The Heart of the Game (2006)

I have ideas about basketball that I haven’t seen other places. For instance, I was going to completely dismantle the offense and have no offense, and run like hell.

— Bill Resler

I wanna play in the WNBA really bad. So that’s why I’m trying to do just good. Don’t do nothing bad.

— Darnellia Russell

“I had to introduce her right up. You know, this sleek, black, talented kid, and this somewhat unslick, big old white guy Resler.” As director Ward Serrill tells it, the film he thought he was going to make — about the Roosevelt High Roughriders — changed as he was shooting. At first, he was going to follow the team for one season, focus on three players, Jade, Lindsey, and Devon (“I wanna be known as ‘Crazy Horse,'” she says, “Because he is a fearless warrior”). But when the film turned into something longer, more committed, and more profound (Serrill followed the team for six seasons), the focus changed as well. And when a couple of these original players graduated, he says, “We hitched our wagon to Darnellia’s story.”

That would be Darnellia Russell, the “sleek, black, talented kid” who doesn’t transfer to Roosevelt until 1999, the second year of Resler’s tenure as coach (he’s a University of Washington tax professor who takes up coaching despite and because of his initial worry that, “For the first time in my life… an entire program is looking to me for its direction”). During his first season, Resler’s team is ranked first in the state, though they don’t make it to the playoffs, and he’s named Coach of the Year. His strategy, demonstrated y any number of drills and practices during the film, is to “dismantle the offense,” sending the girls headlong into full-court press, almost continuously.

Darnellia arrives at the start of his second year, a transfer student whose mother hopes will find focus at the mostly white, mostly middle-class Roosevelt. As Serrill says on the DVD not-so-chatty commentary track, he was filming pickup footage at after the first season ends, and “lo and behold, in walks Darnellia.” He and Resler both describe D as slow to “warm up” to them, not exactly inclined to trust these white male authority figures. Meanwhile, offers Serrill, “I’d film these long takes on Darnellia and just let the camera soak up the changing face of her beauty,” as you’re looking at a close-up in slow motion. She does look almost magical, clearly the story to which many people hitched their wagons.

In the next moment in his commentary, Serrill lets drop that he suggested to Resler that he bring in a 95-year-old retired coach, Maude Lepley, who coached the girls’ team from 1926 to 1930). In the film, the visit from Maude is delightful: the girls are thrilled to meet her, and she’s a veritable embodiment of “inspiration,” which Resler had determined the team needed at that point. What’s remarkable here is the partnership that has developed between filmmaker and subject (Resler, anyway, not so much Darnellia, whom Serrill calls the film’s “second star”): they are working in tandem, it seems, to make drama, to move the team forward, to create filmable moments.

Though such interaction might seem anathema to old school documentarians, the result in this case is a smart, challenging documentary that traces not only Darnellia and Resler’s complicated relationship, but also a series of stories concerning high school athletics, race and class dynamics, 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 imagine various futures, willing to take risks in order to pursue their goals.

Using vivid metaphors as forms of motivation, Resler tells his team to think of themselves in terms of predators in pursuit of prey, releasing their own natural, wild powers. For each new season, he comes up with a theme; over the years, the Roughriders 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. The Roughriders 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 focus on Darnellia makes sense as you’re watching, and is both underlined and diffused by the DVD extras, which include an interview with Cris, deleted scenes (more on the non-D players), “The Making of The Heart of the Game” (Resler and Serrill sit on a sofa and retell the film’s story, with added details concerning soundtrack and editing choices), “Beyond The Heart of the Game” (brief clips of the major subjects post-film, plus Resler’s daughters, who also played ball), and a sweet interview with NBC’s Lindsay Czarniak at Silverdocs during an “On the Road” with the film short.

During her first two years on the team (she’s on varsity during her freshman year), Darnellia has to sit out the first three games because her GPA is low. Over a shot of D sitting on the bleachers with notebook in hand, Resler pronounces her a “genius physically and a genius mentally,” but, he adds, “She has one issue that she must conquer in her life, and that is, she must understand how smart she is.”

Cut to Darnellia, in her home, lace curtains on the window behind her, wearing a big old gray athletic hoodie. “I wanted to be a cheerleader ’cause I can dance,” she says, almost shy in front of the camera. “I got moves. But I’ll stick to basketball.” The documentary is all about the utter rightness of that decision. Narrated by Ludacris, it finds its shape in following Darnellia’s compelling story. Not only is she a star on the court, but she also wants “to be the first person ever in the family to graduate from college” (and sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” decently too). Even when she faces what seems a career-stopping event — pregnancy — she has her baby, learns to work with her supportive family and her baby’s 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.

Even as local media create a swirl of controversy (on a radio call-in show: “Who the hell is taking care of this baby?”), 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 enduringly complicated relationship between gender and high school sports, the specific story resonates. While Resler and Darnellia are plainly inspirations — for one another as well as the team — and the movie keeps sight of the multiple lives intertwining throughout this process, including opposing teams and Darnellia’s family.

Frequently 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 of women athletes and girls with ambitions.

RATING 8 / 10