Director: Ward Serrill
First time writer/director/cinematographer/producer Ward Serrill crafts one of the best sports-related documentaries since the 90’s smash Hoop Dreams with The Heart of the Game, his fascinating and intimate seven-year look at the girl’s basketball team from Roosevelt High School in Seattle. The film does a tremendous job of chronicling the progress of the less than popular team’s magnificent turnaround under the leadership of their new, inspiring, and unusual coach Bill Resler, a University of Washington tax professor who, after coaching his own three daughters opts to take on the daunting task at the start of the film. Utilizing radical tactics to break the instinctive fear barrier young women have about being rough, Coach Resler starts the girls on a regimen of extreme training and psyches up his players into dominating their opponents by comparing the team to a pack of wild animals, and soon Roosevelt High is on an unprecedented winning streak. A year later, when naturally gifted middle school student Darniella Russell is persuaded by her mother to attend the wealthier, mostly white high school, the team and Coach Resler find an unlikely hero who overcomes personal struggles throughout her tenure at the school to be the type of player one can build a team around. The documentary is involving and thought-provoking, raising questions about gender, ethnic and other double standards after Russell finds herself dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and becomes the object of unfair scrutiny, judgment and legal action to prevent her from continuing with the game. By incorporating all of the sides, this event makes one acutely aware of the inequality she’s victim to as we realize that male athletes who father children never face such consequences as Russell fights against overwhelming odds to become a mommy, keep a high grade point average, and play ball with the ultimate goal of joining the WNBA. Narrated by Chris Bridges, a.k.a. Ludacris, Ward Serrill’s meticulous film, edited to a brief ninety-six minute running time in a way that makes us more curious about subplots tossed away as the film continues, nonetheless manages to take seven years worth of footage and whittle it down into a riveting account of not just girls basketball but the challenges faced by girls in general and not a frame is wasted in the process. The Heart of the Game is one of those memorable, rare cinematic jewels that was probably never released at a theatre near you and while it may be hard to track down in smaller video stores, I’m happy to report that Netflix does indeed carry the film.