The Heart of the Game (2006)

2006-06-07 (Limited release)

There’s a lesson for you: don’t dribble behind your back with 10 seconds to go.

–Bill Resler

Darnellia Russell is a star. Her high school basketball coach, Bill Resler, says it straight-up. At the start of The Heart of the Game, he describes himself as “one of the few lucky people to meet Darnellia Russell,” ascribing his own success as a coach to that very fact.

From here, Ward Serrill’s smart, challenging documentary traces not only Darnellia and Resler’s complicated relationship, but also a series of stories concerning high school athletics, race and class, and most importantly, girls. Facing conflicting demands based on their gender, their talents, and their age, the high school players who work with Resler appear to be both extraordinary and quite regular. They’re adolescents who want to do well, who see themselves proceeding into various futures, and who are more than willing to take risks — physical and emotional — in order to pursue their goals.

When he decided to take the job coaching at Seattle’s Roosevelt High in 1998, Resler recalls, he certainly didn’t need to be taking on more work. A tax professor at the University of Washington, graying and slightly round, he confesses that at first, “I was honestly frightened.” But the Rough Riders are looking for a new direction and he believes he has one, beginning with basic drills and conditioning. Before Resler’s arrival, the team is unranked; during his first year as coach, they’re ranked first in the state, though they don’t make it to the playoffs.

The next year, Darnellia arrives. A freshman with all kinds of talent, she sparks the team even as she confronts a series of personal decisions. She and Resler have strong, not completely similar ideas of what she might do, and their initial clashes, it turns out, are instructive for both. While Darnellia is dealing with attending a mostly white school and adjusting to a new coach and team, Resler is honing his style. Using vivid metaphors for motivation, he tells his team to think of themselves in terms of predators and prey, releasing their own natural, wild powers. For each new season, he comes up with a theme; over the years, the Rough Riders come to call themselves a “pack of wolves,” a “tropical storm,” and a “pride of lions.” Following time-outs, they head back onto the court roaring, “Draw blood!”

Spurred on by Resler’s diligence and fervor, the girls excel. They appreciate his eccentricities and the fact that he tells them to play hard. One girl says, “I love contact”; another says she’d love to “play football… to just crush someone to the ground.” But even as the Rough Riders adopt a traditionally masculine style of play, they also, as several male fans observe, maintain the ethos and technique associated with women’s basketball: they pass the ball, support one another, and downplay individual glory. This even as it’s clear from jump that Darnellia can become the star that Resler believes her to be.

The documentary, narrated by the community-minded rapper/actor Ludacris, finds its shape in following Darnellia’s compelling story: as she matures, she learns to cope with competing demands on her time, including her schoolwork; as Resler observes, though she’s been discouraged in the classroom for much of her life, “She must understand how smart she is” (and indeed, she says she wants “to be the first person ever in the family to graduate from college”). At the same time, she maintains and even improves her superb game. Even when she faces what seems a career-stopping event — pregnancy — she has her baby, learns to rely on her family and her baby’s young, devoted father, and comes back. Her teammates rally behind her when the WIAA (Washington Interscholastic Activities Association) rules that she cannot return to play, because she’s now in her fifth year in high school.

Local media drum up controversy (on a radio call-in show: “Who the hell is taking care of this baby?”), while her lawyer argues the ruling discriminates against girls: “The problem with punishing the girl is how come there’s no consequence for boys who help create the pregnancies? And then, if the WIAA grants no pregnancy waivers to maintain an athlete’s eligibility, does that mean they are tacitly endorsing abortion?” (This reported in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, in 2004). It’s an important question, and though The Heart of the Game doesn’t press it into general pronouncements about the still complicated relationship between gender and high school sports, it resonates as an example of the sorts of barriers female athletes still face.

While Bill Resler and Darnellia are plainly inspirations — for one another as well as the team — the movie keeps sight of the multiple lives intertwining throughout this process, including opposing teams and Darnellia’s family. Already being compared to Hoop Dreams, Heart also does some important work that great film does not. That is, it considers issues specific to girls, including a sexually abusive coach one player hires to improve her personal game and the subtle and unsubtle ways that misogyny still shapes expectations for women athletes and girls with ambitions. Darnellia is a star, because she has support from a community and a coach, and because she extends herself and her game beyond the limits set before her.

RATING 9 / 10