The Heart of the Game began its six-year journey as an attempt to chronicle University of Washington tax-law professor Bill Resler's unlikely decision to take a job as girls' basketball coach at Seattle's Roosevelt High, a public school attended by mostly affluent white students. Resler always loved basketball and enjoyed following the teams of his three now-grown daughters. Roosevelt had no particular tradition in girls' sports, and in the early going it's not clear he has any expectation of the striking success his teams will enjoy from the outset of his coaching career. He has two central philosophies that are presumably key to his teams' infectious spirit: No. 1, sport is about having fun, and No. 2, the team belongs to the players, not the coach.
Resler is also devoted to a specific set of coaching strategies, some clearly beneficial, some questionable (by this old coach, at least). He insists that his players get in top condition, and he employs their stamina by playing fastbreak basketball and pressing full court from opening tip-off till final buzzer. This up-tempo style undoubtedly contributes to a six-year run that transforms a mediocre program into one that annually advances to the state tournament. One worries, however, that Resler's notion that the game should be played freestyle and without offensive patterns may account for why Roosevelt is repeatedly knocked out of the state tournament by ostensibly weaker opponents.
Because sport has a natural story arc, and because Roosevelt finally produces a team that advances to a closely contested state championship game, The Heart of the Game provides the same kind of satisfying narrative drive of countless fictional films like the recent Saturday Night Lights or the classic Breaking Away or, most aptly, Hoosiers. Because of his eccentricities, Resler certainly serves as a colorful starting point. We will long marvel at how Steve James caught lightning in a bottle when he settled on eighth-graders William Gates and Arthur Agee for his astonishing documentary Hoop Dreams. Here director Serrill stumbles about for several years in search of a subject other than an unorthodox coach. Early on, he focuses on Devon Crosby, a troubled white forward who ends up in an unseemly sexual relationship with a man who bills himself as a "sports agent." Later, and more productively, the film settles on Darnellia Russell, a talented point guard and one of the school's few black students. Russell is a brilliantly talented player, but she is sullen, emotionally volatile, spotty in her academic performance and in sundry other ways unreliable. Keeping Russell eligible to play and keeping her from destroying the cohesion of the team constitutes Resler's greatest coaching challenge.
In retrospect, The Heart of the Game is less artistically tight than we might desire. We assume we are watching events of the very recent past, but the film provides no dates. It also never examines the impact of Resler's coaching career on his day job at the law school. The picture makes a fleeting reference to Resler's having gotten married recently, but makes no effort to establish the relevance of this detail.
The picture's focal blurriness probably should have been solved in the editing room, but there's no denying the power of Russell's story once the film settles on her. After leading Roosevelt deeper into the state tournament than ever before, Russell gets pregnant and has to drop out of school to care for her child. A year later, however, she re-enrolls in order to get her high school diploma. She wants to play basketball again, but the state high school athletic association denies her eligibility. When she sues for the right to play, her case becomes grist for self-righteous editorials and the hysterical, hypocritical ravings of right-wing talk radio.
Privileged to suit up by an injunction, facing an entire season of forfeits if the ultimate judgment turns against her, Russell leads Roosevelt to the state final. As you should, you will cheer every made basket and wince at every miss. And whatever the final score, you will leave the theater certain, as the film intends for you to be, that we've still got a long way to go in gender equality. What unwed father, black or white, would be treated, before and after the championship game, the way Darnellia Russell has been?