The Heart Of The Game (USA, director Ward Serrill): A documentary about high-school basketball that took seven years to make, this film will be compared to Steve James’s Hoop Dreams, which is a high compliment indeed. But the films are different.
Serrill began following the girls’ basketball team at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School when they hired a new coach, tax law professor Bill Resler. Not expected to make much of an impact, Resler proceeded to build a powerhouse in his first year at the job. An eccentric but effective motivator, he chose a different “theme” for his team each year: Pack of Wolves, Pride of Lions, Tropical Storm, and then whipped his players into a frenzy. His motivational skills and his ruthless physical workouts gave the team the confidence and endurance to beat their opponents, even when they were bigger, taller, or more talented.
In his second year at the job, he noticed a young freshman by the name of Darnelia Russell. She stood out for a number of reasons. She had been an outstanding basketball player at her middle school. And she was black. At Roosevelt, in a privileged suburb of Seattle, black students were a minority, unlike at inner-city schools like arch-rival Garfield. In fact, when he tried to recruit her for his team, she rebuffed him at first, admitting to her friends that she wasn’t used to being around so many white people. Her presence at Roosevelt was the combined idea of her middle school coach and her mother, who wanted to keep her out of trouble and make sure she got an excellent education.
Her arrival helps Resler build Roosevelt into a city dynasty and a threat at the state championships. But there are ups and downs. And if you wonder why the film took seven years to make, Serrill admitted that he just filmed everything and waited for the story to emerge.
Although the film touches on a few issues of race and class, Serrill says he wanted to make it more about the basketball, and there are generous clips of games, even from major network coverage. Although it give the film much of its energy, I felt myself wishing there were a few more interviews with players, especially Darnelia, who emerges as a central character in the story. We never really get to know her as anything other than a great basketball player.
That being said, it’s a documentary about sports, so I’m predisposed to like it. There is real drama and excitement, both on and off the court, and it’s also good to see the contribution of people like Bill Resler recognized, a good man who is instilling not just a love of winning, but of playing, and living. As the credits rolled, it was endearing to see that a few of the songs were actually composed and played by Resler, on guitar and vocals, with director Serrill on harmonica. I’m giving this 8.5, even though my graphic doesn’t show half-points.
Film’s Web Site: http://www.heartofthegame.org