Thanks in large part to Title IX, girls now have their very own hoop dreams, and they deserve their very own Hoop Dreams, a documentary that will showcase their talents, on and off the court. Alas, Ward Serrill's The Heart of the Game isn't that documentary, but it's still an engrossing look at how far things have come since I was in high school, when girls, if they wanted to participate in organized sports, had to settle for the cheerleading or pom-pom squad. With a camera in tow, Serrill spent seven years hanging out with the Roosevelt High Roughriders of Seattle, a team that blossomed under the take-no-prisoners approach of Coach Bill Resler. And although The Heart of the Game follows the standard driving-to-the-basket story arc, culminating with a slam dunk, it makes a couple of surprising moves along the way.
With his scraggly gray beard, his ruddy cheeks and his roly-poly belly, Resler looks like Santa Claus on a bender, and some might argue that he coaches like that as well - that he shouldn't give up his day job at the University of Washington, where he teaches tax law. But Resler's unorthodox methods - each season has a theme, such as "Pack of Wolves" or "Pride of Lions" - seem to connect with the players, who appreciate being told to annihilate their opponents. (Their rallying cry: "Draw blood!") And his equally unorthodox game plan - full-court press on defense, improvised offense - also starts to pay off. A born talker who nevertheless listens carefully to his teenage terminators, Resler could have carried the documentary all by himself. Then Darnellia Russell walks onto the court.
Promoted to varsity her freshman year, Russell can't help but remind us of the NBA prospects in Hoop Dreams - loaded with talent, but is it enough? And her life off the court follows a similar trajectory. A black woman in a largely white school, she doesn't quite know how to conduct herself, missing games because of a low GPA. And just when she starts to put things together, she discovers she's pregnant. That costs her a year of eligibility after she drops out of school to have the child. And it might have cost her another year if the team hadn't decided to defy the state's high school athletic association and let her play. As charismatic off the court as on, and a fearsome thing to behold when her pride is threatened, Russell could have carried the documentary all by herself. But Serrill was after The Big Picture.
Or was he? The Heart of the Game lacks the focus of Hoop Dreams, the sense that a whole system of institutionalized exploitation is being exposed. And because it's about half as long as Hoop Dreams, we don't get to know anybody as well as we did there - that whole extended network of family, friends and hangers-on, all of whom had a stake in the outcome, their own hoop dreams. What we do get, though, is a real taste of what it's like to have grown up under Title IX. When these girls, many of them still in braces, talk about what they plan to do to their opponents, you'd think it was a clip from Murderball. And the spiel that one of them lets loose after a big loss wouldn't seem the slightest bit out of place in the men's locker room. They've come a long way, baby. Somebody else will have to lead the cheers.