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The Heart of the Game (10/10)

by Tony Medley

This is one of the three best films I’ve seen this year and, unbelievable as it sounds, it is a documentary about girls’ high school basketball in the state of Washington!

I was a basketball player for the first three decades of my life and the thought of playing with women then would have been considered ridiculous by me and everyone with whom I played.  A few years later a friend of mine, former UCLA Hall of Fame basketball player Kenny Washington, coached the UCLA women’s basketball team, coaching, among others, All-American Annie Myers. I saw some of their games and realized that women were players.

But I never really realized the intensity or the talent until I saw this film. These young high school women would probably have been too good to play with us (and we were pretty good, playing at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, which attracted some very good players from throughout Los Angeles)!

Although it is about the Roosevelt High School Roughriders, a substantial part of the story is about two people, Coach Bill Resler, a college tax teacher who took over the coaching job of the Roosevelt High School girl’s basketball team, and Darnellia Russell, one of his players.

Film maker Ward Serrill, who produced and directed, wanted to make a documentary on Resler’s efforts as the coach, so he got unprecedented permission and unfettered access to film the team. He didn’t know he was embarking on a seven-year journey that was made indelible after the arrival of 14 year-old African American Darnellia Russell a year after he started shooting film.

This is a remarkable, compelling story. We see Russell training the young women. The players talk frankly and openly about their game and their lives, as does Resler. The young women are not only effusive and enthusiastic, but, considering their tender ages, incredibly adult. Serrill follows them season after season, showing game films as well as what’s going on in the locker room before and after the games and on the bench during the games.  Not only Resler, but the players all tell the story in their own words and when that includes a key play in a key game, we see that key play in that key game.

Russell is just one of a bunch of intriguing figures. She’s tough and goes through lots of ups and downs, including having to fight a court battle just to be given the right to play her last year. But the stories of the other young women are equally compelling.

Even though Resler is a tax professor, he proves that people who love the game sometimes know more about it than those who devote their entire lives to playing and coaching it. Resler is not only a good tactician; he knows how to handle people.

The best thing I can say about this film is to quote Ward Serrill himself:

“The first time I walked into the Roosevelt High School gym I knew I had a story on my hands. I saw girls crashing and bashing into each other, knocking each other to the floor and laughing about it—lots of laughter. I had also stumbled into a world-class character, a true court jester and genius at basketball, Coach Bill Resler. A college tax professor by day, Resler had a distinct talent at getting girls to work their asses off and have fun doing it. Resler and the Roughriders took me on a seven-year magic carpet ride.”

You don’t have to be a basketball player or fan to enjoy this movie. Documentary film-making at its zenith, this allows you to ride the magic carpet with him.