Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Last night, I went to a screening of a new documentary 'Heart of the Game', which follows a new high school girl's basketball coach and his star player. I was riveted, as much for what the documentary explores as for what it just touches on.

The film, narrated by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, follows University of Washington graduate tax professor Bill Resler as he takes on coaching his local high school Girl's Basketball Team, the Roosevelt Roughriders. We are introduced to his players, and led through his first season with the sometimes fanatical voices of his players. Introduced a couple of seasons in is freshman Darnellia Russell, an African American student from a high school across town. Her mother wants her to go to Roosevelt to keep her from possible bad influences at the closest high school, Garfield, where all her friends go. Darnellia feels out of place, but plays amazing basketball and becomes an integral part of the team. There is much game footage, as well as the introduction of a new coach at Garfield, Joyce Walker, herself an alum of Garfield and one of the first big WNBA players. The rivalry is on.

**Spoiler Warning**

The rest of the film follows this rivalry, but focusses on Darnellia. Becoming pregnant at the end of her junior year, Darnellia drops out of school for a year to have the baby. She returns for a senior year, but she is barred from playing by the WIAA. The filmmaker follows her into the hearings for the lawsuit she files to allow her to play, and the rest of the season is played under the possibility that the WIAA could bring the case to trial.

I was completely engrossed in the outcome of the games--sweaty palms, nervous in every way. The interviews with the girls were wonderful, especially hearing them respond to coach Resler's metaphors for the team that changed every year: Tropical Storm, Pack of Wolves, Pride of Lions. Hearing the girls chant "Draw Blood!" before each game was at at turns hysterical, disturbing and amazing. What comes through, though, is the way that women's and men's sports differ. One young fan sums it up by saying that the boys play for themselves and worry about scoring, whereas the girls play as a team. That comes through in this film. I had always wondered why women's basketball tends to have lower scores. It's not the skill level of the players at all, it's the way they play. Watching the girls form a team and develop into a force is fascinating.

The other issue, not pressed too much in the film, but mentioned, is the unspoken punishment of Darnellia for having her child. There is a great sequence with radio callers voicing opinions, with the standard "what kind of example is this setting?" rhetoric. One caller, though, asks if the message the board is sending is to have an abortion--that if you actually carry your baby to term you will be punished for it. This is the most interesting question raised in the film. With all the pro-life rhetoric, wouldn't people be supporting her? There is an unspoken racism in all of this as well--that Darnellia is black, and lower middle class, and unmarried. But what we are shown is a determined young woman who has support of her entire family and her boyfriend's family, who all pitch in so she can finish high school and play basketball. One of the radio callers even says she must be a bad mother if she's doing all this, having no time to spend with her child. All of this, of course, ignoring the larger family that is supporting her, or that that would even be a possiblity. So she is punished for premarital sex, punished for deciding to have the child, and punished for wanting to keep alive her dream. The double standards just keep on coming, and this is a great film to see if you want to think about rhetoric versus reality. Please don't have an abortion, but if you have the child you'll pay for it. Incredible.

ALthough Darnellia's story is the center of the film, it is ultimately about Coach Resler as well, and his passion for the game. This movie really shows how one person can change lives. In one of the most exciting moments in the film, Resler decides that he will play every player on the team in the State Championship, whether or not she has played in many games, or any, all season. What happens is fantastic. So, go see it when it comes to your area. I'm not sure of the actual release date, but hopefully it's soon. I hope you'll have as great a time as I did. I'm even thinking about seeing a WNBA game....

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