Uplifting sports documentaries aren’t exactly rarities anymore, but this one works reasonably well. Ward Serrill’s picture, which covers some seven years, is essentially an inner-city, gender-reversal version of “Hoosiers,” in which a modestly-talented girls’ high school basketball team is molded into champions by a distinctly unconventional coach. “The Heart of the Game”–not the most imaginative of titles–is certainly an agreeable movie. But it’s no “Hoop Dreams.”
The setting is Roosevelt High School in Seattle, where an advertisement for a new head coach for the Roughriders lures Bill Resler, a finance instructor at the University of Washington who’s always dreamed of coaching, to apply for the job. A voluble, bearded guy of enormous energy, Resler, who comes up with some new unifying slogan each season and spouts comically vitriolic instructions will training his charges with a combination of rigor and concern, turns the team from a bunch of also-rans into a real contender. The other main character in the picture is Darnellia Russell, a talented African-American player who transfers to the nearly all-white team at Roosevelt from a nearby largely black school and finds the transition a difficult one. A good deal of the footage is devoted to her rebellious attitude, which Resler tries to control, and in particular to a legal fight with the state athletic authority over her continued eligibility after she gets pregnant and drops out to have the baby. It will come as no surprise that “The Heart of the Game” culminates in a big championship contest that also represents personal triumphs for both coach and player.
It can’t be said that this movie springs a great many surprises; if it were a fiction film (as it might well become before long), one would probably dismiss it as corny and unbelievable. The fact that it’s a real story doesn’t really make it any less manipulative, but the fact that the quirks and twists are real give it more character than it would otherwise possess. Nor does it break any new ground technically; it’s pretty much a bare-bones, home-made production, and looks it. But while this isn’t a great documentary (see “Hoop Dreams”), it’s a likable one.