Everyone loves an up-and-comer. Even when they’re coming for your team. According to LeBron James, Dallas didn’t deserve to net rookie Dennis Smith Jr. and he should have been a Knick. But the Mavericks “got a good one,” he concedes. James’ authority on and off the court — and the drive that got the player to a spot where his offhand quips on the draft make headlines — is celebrated in a new 12-minute documentary called Long Live The King.
Basketball is visual poetry whether a camera notices or not. Art-minded directors behind ads for Nike do put their eyes to work within commercial norms and experiment accordingly. In fact, anyone who regularly catches ads for athletic-wear also comes in contact with some conventions of truly great (albeit decidedly inspirational) filmmaking. Outside the ad realm there do exist transcendent and rhythmic captures of gestures — films about the pivot that begets the buzzer-beater rather than a flex of courtside gear, that Steadicam sports porn we’re used to seeing. A few indie directors have managed to blend slower vignettes with stories of players and their lives. Zatalla Beatty’s Iverson debuted at Tribeca Film Festival in 2014 to push lyricism in narrative and pacing; Josh and Benny Safdie used their urgent cinéma verité style and even some gentle surrealism a year before to tell the story of Lenny Cooke, who as a high school player was ranked above LeBron James but fell out of the game. An image of present-day Cooke giving advice to his younger self via a stitching-together of new and archival footage ends that film. It’s really worth watching.
Now James’ legacy gets a treatment that enters the canon of artful basketball films. It is, of course, inextricably, an ad. Long Live The King, presented by Kith in collaboration with Nike and produced by Matte Films, overhears James’ story as told to an unnamed young player by his closest associates and mentors. Lynn Merritt, the Nike executive who signed James, appears, and so does Keith Dambrot, who coached him at St. Vincent–St. Mary High School in Akron.
In a non-linear, dreamlike collage of anecdotes and images, director D.A. Yirgou is able to communicate the facts of James’ trajectory while letting that uncertain magic of chance move freely above them. The fan addressed throughout and the kids who play basketball during the interludes could be young James and his cohorts; that’s the point, of course, to make them feel they could be. The music and sound design help suspend disbelief and make up for some heavier-handed encouragement. An artist based in Texas is responsible for the sound design. Will Patterson, known also as Sleep Good, worked before in Austin director Terrence Malick’s cutting room and now runs a recording studio in a tiny town outside the city called Coupland that has a church and a dance hall and pretty much nothing else. I went there once to talk to Patterson for another publication; when we heard the train go by, Patterson mentioned casually that he would fall asleep there sometimes, windows open, watching Blade Runner on a projector with the train sounds punctuating the soundtrack. Sometimes the train would make it into recordings of his friends’ bands, and he’d just keep the whistle on the song.