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HEART OF THE GAME (director/writer: Ward Serrill; cinematographer: Ward Serrill; editor: Eric Frith; music: the Angel; cast: Ludacris (Narrator); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Ward Serrill/Liz Manne; Miramax; 2006)
“A female version of Hoop Dreams.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Ward Serrill’s (a former executive at a Seattle public affairs firm) intense but straightforward inspirational documentary about high school basketball, a female version of Hoop Dreams –only it’s set in Seattle. It tells the dual tale of Bill Resler an exuberant and philosophical fiftyish University of Washington tax law professor (still keeping his day job there) who without coaching experience is appointed girls’ high school basketball coach at Roosevelt High School (nicknamed the Roughriders) and the 14-year-old African-American phenom named Darnellia Russell who chooses this mostly all-white middle-class school over Garfield, the inner-city school located in the ‘hood where she dwells with mom and stepfather and large family. Mom thought she’d get a better education here and would be out of the sphere of influence of those who could get her in trouble. D’s response to the school is: “I’ve never been around so many white people before.” The coach, a Paul Giamatti lookalike, shows he’s up to the task as he immediately brings a winning attitude to the former losing team and inspires them with his unorthodox approach to the game (offers no set offensive plays and instead opts for a full-court press the entire game and to wing it on offense), his motivational talks has them snarling like wolves, and the kind hearted coach is both drill sergeant and inspirational teacher about life. His coaching gets them to play like a team and is good enough to get them into the state playoffs. Later when the freshman Darnellia plays for the varsity, the charismatic coach exclaims about his prize pupil “She’s my only chance to be famous.”

Serrill spends seven years chronicling Resler’s experiences with Roosevelt High School (his three daughters attend the school), and for the most part follows the trials and tribulations of D, who has to overcome poor grades, a surly attitude and learn how to play team ball. After doing all that and reaching star heights, D in her junior year becomes pregnant and drops out. When she returns her senior year, the Board of Ed declares her ineligible to play basketball because of her child. The single-mom has a lawyer volunteer his services to sue to get her reinstated and uses the winning argument that it’s an unConstitutional double-standard to allow girls who get abortions and the fathers of children to be in good standing while penalizing her for keeping her child.

It’s a fairly typical sports hero story (with the big game as the finale played out as if drawn up on the chalkboard). But the story is a decent one going beyond just sports (covering race, gender and politics) and is emotionally satisfying. Resler is a charismatic character who gives the film its soul and brains, while D is undoubtedly a super player; nevertheless, her personality comes through as flat and she couldn’t hold up her end of the bargain by bringing life to her role as an underprivileged black girl whose future is bright because a college scholarship awaits and there’s possible big pay days ahead by playing in the WNBA.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”