At this point in pop culture, seemingly every superhero is getting a cinematic origin story. Next up: LeBron James.
The new movie Shooting Stars tracks the rise of the Akron, Ohio, native hailed as “the next Michael Jordan” as a high school underclassman before eventually fulfilling that prophecy, and, like his fellow No. 23, becoming one of the NBA’s all-time greatest players.
In the film, James (Marquis “Mookie” Cook) shares the limelight with his close-knit coterie of friends and teammates (Caleb McLaughlin’s Dru Joyce III, Avery Wills’s Willie McGee, Khalil Everage’s Sian Cotton and Scoot Henderson’s Romeo Travis) that won three Ohio state championships in four years for Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary Fighting Irish.
“That’s actually what attracted me to the script,” says Chris Robinson, the prolific music video and commercial director who counts Shooting Stars as his third feature film after ATL (2006) and Beats (2019). “It was not just a story about a basketball player becoming a pro. It was about all the other things that we all can identify with.
“There were a lot of themes about brotherhood and, when I broke it down, this is also a father-son story. Even though LeBron’s dad wasn’t around, his coach [Wood Harris’s Dru Joyce II] kind of filled that space about teaching him things and letting him know what it’s going to take just to be a better human being. And I think that has everything to do with the fact that he is who he is.”
The 'Shooting Stars' cast (from left): Avery Serell Wills Jr., Marquis Mookie Cook, as LeBron James, Caleb McLaughlin, Khalil Everage, Sterling Henderson (Photo: Oluwaseye Olusa/Peacock/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Dru Joyce II assembled the core group for their middle school rec team Shooting Stars. And when Dru Joyce III was going to be placed on the junior varsity squad at Buchtel, the Akron public high school the boys planned to attend, James and his teammates called a controversial audible, conspiring to play together at the predominantly white Catholic school St. Vincent-St. Mary instead.
Beyond LeBron’s uncanny basketball gifts, he owes a huge debt to his friend group, with whom he shared most formative moments. “Even if your job happens to be the most amazing basketball player in the history of basketball, [when you have] that group of friends, all that doesn’t matter,” Robinson says. “It’s just joy when you're connected. And I think that’s what's his superpower is. You know, his basketball IQ is off the charts. But I think his superpower is that this group of friends, this community, this village, they’re still connected.”
From left: Sian Cotton, Romeo Travis, Dru Joyce III, Willie McGee, Coach Dru Joyce II, LeBron James (Photo: Peacock/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Cook and McLaughlin agree.
“I think without them, he wouldn’t be who he is today,” says Cook, a first-time actor. “They’re the people that's gonna keep him levelheaded and also let him be him, you know what I mean? They accepted him for him, and they all grew [together]. They all found their own lane that they all loved. They all had different aspirations. And you see that they all support each other regardless of what they’re doing. Unfortunately, all them didn’t make it to the NBA, but they all still have some type of connection. … They all genuinely [love] each other.”
“You don’t see that at all nowadays,” says McLaughlin, who is best known for being part of a another tight friend group in Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things. “People have friend groups, but it changes throughout the years. But they’ve been friends forever and they're still best friends till this day. And that says a lot about these men. Especially with the pressure that they had. They weren’t just regular friends. LeBron is the greatest basketball player of all time. A lot of people could get jealous, envious. But these guys knew who they were. They all had their own type of confidence. They had their own story.
“People would expect this film to be the LeBron story, the legacy of LeBron. But he’s putting a light onto his friends. So it’s more than basketball. It’s more than a game. It’s about the friendship, the fun, the community.” (McLaughlin probably chose those words carefully: a popular 2008 documentary called More Than a Game also depicted the story of LeBron’s relationship with his childhood friends.)
Marquis Mookie Cook as LeBron James in 'Shooting Stars' (Photo: Oluwaseye Olusa/Peacock/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Robinson and company conducted a wide search to find their onscreen LeBron, eventually choosing Hollywood rookie Cook for his basketball skills and potential ability to mold into an actor.
“We just searched and searched, at basketball tournaments up and down the East Coast,” says Robinson. “And we found him. Mookie did his audition in a locker room after practice, never having done an audition before. And, you know, he messed up and some of the words were off, but he just embodied this energy. He doesn’t exactly look like LeBron, but he has the characteristics of someone with a lot of integrity, and that's who he was.”
“I think I got cast because they didn’t want an actor playing LeBron, [faking] the basketball, they wanted the basketball to be as authentic as it could. And I guess I'm a tad bit OK at acting, so I got picked for it. But the basketball was no question.”