The great 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams casts such a long shadow that any subsequent portraits of high-school basketball hopefuls can only wither in comparison. In following two gifted Chicago hoopsters with NBA aspirations, the film touches on everything that's inspiring and troubling about young talent in the sporting world, dealing with issues of race, class, and the perils of entire families that cling to a long-shot dream. In 2005, the ESPN-produced Through The Fire put a heavy gloss on the ready-made story of future Portland Trail Blazers point guard Sebastian Telfair, virtually ignoring the shady dealings of shoe companies in branding would-be superstars. By contrast, the entertaining new documentary The Heart Of The Game at least acknowledges many of the same conflicts that arose in Hoop Dreams, even though it's really more about two outsized personalities and their infectious passion for the sport.
Over six seasons, the film follows the fearsome Roosevelt Roughriders, a girls' high-school basketball team from a middle-to-upper-class Seattle area. The team had been languishing for years at the bottom of its division until Bill Resler, a quirky University Of Washington tax professor, took over as head coach. Though he lacks experience, Resler introduces a few radical concepts that produce immediate dividends, including the complete elimination of an offensive scheme, a wire-to-wire full-court press on defense (which requires incredible fitness from his players), and confidence-boosting motivational tactics. Resler's success dovetails with the rise of Darnellia Russell, a supremely talented guard whose racial and economic background contrasts with her teammates', leading to some turbulence. When Russell sits out her senior year after a pregnancy, Resler goes to court against the WIAA (Washington Interscholastic Activities Association) to fight for her eligibility.
Given so many narrative strands—Resler's peculiar coaching philosophies, the drawn-out eligibility battle, Russell's problems coping with school and personal demons, and the team's annual push for the state championship—director Ward Serrill chooses to incorporate them all without exploring any at depth. What he loses in complexity he gains in momentum and uplift: The Heart Of The Game leans on a highlight reel full of dramatic do-or-die situations and some of the most outlandish motivational gimmicks this side of late-night infomercials. During one season, Resler asks his players to think of themselves as wolves, leading to vicious call-and-response during huddle-ups: "Teeth to the neck!" "Draw blood!" Their unchecked ferocity gives The Heart Of The Game its pulse.