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Call of the wild

Movies | Documentary film looks at unusual coach and a motivated team

Issue: "Mayberry no more," July 29, 2006

There's a poignant moment in Ward Serrill's documentary about a high-school girls' basketball team, The Heart of the Game, when 96-year-old Maude Lepley visits the girls' locker room at Seattle's Roosevelt High. While images of girls of her day playing ball in long dresses, white blouses, and polished black shoes flash onscreen, Lepley explains that rules once kept the female players separated into zones. The restrictions, she said, were to keep girls from "overexercising."

In 1998 when University of Washington tax professor Bill Resler accepts a position moonlighting as the girls' basketball coach at Roosevelt, he opens practice by running his team, the Roughriders, into the ground. And they love it. In the film, rated PG-13 for brief coarse language, the girls sweat, grunt, lift weights, and practice taking charges.

To call Resler unorthodox shortchanges the man's imagination. He develops a pregame call-and-response shouting match that simultaneously pumps the girls up before a game and bewilders onlooking parents. "Sink your teeth in their necks!" The girls respond: "Draw blood!" His in-game instruction sometimes is limited to shouts of "Devour the moose!"

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Resler's players don't simply have to stare down opponents on the court, but also in court. Roosevelt seems on the cusp of a championship season when senior star Darnellia Russell becomes pregnant, forcing her out of school and off the team as she gives birth to a daughter.

A year later, she's ready to resume school and basketball, but the athletic association won't grant eligibility unless she can show hardship-and pregnancy doesn't count. Resler polls the girls, who choose to defy the rules and play with Darnellia while a lawyer sues for an injunction.

Serrill's film isn't just for basketball junkies because it's not primarily about basketball, but rather the life of basketball players. Like many documentaries, the plot can be frustrating-200 hours of film and a seven-year time frame condensed to 97 minutes. In a Hollywood rendition, the Roughriders would have won their championship in their first or second year. But unlike Hollywood, there's real life in The Heart of the Game.

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