The Heart of the Game (documentary)

Who is Ward Serrill, and where did he come from? How does a first-time filmmaker put together a documentary as compelling and dramatic as “The Heart of the Game”?

You can say the drama was happening in real life and all anyone had to do was point a camera at it, but that’s only true up to a point. Serrill presents the story of a Seattle girls basketball team like a seasoned pro, omitting extraneous details, focusing attention on key points, foreshadowing this, alluding to that — like a novelist crafting a work of fiction, except all of Serrill’s story components were real.

Serrill chronicles the rise of Roosevelt High School starting in the late 1990s, when Bill Resler, a tax professor at a local college, was hired to coach the lady Roughriders. As generally happens in these movies, the mediocre team is turned into a thing of greatness by the new coach. Resler is pleasantly eccentric, kind to his players but demanding of them, offering motivational analogies that are graphically poetic. “Sink your teeth into their necks!” he says during the season that he’s comparing his players to wolves. (In other seasons, they are lions or other predators.) “Draw blood!” He has three daughters of his own. He knows how to deal with teenage girls.

Resler’s offensive strategy is to not have one. The opposing team can’t guess what you’re going to do next if even YOU don’t know what you’re going to do next. The strategy works: In the team’s first game under Resler’s leadership, they win by 68 points.

Roosevelt is mostly a white team so far. Across town, though, at the wonderfully named Meany Middle School, a black girl named Darnellia Russell is coming up through the ranks. The next year, she’s at Roosevelt. Geographically, she should be at Garfield, but her mother thinks there are too many bad influences there and sends her to Roosevelt instead.

Darnellia’s mom is right to be worried. Darnellia is stubborn, passionate and angry — and a crackerjack basketball player. Resler tries to teach her discipline on and off the court. She misses a lot of games due to academic disqualification. She struggles to rise above her circumstances — a poor minority living in the bad part of town — and be something more than most people would expect her to be.

Meanwhile, there are enough individual dramas going on here to fill a season’s worth of TV shows. Another star player, Devon, takes on a private coach and becomes selfish toward her fellow players. This coach has a Svengali effect on her. The outcome of the episode is a jaw-dropper.

Over at Garfield, where Darnellia’s friends go, a coach named Joyce Walker (a former professional player herself) is launching a strong new dynasty to rival Bill Resler’s. Her team includes Darnellia’s best friend Keesha. See what I mean about drama?

The film is narrated by the rapper Ludacris, who gives the story a street-ball vibe. (The voice of, say, William F. Buckley would have had a much different effect.) One frustrating detail, though, is that Serrill doesn’t put any dates on the screen — no months, no years, nothing. We’re told in the beginning that we’re starting “seven years ago,” but seven years from when? With as much time as passes over the course of the movie, some guideposts would be handy.

One element that works to the film’s advantage is the fact that Serrill didn’t have access to every part of the Roughriders’ story. Some things happened behind closed doors, and we rely on Bill Resler’s eloquent and lively summaries of the events. You want to have seen it for yourself, but Resler is such an affable host that you don’t mind seeing it through his eyes. He’s Serrill’s best asset, and the director is wise to let him run the show.

B+ (1 hr., 37 min.; PG-13, a little profanity.)