Hoop Realities Film Review: "The Heart of the Game"

By Omar P.L. Moore/June 16, 2006

Bravo Ward Serrill.  Mr. Serrill has taken his documentary and made it a feature film convention, a rare filmmaking feat.  He has eyed the real-life story of a girls' high-school basketball team and in Seattle who have embarked on a quest to win the Washington state championshiup, a seven-year odyssey, and picked out to main and initially opposing characters: an avuncular white-haired rotund tax law professor by day at Washington University who moonlights as the coach of the girls' team a Roosevelt High School, and a determined, talented, skilled, headstrong young woman named Darnellia Russell, who becomes a leader on the Roosevelt Roughriders team.  And it is a rough ride for several players on the team, most notably Devon Crosby-Helmes, an older player under Coach Bill Resler's tutelage, who frequently bumps heads with him.  When we learn of her inner turmoil and strife, we are aghast and horrified.

Coach Resler loves basketball.  His enthusiasm for the game is boundless.  He shouts, jumps up and down on the sidelines like a little kid overjoyed at the next piece of candy he has eaten.  He devises monikers for the players to follow, advising them to be the eyes of a hungry wolf, lion, tiger, pirahna, or whatever creature he will assign them to emulate next.  "Draw blood!  Draw blood!" he shouts to his players repeatedly.

There is a rival coach the former Harlem Globetrotter Joyce Walker who coaches the dominant local high school Garfield Bulldogs' team.  Ms. Walker is the alumna of that school and year after year, they are a thorn in the side of the Roughriders.  A more physically imposing team, the Bulldogs are the perfect Goliath to the smaller Roughriders' David. 

Over the years the Roughriders grow, through strife, painful defeats, and learning lessons.  Darnellia faces tribulations of her own during her junior year, when she has a baby and is forced off the team.  Her later re-emergence has a Rocky-esque feeling to it, and thus makes Mr. Serrill's documentary a more compelling study than the fantastic "Hoop Dreams" of several years ago.  Mr. Serrill's hand-held digital camera is introduced inauspiciously, bumping around and making us a tad dizzy in the opening shot or two, but it soon is a non-factor, in a film whose heart and storytelling takes over.  "The Heart of The Game" is a story that sells itself -- it is real -- and it is narrated wonderfully by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, who is a real pro with his voice-overs.  He sounds as if he has been doing this for years, when in reality he has not.  

Mr. Serrill's film is about family, sisterhood, trust, competition, rivalry, and discipline.  It teaches us lessons.  We get to know the hearts and souls of these young women as they travel toward adulthood.  We get to know Darnellia and her background.  We see and feel her frustration, as well as Devon's anguish.  Mr. Resler is a father, but we don't get to see any of his family.  Perhaps that was by design, but we know that he too has his family, his wife and his support network.  While he loves to teach tax law, his true passion is indeed the heart of the basketball game, and he is a father figure to the girls he coaches.  Their relationship is a special one, as is this documentary.

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