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More than a movie for Mason.


If "King" LeBron James' burgeoning status as an omnipresent, omnipotent sports media force continues to fast break, Harvey Mason Jr. wouldn't be surprised to have an adjective such as omniscient go along with that package deal.

James, the 24-year-old Cleveland Cavaliers superstar beginning camp this week for his seventh NBA season, has over the past couple of months added executive movie producer and book author to his resume that already includes bankable success

in the commercial and TV world - at least, among the latter, once hosting "Saturday Night Live" and an ESPN "ESPYs" show.

Mason, with his own North Hollywood-based media fiefdom specializing in the composition and production of Billboard-busting and Oscar-nominated music making for the past decade-plus, has branched out into movie producing based, in part, on James' star value and partnership.

Both James and Mason have executive producer credits for "More Than A Game," already a critically acclaimed new-spin documentary that hits theatres in L.A., New York and Cleveland today, backed by Lionsgate Studios.

More than just James capitalizing on more exposure, the crux of the boys-to-men story in both the doc and new book ("Shooting Stars," with Buzz Bissinger; Penguin Press, $26.95, 258 pages) is how James fit in with the St. Vincent-St. Mary's high school basketball teams from 1999-2003.

It was a group of AAU kids from Akron, Ohio, who grew up and tried to mature all in front of the national sports media spotlight while playing ball. Coach Dru Joyce II, with his son Dru III, Sian Cotton, Romeo Travis and Willie McGee have equal billing.

Mason is also the movie's producer, so he had to both sign off on financing everything as well as help guide its creative narrative. Director, co-writer and story originator Kris Belman, who began this as a student doc project at Loyola Marymount University before pitching it to Mason, is the other master at weaving this all together.

Sewing up James' participation was also key.

"We had the film about 60percent done, and we knew we wanted to bring him in as a partner," said Mason, the former Crescenta Valley High All-American who was on the University of Arizona's 1988 NCAA Final Four team with SeanElliott, Steve Kerr and Kenny Lofton. "We went to him two years ago and got him involved in finding more footage, connecting us with more families, but mostly in making sure this was a true representation of what happened.

"Since it's his story, too, and they all knew it and lived it, we made sure he helped us portray the tone and mood correctly."

After the documentary started to create buzz in places like the Toronto Film Festival in 2008, James became the marketable face for the project as it began plans to go commercial. His recent talk-show circuit appearances were all to promote today's launch.

Mason, who has worked with music makers such as Aretha Franklin, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Whitney Houston, processed firsthand how James has taken to this career diversion as a sports-media person of interest.

"LeBron is just a super unique guy," said Mason, a Manhattan Beach resident whose son, Trey, just enrolled at Loyola High of Los Angeles and will join the basketball program. "He's so sharp and in tune with what's going on, like a sponge. That explains how it's translated to his game.

"I see him pay so much attention to all that's going on around him. It's very subtle. He picks up things and integrates them immediately. He really gets it."

The documentary, which magnificently brings in many feature-film devices to create a very visually appealing effect, comes around near the end to reveal an unseen side of James, the man-child of a frequently moving single mom.

It explains why he's loyal to those who've come into his circle of trust, in light of an intense media spotlight that magnifies everything he does, right or wrong.

"He learned a lot of hard lessons in high school," Mason said, "but he's the quickest learner I've ever seen.

"The reason he's media savvy is because you see how he treats people. He knows the right way to do things, which is really amazing, considering his background and not having a lot of great influences in his life. He's genuine.

"Whatever stories have been done about him in the media, I get the feeling that all he's done has been honest in every way. I think it's his nature to be forthcoming and not overly protective. He's done things the right way."

ESPN's '30 for 30' vision starts off with a 'Kings Ransom'

If it started out as another way to celebrate the specialness of ESPN and its 30th anniversary, a new "30 for 30" project that launches Tuesday has evolved more into a platform for sports fans-turned-filmmakers to spill their passion for a subject they'd otherwise not be able to pursue as a documentary.

Start with Peter Berg and Wayne Gretzky.

Berg, the actor who directed the acclaimed "Friday Night Lights" from his friend Buzz Bissinger's book and saw it evolve into a TV series, had some unanswered questions 20-odd years later as to what precipitated Gretzky's trade to the Kings from the Edmonton Oilers.

In less than an hour, Berg pulls it off better in a piece called "Kings Ransom" than anyone's previous attempt. If the relationship Berg had going in with Gretzky got it rolling, enough time has also passed for more truth to come out.

An amateur hockey player who moved to L.A. to start acting at the same time Gretzky hit Hollywood, Berg said "one of the first semi-celebrity perks I got was being invited to play in Wayne's annual softball fundraising tournament in Branford, Ontario, and I was just star-struck."

When approached several years ago by ESPN Original Entertainment to gauge his interest on a unique sports documentary project, Berg already knew his subject matter.

He was able to get Gretzky on the golf course - it appears to be Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks - "for one long afternoon, and then we did some follow-ups. ... He's extremely candid, not pretentious. What you see is what you get."

What the L.A. audience gets is newly uncovered insight as to how the trade went down - starting three years earlier, when then-Kings owner Jerry Buss quizzed Oilers owner Peter Pocklington about dealing $15million and a boatload of players and draft picks for the rights to Gretzky.

When Bruce McNall bought the Kings from Buss soon after, he continued the pursuit until, amazingly to him, it actually happened.

Then all heck broke loose Aug. 9, 1988. Especially on Canada's end.

"I had underestimated the tragic component of that entire experience," Berg said. "When you look at all the lives and key players, trying to figure out what they were thinking, and what would have happened if he'd not been traded, there's a lot of regrets underlying there."

Like Mike Tollin, Barry Levinson and several others included in this series, Berg says without the filmmaker's freedom to put himself in as the one asking the questions to Gretzky - and asking questions a fan would want to know - it would be difficult to pull this off.

"From my perspective, what was smart about this from ESPN is there was no front-loading or conditions put on us," said Berg, who had Steven Michaels, the son of sportscaster Al Michaels, as the executive producer on the project.

"They knew we were sports fans who inherently got into the sports fan inside of me, and that would put a fire in my eyes."

Gretzky, who resigned last week as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, was to see the documentary for the first time Thursday night at a screening in Beverly Hills, with McNall, Pocklington and Kings Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Miller scheduled to attend.

"Kings Ransom," debuting Tuesday at 5p.m. on ESPN, with a repeat at 8 p.m. on ESPN2, launches the weekly "30 for 30" project, with future documentaries converging on topics such as the demise of the USFL, the Raiders' presence in L.A. and the career of Marion Jones.


2 photos


(1) LeBron James, center, is flanked by producer Harvey Mason Jr., left, and director Kris Belman at a screening of "More Than A Game."

Photo courtesy of Eric Charbonneau

(2) Wayne Gretzky speaks about his trade to L.A. in "Kings Ransom," kicking off the ESPN "30 for 30" documentary series.

Photo courtesy ESPN
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 2, 2009
Previous Article:LAUSD schools need more arts and music, not less.

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