Beyond the high school bleachers

The documentary ‘Heart of the Game’ follows a Seattle high school girl’s basketball team

Matt Graham

I hate talk radio.

This was the thought I had when, toward the end of the documentary “Heart of the Game,” a series of listeners call into a local sports talk station to berate high school basketball player Darnellia Russell for having the audacity to get pregnant.

Russell, a high school basketball phenom, is forced to forfeit her senior year of basketball when she gets pregnant with her boyfriend of seven years and drops out.

When she re-enrolls as a fifth-year senior, the state’s athletic association doesn’t think she should be allowed to play ball – reasoning that her pregnancy wasn’t a hardship but a choice. Never mind that basketball and a college scholarship provides Russell with her best chance at providing for the child, or that a male player would never have had to make the same choice.

It’s doubtful that filmmaker Ward Serrill knew the story he would be getting when, in 1998, he started chronicling the Roosevelt Roughriders, a Seattle high school girl’s basketball team and their new coach, Bill Resler.

Resler is an intriguing character and serves as the initial focal point for the filmmaker. Resler, who teaches tax law at a local college, decides to take over the coaching gig at his daughters’ former high school, calling himself a basketball fanatic. Resler is an unlikely coach. Aside from being a tax law expert, he’s a balding, overweight eccentric who enjoys reading Albert Einstein in his free time.

Nevertheless, he has immediate success as a coach ditching a set offense in favor of running and pressing. Most of all, he tells them to have fun.

The most interesting story in the film, however, is Russell, who starts playing varsity basketball for Roosevelt as a freshman, during Resler’s second season. Russell, who is black, comes to the mostly white school at the urging of her mother.

The Roughriders have a series of excellent regular seasons and playoff disappointments and develop a rivalry with Garfield, the cross-town high school most of Russell’s friends attend.

It all culminates in a state championship showdown during Russell’s final year. The courts intervene, allowing honor student Russell to play her fifth year, although there is still the chance the high school association will win its appeal and force the Roughriders to forfeit their season. It all leads to an ending that wouldn’t be believed if it came from a screenwriter.

Like all good sports movies, documentary or otherwise, “Heart of the Game” is essentially a human drama. Russell’s difficulties highlight the fact that, yes, good people do make bad decisions. And, no, a few youthful mistakes do not turn someone into an irredeemable mess, despite what some talk radio listeners with an excess of opinion and lack of knowledge might think.

In the end, the way the team comes together under Resler in support of Russell provides a poignant example of just what humans are capable of when they believe they can accomplish something, Sappy, yes, but true.