Ward Serrill’s documentary The Heart of the Game follows a Seattle high school girls’ basketball team over the course of six seasons. Among the many players, coaches and parents introduced, three “characters” rise to the surface.
Bill Resler, a tax professor at the University of Washington and father of three girls with little coaching experience, anchors the story. Describing himself as truly frightened after landing the coaching job, he nonetheless quickly installs his own philosophy.
First, no planned offense. He trades the X’s and O’s for a fast-paced, streetball approach, working the girls with punishing drills and weight training to make sure they outlast their opponents. Next, he pushes the players to become warriors, to love physical contact, to hit the floor and bounce back up for more. While bellowing for them to be a “pack of wolves” or “pride of lions” taking down and devouring opponents like prey, he also lavishes them with positive encouragement and earnest praise. Finally, he forms an “inner circle” among the players to force them to make—and take responsibility for—many of their own decisions.
The result: A team that had never been ranked becomes one of the best in the state, going 21-0 during Resler’s first season before facing final tournament play. As the succeeding seasons progress, we meet Devon, an aggressive, smart player who dominates opponents and loves the game. Then we worry for her as she begins to isolate herself from the team and the coach in favor of a “personal coach” who promises to get her a college basketball scholarship.
And eventually we get to know Darnellia, a basketball phenom sent across town to Roosevelt High by her mom for fear she’ll fall in with the wrong crowd at her local high school. Darnellia struggles with grades, with being the only black student on the team and with personality conflicts. But when she comes into her own, she turns out to be one of the best players in the state. Resler’s compassion for her is as obvious as her talent, and when she makes a choice several seasons into her high school “career” that threatens her dream of being the first person in her family to go to college (not to mention playing in the WNBA), he grieves openly.
Darnellia’s attempts to mount a comeback in the film’s sixth season—and the team’s efforts to overcome their crosstown rivals and haul in a state championship—form the heart of the Game‘s compelling final act.
The positive messages in The Heart of the Game are much the same as the ones students learn playing sports for any tough, loving, discipline-minded coach. Preparation and hard work pay off in the long run. Mental toughness is as important as physical toughness. The game should be played with excellence, but it should also be fun. Teams win and lose as teams, not individuals. Students empowered to make decisions make better decisions.
Under Resler’s direction, the players thrive. You see their confidence skyrocket in response to his confidence in them. Obviously, documentaries are by nature selective accounts, but onscreen Resler exercises many model leadership skills. He encourages them to see adversity as a path to becoming better people. When personality conflicts begin to hurt the team, he forces them to work out their differences—with extremely positive results. To Darnellia he emphasizes the need for her to believe that she is as intelligent in the classroom as she is on the court.
We learn that Darnellia’s mom had her when she was just 14 and that Darnellia’s dad is in prison. Still, her mother and extended family are shown as very supportive, especially when Mom insists her daughter will have a better chance of getting a good education if she crosses town to stay away from the influence of some of her friends. Later, when a wrong choice leads to devastating consequences, Darnellia pulls away from her family, but they welcome her back and support her when she’s ready to try again.
When the pressure is at its most intense in a close—championship—game, Resler demonstrates that winning isn’t his highest value by making sure every player gets to play as a reward for collectively (and sacrificially) standing up for Darnellia earlier in the season.
Maude Lepley, a 96-year-old girls’ basketball pioneer, is invited by Resler to come and talk to the team about the early days of female sports. She is honored for her age, experience and wisdom.
We learn that Devon’s personal coach has been “preying on her sexually.” She comes forward after graduating from high school to prevent other girls from having to go through what she did. (He pleads guilty, is convicted and goes to jail.)
[Spoiler Warning] In the film’s key conflict, Darnellia becomes pregnant by her longtime boyfriend during her junior year. After dropping out of school to have the baby (she’s later commended in a public setting for not seeking an abortion), she decides to come back and finish her education—and play basketball. That sets up a protracted legal dispute between the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, which wants to bar her from playing, and her team, coach, friends and other supporters, who fight to reinstate her eligibility.
The story becomes a local controversy. At stake: Should a student who becomes pregnant be allowed back into competitive sports if her pregnancy causes her to miss what would have normally been her final season? And—in an effort to be fair—should boys who get girls pregnant suffer the same athletic ban even though the natural ramifications of their actions aren’t as “visible”?
Using motivational concepts common to guys’ football coaches, Resler creates a theme for each season designed to help his squad play with aggression and toughness. One year, they’re supposed to act as a “pack of wolves,” attacking opponents at their weakest points. Another year they become a tropical storm. Later using the analogy of a “pride of lions,” Resler explains that it’s the female lions that do the hunting and prods his team during time-out huddles to “sink your teeth deep in their neck.” In the final season, he urges the girls to not just “down the moose,” but to finish it off by devouring it.
The girls respond the Resler’s tactics, and as each season wears on, they bang into each other and opposing players, hit the floor hard in drills and scrambles for the ball, and occasionally get bruised and a little bloody. In interviews, a few girls describe their love of this physical style of play. A humorous segment has one girl proclaiming that “war is fun” and she lives to “hunt, kill, fight.” Others openly think their beloved coach is a little nuts, but admit that the violent themes get them pumped and focused for competition.
Although teachers and coaches mostly avoid swearing, especially in front of the students, we do hear exclamations from the players, including two f-words, three s-words and a handful of milder profanities (“h—,” “d–n,” “a–“). The phrase “oh my god” is interjected close to a dozen times.
Justification exists for his stance, but it’s still worth noting that when it comes to sports, Resler makes a concerted effort to keep parents at bay—believing their voices of influence usually do more harm than good. He jokes that the only team worth coaching is at an orphanage.
Director Ward Serrill could never have known when he began this project that aiming his camera at Resler and the Roosevelt Roughriders would yield such compelling, dramatic results. A larger-than-life personality who would have to be toned down to be believable in a fictional film, Resler starts out as the unlikeliest of sports heroes: a roundish, exuberant, Birkenstock-shod wannabe coach helming a historically mediocre team of girls.
But as packaged by Serrill, his story proves once again the unique influence of a coach of good character on the lives of student athletes—even an unlikely coach using unconventional methods. With unrelenting physical discipline, he proves to these girls that they’re capable of becoming stronger and faster than they knew possible. And with endless optimism, he almost forces them to believe they can dominate any opponent (or obstacle) they face. His teams thank him by again and again surpassing even his vaunted dreams for them. The film is a virtual case study in effective, compassionate leadership.
But it’s the girls themselves who give the story its heart and heartbreak. Unlike most male athletes their age, they respond to the ups and downs of competition emotionally and relationally. They cry after both big wins and big losses. They fight with and support each other. They challenge each other to do better and praise each other when they succeed. They’re fierce in battle, but they’re still girls.
Parents, teachers and youth leaders everywhere will ache with Resler for Devon and cheer her comeback after graduation. And in the midst of the controversy over Darnellia’s situation, it’s hard not to be awed as she overcomes a disadvantaged past and her own wrong choices to mature into what’s depicted onscreen as a confident, responsible young adult.
Images of girls bouncing off each other and the hardwood, learning the skills of intimidation and screaming “draw blood!” at the top of their lungs are balanced by Resler’s message that women can be strong, disciplined and aggressive in the right setting. Likewise, despite some real-life rough language, The Heart of the Game inspires, challenges and even serves as a cautionary speed bump for those who still might think that a) sports, school and home have little or nothing to do with each other, and b) actions don’t cause reactions.