I caught the second hour of The Heart of the Game yesterday.
The film follows the on- and off-court odyssey of the Roosevelt Roughriders, a high school girls basketball team in Seattle seeking its first-ever state championship.
Coach Bill Resler, a tax law professor at the University of Washington who uses sports metaphors to inspire the team-he tells this squad that they are a wolfpack hunting moose and often bounds up and down, yelling, “Look in their eyes! Look in their eyes!”-is one of the major characters.
So, too, is Darnellia Russell, a star player from a poor neighborhood who has dreams of a college scholarship and even the WNBA.
The film follows the team through three seasons. The first ends unhappily in the first round of the state tournament when the heavily favored Roosevelt squad, which is composed largely of upper middle-class white players, loses to a lower ranked opponent.
The action becomes further complicated when Russell drops out of school to have a child. Her attempts to return are stymied by the state athletic association, first because having a baby in the association’s eyes did not qualify as a hardship, and the following year because it said that she had four years in which to play high school ball.
The team votes to include Darnellia on the team, even though doing so means that the squad could forfeit whatever victories they earn.
Roosevelt’s rivalry against the Garfield Bulldogs and the legal drama surrounding Russell’s eligibility only heighten the suspense and make the conclusion that much more rewarding.
As with Roosevelt, Amherst is coached by a man, Ron Moyer-a relationship that carries with it a series of challenges the team must navigate. Blais depicts a moment late in the season when some of the players, after a conflict with the coach, essentially decided they were going to win it despite their feelings about Moyer.
Amherst also has a star player, Jamila Wideman, the daughter of acclaimed novelist John Edgar Wideman and Judy Wideman. Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith wrote one of my favorite profiles ever, a piece in which he wrote about Jamila’s basketball talent and uncle and brother’s murderous pasts. This material does not show up in the earlier book, a decision that Blais said she made to respect the family’s privacy.
Both the book and the movie explore the group dynamics on the team, the balancing act that young women often feel they have to play in being athletes, students and social beings, and the passion they bring to the game of basketball. If anything, the later work shows how relative gains in acceptance of girls’ basketball as the stands for the Roosevelt games are packed.
Neither will disappoint those who take the time to check them out.