The hoop dreams of the teenage girls in the documentary The Heart of the Game are fairly straightforward if a wee bit intense. These high school students don't simply want to dribble, pass and shoot their way to another basketball victory; they want to kill. “I live for the hunt,” says one player excitedly to the camera, all but vibrating out of her seat and ponytail. Anyone who still thinks girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice should just try and block this chick, who fiercely embodies the spirit of her team name, the Roughriders, on the court and off.
The Heart of the Game was made by Ward Serrill, a former executive at a Seattle public affairs firm, who several years ago was lucky enough to meet a genuine eccentric named William Resler, who repeatedly coached the Roughriders from Seattle's Roosevelt High School to victory. Married with three adult daughters, Resler has a day job at the University of Washington Business School, where he is a senior lecturer in accounting. At the university's Web site you can find a photograph of the bearded, white-haired professor next to the following declaration: “My philosophy toward teaching, tax law or life in general is the same. Struggle to fashion each day to be superior to yesterday. Work hard, play hard and avoid confusing the two.” With some hair dye, Paul Giamatti could play him in the Hollywood remake.
Serrill's pro forma approach to his material makes it easy to imagine such a remake. For the most part, The Heart of the Game unfolds according to the sports-movie playbook: through love and bullying, a tough-talking, softhearted coach guides his team to its championship season. The cheerleaders cheer as the crowd roars and Serrill's low-end video camera dutifully tracks the action for seven years. The big difference here is that these players don't just face bad calls and lousy plays; they also come smack up against the gender divide. One girl is preyed on by a sexual predator while another becomes pregnant, triggering some obtuse institutional sexism. It's no wonder that for all its rough and tumble, the basketball court seems like the safest place in the world.
Part of what makes it seem so safe is Resler, whose unorthodox approach to basketball can be seen on the court — where everyone on the team “runs like hell” — and heard in his vivid language. Perhaps because he spends his working hours eyeball-deep in numbers, he has a richly developed sense of metaphor. He encourages the girls to think of themselves as wolves, exhorting them to: “Sink your teeth into their necks! Draw blood!”
The girls echo his war cries, though it must be said their rivals never seem especially rattled. This, in turn, has no effect on Resler, who also encourages the Roughriders to break their opponents “like a stick” and, at one point in the film, cheerfully switches his animalistic imagery from snarling wolves to swirling piranhas.
Although Serrill tries to turn one of the Roughriders, the formidably talented Darnellia Russell, into the titular center of his story, the strategy never takes. An underprivileged black girl who helped lead her mostly white, middle-class school to the state finals, Russell is a prodigy on the court and has all the makings of a classic sports hero. But while she's a terrific player, slipping around opponents like quicksilver, she never becomes a vibrant film character, even in the midst of her most dramatic hour.