Sunday, July 16, 2006

Heart of the Game
By Zach

Yesterday was my father's birthday. For those of you who don't know him, he's quite the basketball fan. Normally we'd play basketball together on a Saturday morning, but he's still recovering from surgery on his left knee, so he had to settle for watching me and a number of his long-time basketball buddies play. Last evening, we caught a 7:00 showing of the new basketball documentary Heart of the Game, which was particularly appropriate since it's the story of the Roosevelt (Seattle, WA) Rough Riders girl's basketball team, and my father is indeed an alum of Roosevelt.

Heart of the Game, and just about every basketball documentary made after 1994, ends up being compared to the incomparable Hoop Dreams, just like every sci-fi movie ends up being compared to 2001: A Space Oddysey and every movie about a pair of semi-retarded people gets compared to Dumb and Dumber: they represent the pinnacle of their respective genres. Heart of the Game is not Hoop Dreams in either style or tone, but it certainly stands as a quality movie on its own.

It centers around Bill Resler, a fifty-something tax professor at the University of Washington who takes the head coaching gig at Roosevelt on a lark: he had three daughters who played basketball, and figures at the very least he can connect with the team through that. Plus, he's got a rather unique approach to coaching teenage girls. He nearly runs them into the ground in practice and trains them to view themselves as predatory animals (wolves, lions, etc.) and the opponents as their prey (the phrase "devour the moose" is used at least 30 times throughout the film). It works, both as a way to motivate the girls (they run off a long undefeated season in their first year under Resler) and as a way to draw the audience in: few of us have ever heard girls, or women, who are so openly and joyfully agressive. One player revels in the physical contact she's allowed to have with other girls, while another seems almost sadistic in her love of inflicting pain.

The turnaround of the team composes the first third or so of the movie, while the last two-thirds are focused on the arrival and emergence of Darnellia Russell, a preternaturally talented 14-year-old whose mother diverts her from her neighborhood school (Garfield High) so that she can attend the more middle-class Roosevelt. Russell, predictably, struggles with being surrounding by white kids for the first time in her life and nearly quits basketball. One of the best scenes in the film is when Resler recounts a showdown he has with Russell about promoting her to the varsity squad.

The true crux of the story comes after it's revealed that during her junior year, Russell becomes pregnant with the child of her steady boyfriend. Forced to miss out on a year of basketball because the school district won't let her play, she vows to return for her fifth year of school and fourth year of basketball. The Washington Interscholastic Athletics Association (WIAA) rules her ineligable, saying that her pregnancy, because it was her own choice, doesn't constitute enough of a hardship for her to receive an exemption to play as a fifth-year senior. The team finds her a lawyer, and after earning an injunction decides to play the season with Russell despite the fact that doing so might cause them to forfeit every game of the season if the WIAA has its way.

The court battle and Roosevelt's struggle to finally earn an elusive state championship are interwoven with the rise to power of Garfield, the school that Russell and her mother shunned years ago. Led by basketball legend Joyce Walker, the Bulldogs and Rough Riders have a number of memorable matchups.

So what did I think of the movie? The basketball action is compelling: there's a lot of great footage and a number of close, exciting moments woven together. Considering that director Ward Serril had no idea what he was getting into when he started the project, he must consider himself damn lucky to have gotten such a compelling story.

My biggest complaint is that while plenty of time is spent with Resler, some questions go unanswered. He mentions his daughters, but they're never seen on camera besides a couple of photos, and we don't hear at all from them about what they think about their dad and his rather interesting coaching style. Similarly, Russell gets little face time when she's not in uniform, and we get only glimpses into her personality. Her boyfriend, the father of her child, is never heard from, even when there's an on-going controversy (at least on the Seattle airwaves) about how Russell could go to school, play basketball, and raise a child. It's a short film, only 97 minutes, and I tend to think that a bit more could have been revealed about Russell, and perhaps some of her teammates. None of them comment on what it was like to deal with the distraction of having their star teammate fighting for her eligibility, and none of them talk about what it took to make the decision that could have cost them their season.

Still, Heart of the Game is plenty of fun. I greatly enjoyed it, and it's recommended for any sports fan, or even those who can appreciate some of the challenges of adolecence, especially for teenage girls.

Oh, and for full disclosure, I went to college with one of the girls in the movie...


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