NEW YORK - Out the bus window, principal William Wade was the first one to spot the row of giant movie ads.

"Look at our posters, guys," Wade shouted, and dozens of eyes fixed on them - We Could Be King in yellow block letters, their own faces under glass, right there on the Manhattan street for all to see.

Outside the bus, the red carpet waited.

Wednesday was the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of We Could Be King - the documentary chronicling the challenges and triumphs of the merger of two city schools through the lens of the Martin Luther King High football team - and for those who traveled from Philadelphia for the event, the whole thing felt a little surreal.

The documentary, which will premiere at King on Thursday and on ESPN2 nationally on Saturday, was directed by Judd Ehrlich in partnership with the Dick's Sporting Goods Foundation to help highlight the importance of scholastic sports. It was shown Wednesday night at Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Houston Street.

"It's exhilarating," Darius Hurst-Rodney, a senior and team captain, said of the experience, eyeing the hipsters and film types crowded around him. "It's more than great. We don't get opportunities like this, ever."

A severe budget crisis forced the closure of 23 city schools in June. Storied Germantown High was one of them, its students sent to King, its closest neighbor and bitterest rival.

Jacqueline Bryant-Mottley had misgivings about keeping her son, football player Nicko Bryant Jr., at King. Bryant-Mottley graduated from King herself, and she knew how deep the animosity between the schools ran.

"I was scared for my son," she said.

Going into the school year, no one really knew what would happen. Wade, King's principal for the last three years, chose 27-year-old math teacher Ed Dunn as the new coach of the merged football team, but Dunn was one of thousands of teachers laid off in June because of budget cuts. There was no money for counselors or basic supplies or sports in the district, either.

The school absorbed 600 new students, expanding to about 1,100. It lost support staff. And its needs are huge - every student at King is classified as economically disadvantaged, and 32 percent require special education services. Out of 232 incoming freshmen, just nine were academically prepared to take Algebra I, Wade said.

But Dunn vowed to coach even if he didn't have a job, and money was found to fund athletics.

"I made a commitment to the kids," he said Wednesday as cameras clicked and players found themselves celebrities. "One of the things you've got to teach them is, you keep your word."

Dunn said he saw the season as something bigger than a string of games.

"This was our last shot to get public education in a big neighborhood high school right," said Dunn, who lives in the neighborhood and graduated from Philadelphia schools. "We wanted to prove to the city we could make it work, and the football team had the first chance to do that."

Eventually, Dunn was hired back. And the team members, at first wary of one another, began to find common ground. ("What did I say?" Dunn told two players who argued at one summer practice. "You pull him up. You don't push him down.")

Hurst-Rodney said the team had the same goal: "We wanted to win."

"They banded together like brothers," said Angela Hurst, his mother.

King dropped its first two games of the season.

Outsiders weren't so surprised - the team had gone two years without a win, and had never captured a Public League title. But then the tide began to turn.

When Dunn sat in a goal-setting meeting with Wade over the summer, one aim raised the principal's eyebrows.

"He said the team was going to win the city championship," Wade said.

Improbably, the team did just that.

Dunn's motto - "humble and hungry" - became the team's, and they believed him when he told them he loved them, that he would be a part of their lives forever. They played up to his expectations.

Spontaneous cheers erupted during the film, which was screened before a packed house. There was plenty of tension - would junior Sal Henderson, who struggled with a troubled family history, be sidelined permanently by his brush with the law? Would Dontae Angus, the 6-6 senior defensive tackle full of promise, get it together academically and on the field?

And there was plenty of joy, too. When the documentary finished, the applause was deafening. A Dick's official presented Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., in town for the premiere, with a giant cardboard check for $250,000 to help keep district athletics afloat.

The film, Hite said, shows what Philadelphia students are capable of. The adversity the team, and the school, faced will inspire people to do more for city students, the superintendent said.

"These children did what they did with the bare essentials," Hite said.

The things it lacked motivated the King team. During one particularly grueling practice, Dunn reminded the players that they didn't attend a private school or even have matching cleats.

"That's not what makes us weak," the coach told his team. "That's what makes us stronger than anybody else."

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