The documentary, The Heart of the Game, follows the Roosevelt Rough Riders, a girls’ high school basketball team from Seattle, Washington. As director Ward Serrill records six seasons of the team’s struggles and triumphs, he captures the audience’s attention not only through the rise of the Rough Riders’ basketball success but also through the stories of the girls themselves. Narrated by actor and rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, The Heart of the Game is an inspiring and at times heart-wrenching film.
The story of the Rough Riders begins when Bill Resler, an accounting professor, agrees to coach the girls’ basketball team at Roosevelt High, a middle-class school in Seattle. Resler, who looks more like a friendly, white-bearded, middle-aged professor than a hard-nosed coach, begins his tenure at Roosevelt with tough conditioning drills, full-court presses, and no offensive plays. In his first season as coach, Resler encourages the girls to play physically. Moreover, in his unique coaching style, Resler configures the team as an “inner circle” where the players make decisions without any influence from parents or coaches.
In the first two seasons as head coach, Resler sets high goals for his team, and they accomplish many of them. The Rough Riders make it to the state playoffs, though they do [End Page 527] not play in the championship game. Meanwhile, in a poorer section of the city, Darnellia Russell leads her middle school to its best season of all time. Her mother decides that she will go to Roosevelt High to receive a better education, although geographically Russell should attend Garfield High. Coached by Joyce Walker, a former Louisiana State University star and professional basketball player (including a stint as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters), Garfield eventually becomes a main rival of Roosevelt. With Roosevelt High’s middle-class position and Garfield High’s location in a poorer Seattle neighborhood, interesting class and racial tensions play out through this rivalry, which are enhanced by the fact that some of Russell’s closest friends play on Garfield. Though neither team dominates the rivalry, it is clear that Garfield, made up predominantly of African-American players, and Roosevelt, featuring primarily white players, have major differences. Though these distinctions may lead to interesting discussions after watching the film, Serrill does not really highlight them in the documentary. Instead, the movie focuses more on how Russell’s friendships with the opposing players affect her attitude toward the games with Garfield.
The documentary highlights Russell’s academic and personal struggles throughout her career at Roosevelt High. After her junior season, Russell discovers she is pregnant and quits school. The placement of these events in the film seems to serve not only as a part of the narrative, but as a reminder that Russell’s background is very different from that of her teammates. Even though teenage pregnancy does occur at middle-class, white schools, it is often represented as a problem of teenagers from economically and racially marginal positions. Serrill’s choice to focus on Russell’s pregnancy and subsequent decision to leave school again shows that he is willing to tackle the tough issues faced by these young basketball players. Though Russell struggles at first and seems to have a bleak future, eventually she returns to Roosevelt High School to resume her education. But, because of Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) rules and Roosevelt’s enforcement of them, Russell cannot be a member of the Roosevelt girls’ basketball team. Finally, as a fifth-year senior, the “inner circle” decides to allow Russell to play, despite the fact that the WIAA declared her ineligible. A lawyer volunteers to take Russell’s case to court, and a judge rules that Russell can return to play. By the end of the season, the Rough Riders make it to the state playoff tournament. With Russell on the roster, Roosevelt narrowly defeats its opponent to become the state champions. Two days later, the WIAA drops its case against Russell.
In dealing with a similarly sensitive issue...