The Heart of the Legend

The new feature film SHOOTING STARS — streaming NOW exclusively on Peacock — reveals the origin story of basketball superhero LEBRON JAMES and the childhood, brotherhood and community that shaped him.

Words by Alan Chazaro

There’s no superstar quite like LeBron James. The four-time NBA champ, two-time Olympic Gold medalist and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer has influenced generations of athletes and fans with his game, his outspokenness, his philanthropy and, of course, his indomitable athletic artistry on the court. Now, the new Universal Pictures feature film, Shooting Stars (streaming exclusively on Peacock June 2), gives an inside look at a young LeBron James and the events, people and forces that defined him.

Since first gracing a Sports Illustrated cover in 2002 with a headline that declared the then-17- year-old as “The Chosen One,” James has been under the world’s largest microscope for more than two decades. We’ve seen it all—from the books he reads in locker rooms to that banana boat he rode in The Bahamas. For his entire professional life, every game, every move, every public moment of his career has been documented, analyzed and debated.

Yet, there’s more dimension to James than the athlete we see on the court, a story that career stats and news stories could never capture. With James now in his 20th season—reaching heights unseen by any premier athlete in the world—it can be easy to overlook just how far the kid from Akron trekked to claim the NBA’s coveted throne.

Shooting Stars, based on the book by James and author Buzz Bissinger (Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of Friday Night Lights), aims to shine a light on LeBron’s early basketball days with the youth team, the Shooting Stars. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Chris Robinson (Beats, Grown-ish), the film is the inspiring origin story of how James and his childhood friends become the No. 1 high school team in the country, launching James’s breathtaking career.

In the 1990s, a young LeBron James (Marquis “Mookie” Cook, in his screen debut) and his three best friends—Lil Dru Joyce (Caleb McLaughlin, Stranger Things), Willie McGee (Avery S. Wills, Jr, Swagger) and Sian Cotton (Khalil Everage, Cobra Kai)—called themselves the “Fab Four,” after the famed Michigan Wolverines “Fab Five.” From the moment we meet them, we realize this group of friends, under the guidance of Shooting Stars coach Dru Joyce (Wood Harris; Creed franchise), is connected by more than basketball.

So, when the coach at the top basketball school in their district, Buchtel High School, threatens to separate them by putting Lil Dru on junior varsity, the Fab Four decide to switch schools to play varsity together, joining the team at St. Vincent-St. Mary, a predominantly white Catholic school.

With their new coach (Dermot Mulroney; August: Osage County), a disgraced former college coach seeking redemption of his own, the boys, along with former rival and new teammate Romeo Travis (NBA draft prospect Scoot Henderson), will face battles not only on the court but also off it, and in the process, discover that what matters most about the game are the people beside them.

Produced by James for his SpringHill Company alongside Academy Award nominee Rachel Winter (Dallas Buyers Club), Spencer Beighley (executive producer Hustle), Maverick Carter (Space Jam: A New Legacy), Jamal Henderson (Executive Producer, The Shop) and Academy Award nominee and Emmy winner Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Shooting Stars is a powerful, inspiring coming-of-age story about the formative experiences of a basketball phenom in a time of teenage development and unprecedented exposure. This isn’t simply a sports movie meant to glorify individualism; it’s a story about community bonding, childhood dreams, lifelong friendships and the potential consequences of a successful Black male living in the United States.

A mix of retro-style footage (think VHS clips of young boys hooping inside a dilapidated gym in winter) and breathtaking live-action scenes portray the evolving stages of LeBron and his crew. What begins as the boys having fun and picking up life lessons from Coach Dru later turns into the boys jostling for social status and playing time as the stakes rise. Ultimately, they come back together to fulfill their collective aspirations for a state title—and it’s all done with a dope soundtrack that features throwback hits like Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” and Onyx’s “Slam.”

The chemistry of the boys is apparent on screen and is key to the film’s underlying messages about unity and teamwork. “It’s bigger than just basketball,” McLaughlin, who plays Lil Dru, says. “This is a motivational story. It’s about brotherhood and how the deepest human relationships can be connected through the sport of basketball. It’s about these young Black men that want to be great and the discipline needed to attain their goals.”

The movie explores themes of resilience, determination and loyalty. But at no point is James the singular focal point. Instead, this is a film about relationships. James’ best friends, their families and a neighborhood’s interconnected hopes for greatness, allowing for subtle conversations around race and temptations to take center court, too.

In perhaps the boys’ biggest and most life-altering decision, they must choose where to play as local high school stars, deciding on the wealthier St. Vincent-St. Mary or Buchtel High School. In a profound moment that underscores the film’s social commentary, Buchtel’s coach, a Black man, attempts to recruit the rising hoopers by outlining the racial dynamics of a city—and nation—defined by segregation and exclusion.

After the Fab Four shock their parents and peers with their choice to attend St. Vincent-St. Mary, the film leans into the impact of their decision. Poignant scenes of the boys dressed in Catholic uniforms juxtaposed with the grit of their immediate surroundings highlight just how distant social opportunities can feel for Americans who come from modest homes. But in the Fab Five’s success, the film offers a lesson on group commitment and relentless achievement.

“It’s important to portray the story because everyone has a foundation,” says Henderson. “People take for granted the journey of a person and their worth. LeBron had a team of brothers around him as a young person and you need that accountability to keep you grounded.”

What makes the film special is that it authentically portrays a group of young men who are learning about themselves in real-time—whether driving their first car, talking to their moms about dating or arguing with their head coach about a play call after underperforming from a first hangover. That authenticity is aided by a young cast who are on their own journeys to emulate James’ greatness in their own ways.

Each actor spent considerable time watching actual basketball footage of the Fab Five and interviews of the actual players they portrayed. The cast even spent time hooping against one another off-camera. (Privately, they each joke that they played better than their fellow castmates.) Only Caleb McLaughlin, the most experienced actor of the five, admitted to being out of his element on the hardwood with future Division 1 players and pro hoopers. “I definitely learned a lot from them,” McLaughlin says. “They brought the intensity. I taught them how to be actors, and they taught me how to ball.” Together, the unit delivers a compelling rendition of the Fab Five brotherhood.

Cook—a 6-7 McDonald’s All American committed to the University of Oregon, who has shared a court with LeBron James’ son, Bronny—not only resembles a young James in stature, but also in spirit, summoning a brilliant performance as a humble yet conflicted teenager who is learning about the deceptions of fame and must navigate the pitfalls of his otherworldly talents.

In the film, we see Cook as James getting his first tattoo in his mom’s apartment, flirting at a house party with his high school crush, Savannah (who would later become his wife in real life), and being overly generous and open with his fans in a way that puts his eligibility to play high school basketball at risk. He’s a young man trying to balance family, friends and fortune, but not always succeeding. Shooting Stars is Cook’s first acting role, but his fellow cast members said he handled it like a total pro. “My boy Mookie never acted a day in his life and the nuance and emotional layers he was able to pull through was unreal,” says Everage. “I am so proud of my brother.”

What’s clear from the film is that for as long as James could dribble and shoot, he has never played for himself, instead remaining loyal to those who have been there for him since the beginning. The film indirectly asks: What’s the value of winning if you don’t have a team of peers and adults who you live to make proud? How much is individual talent really worth? Is it possible to win—not just in basketball, but at anything—by yourself?

By leveling up, James puts those around him in a better position to succeed, too. It’s a trait that Wills Jr wants to emulate in his own life. “What I admire most about Bron off-court is how much he loves his hometown and the things he does for his community,” Wills says. “I’m from Chicago and that’s something that I also want to do with my life. I want to make more opportunities for the kids that came from the neighborhoods I grew up in.”

No matter how dominant or athletically gifted James has been since his teenage reign, Shooting Stars makes indisputably clear that it is his family, coaches and teammates—both on the court and off the hardwood—who are just as responsible for pushing him toward a zenith of legendary basketball greatness.

It’s an intentional lens that the film often returns to, suggesting that no basketball GOAT has ever laced up his or her sneakers to face their opponents alone. “This movie is not about being one of the greatest athletes of all time,” Everage says. “It’s more about the importance of family and brotherhood and how that molds you into the person you become.”

Shooting Stars is a reminder that, more than anything, the individual superstars whom we watch night in and night out were once knee-high children with far-fetched hoop dreams and families who supported them. There’s a reason the film is pluralized (Stars, rather than star). It’s about the success of more than one, and how that leads to a different kind of winning.

Once we can appreciate that, maybe the way we watch, play and even talk about the game of basketball will be better than it ever has been. In revisiting James’ origin story, that truth becomes clearer than ever.