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‘Heart of the Game’ scores big

Women’s basketball documentary has drama, emotions and soul
/ Source: The Associated Press

You couldn’t script this.

Well, you could, but it would seem formulaic, too feel-food and familiar.

“The Heart of the Game” follows the girls’ basketball team at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, which, against the odds, formed a mini-dynasty in recent years.

It could have been just another “Hoosiers” or “Coach Carter” — which, despite being based on true stories, aren’t exactly subtle in their depictions of inspirational athletic competition.

But because this is a documentary, one that’s funny, vivid and intimate, the subject matter seems fresh and new.

Director Ward Serrill spent seven years at this school with these players and clearly got to know them well, though there’s no way he could have gone wrong by placing eccentric coach Bill Resler front and center. A tax professor at the University of Washington by day, the snowy-bearded Resler took over the program as a fan of the game and a father of three daughters at the school.

“I was honestly frightened,” he admits initially. But in no time he turns his players into warriors both on and off the court — calling them a “pack of wolves” or a “pride of lions” and urging them to “draw blood.”

“It’s so cheesy, but I love it,” one of them says, laughing. It’s also hilarious watching these fresh-faced girls gush about how fun it is to crush their opponents — to knock them to the ground and see them crying on the bench — all with a smile and a twinkle in their eyes. They’re not exactly afraid of contact, but they also look out for each other with an instinctive sense of camaraderie and girl power that’s refreshing.

As narrated by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, “The Heart of the Game” tracks the Roosevelt Roughriders year after year as they climb higher and higher in the state tournament. And each year, either in the regular season or in the playoffs, they run into the Garfield High School Bulldogs — who are also from Seattle and are building a dynasty of their own under Joyce Walker, an Olympian and former Harlem Globetrotter who’s coaching at her alma mater.

They’re like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees of girls’ hoops — they play each other so many times, they know each other too well and get sick of each other. And yet every game has the hype and hatred of a championship showdown, complete with crazed mascots and shouting fans.

Adding to the intensity is the fact that Resler’s star, Darnellia Russell, should have gone to Garfield with all her friends but ended up being lured to play across town instead.

A standout since junior high school, Russell is a mesmerizing mix of contradictions: Pure talent with little focus, full of attitude on the court but intimidated in the classroom, she’s one of the few black kids at a mostly white school. She finds it even tougher to persevere once she learns she’s pregnant.

Darnellia had hoped to become the first person in her family to graduate from college and someday play in the WNBA — her own mother gave birth to her when she was just 14 — but all that gets thrown into jeopardy, along with the Roughriders’ season.

“The Heart of the Game” takes a surprisingly dark turn as Darnellia drops out of school and then attempts to come back, only to have the state’s athletic association rule her ineligible to play basketball. Her story of determination is also the team’s story, as they stick by her through a court battle that becomes so high-profile, it sparks heated debate on sports talk radio.

Feel good? Sure. But “The Heart of the Game” is also so exciting — and real — it’s impossible not to be sucked in by its energy.