttling between all of of the various stations across the campus--where one would find Romeo Travis and "little" Dru Joyce III on commissioner duty and Sian Cotton coaching one of the squads. (The remaining member of the Fab 5, Willie McGee, was unable to participate this year.) The rather massive scale of this operation and how so many balls (literally and figuratively) were being juggled at once by the entire staff was nothing short of impressive, but even more so was seeing the camp clearly accomplish its intended aim: witnessing all these kids focused, hard at work, and enjoying themselves while doing drills or playing games throughout the whole day was, no exaggeration, a beautiful thing.
However much more about the game of basketball they learned at the camp, for most of the young participants, a chance to interact with the last remaining one of the five is, of course, the main attraction in attending. James did not disappoint on this third day of the camp, conducting a big post-lunch Q&A session with the entire group. The kids were fearlessly frank in some of their questioning, and James always responded with no less than unfiltered candor; for instance, one even dared to asked how James felt when he read Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's infamous letter to Cavs fans in reaction to his decision to leave the team, and such was his respect for his campers that his answer was his first-ever public statement on the letter. (I will respect the exclusivity of the answer and not reveal what he said here.) The openness of this discussion session, which lasted for about an hour if not a bit more, reflected the remarkably welcoming environment of the entire camp.
And a large reason for that atmosphere is the person who set the overall tone: Coach Dru. Needless to say, various crises arose throughout the day, from kids not paying attention to where they were going after dinner and ending up with the wrong group at the wrong court to two kids punching each other in the lunch line (they were made to sit quietly in a corner and not eat until the last 30 minutes) to various bouts of laziness (kids going back to their dorm for lunch and not wanting to participate in the afternoon session) and homesickness (kids feigning injuries to not do anything) to real injuries (one girl scraped her leg on something metal and was bleeding). He was on the ball with everything, and his commitment to the kids and his accessible yet firm manner with them is a huge reason why he is as successful as he is as a coach, educator, and mentor. This being the first camp held after the film's release, it was nice to see him also have some value as a celebrity to the kids; during lunch and dinner kids would come up with their More Than a Game DVD's to sign, and at various courts kids would come up asking about James, St. V., and the Fab 5 years. There was one nice story in particular from a kid at the younger Dru's courts; he was about 12-13, and he said that he had always struggled with reading. But when James's Shooting Stars book was released alongside the film last year, being so interested in basketball, he made an effort to read it from cover to cover--and ended up going up two reading levels as a result.
Again--a beautiful thing, and it reflects how much like the film More Than a Game really is about what its title says, the King's Academy is clearly more than about an NBA superstar teaching the game to kids. It is about using the game as a tool to help the youths improve and develop themselves as people--a valuable curriculum Coach Dru taught the Fab 5 and continues to teach his teams at St. V, and one that his most famous graduates make the admirable effort to pay forward themselves.