They've got game
A determined girls' basketball coach teams with a driven filmmaker on 'The Heart of the Game.'
By Susan King, Times Staff Writer
June 8, 2006
COACH Bill Resler has been leading the Roosevelt High School girls' basketball team in Seattle to winning seasons and state championships by encouraging his players to think of themselves as a pride of lions or a pack of wolves ripping and tearing into the other team.
He urges his team on to victory with such battle cries as: "Sink your teeth in their necks! Draw blood!"
"The Heart of the Game," a new documentary that opens Friday in Los Angeles, chronicles seven years in the lives of Resler and his players.
Filmmaker Ward Serrill, a former certified public accountant, first met Resler at a friend's house in the mid-'90s.
Resler, a bearish powerhouse of personality and purpose, began to tell Serrill stories from the court. "Then 45 minutes later, he was still telling me stories," Serrill recalled.
Intrigued, the filmmaker decided to follow Resler into the gym one day to see a practice and was invigorated.
"These girls were having more fun than I had ever seen," Serrill said. "I went and sat behind the bench and there were sparks coming off of these girls. I said, 'That is what we've forgotten about in our culture — these girls are really playing team sports. It's not about the winning or losing.' It was the true enthusiasm and passion these girls had playing and supporting each other."
Thus began Serrill's seven-year journey of chronicling Resler and the various incarnations of the squad, especially Resler's relationship with Darnellia Russell, a tough, talented girl recruited by Roosevelt.
Her hopes and dreams of going to college and playing professional ball nearly come to an end when she becomes pregnant in her junior year.
A year after finishing the last scene of "The Heart of the Game," which features Resler going one-on-one with Russell ("Darnellia nearly killed me. Playing one-on-one against her is not good for your health," he said), the filmmaker and his two protagonists are sitting around a table in a stark conference room in a Los Angeles hotel.
It's just after 9 a.m. and Russell is exhausted, having partied the night before. She frequently yawns; she answers her cellphone. She tells everyone who will listen that a Los Angeles Laker rookie asked her out on a date. Serrill is laid-back. Resler is a bundle of energy. He does most of the talking.
Resler's main occupation is teaching tax law and estate planning at the University of Washington Business School. "Basketball is a community service," he explained. "I love to teach. There is no better thrill than watching a classroom of students who can't get it and suddenly they do get it. It's like a wave across their faces. At 2 p.m., I get to do something completely different. [The girls] have taught me over the years what their spirit is and what they can collectively accomplish."
Serrill describes Resler as a court jester. "He is always making up games and keeping them guessing about what is happening next," he says.
Serrill couldn't afford to hire anyone to work with him on the movie, so he did it all himself. "I went broke about five or six times," he admitted. "I would have fundraisers and ask people for money."
"We'd have a little party with about 20 people who would watch an eight-minute version of the movie," Resler said. "There would be high school girls there who would give $1."
"Over 200 people gave me money with no strings attached," Serrill said. "Somebody gave me $30,000. I kept getting turned down for grants. I consistently heard that nobody will watch a movie about girls' basketball."
"They would never hear about the idea that this was really about teenage girls learning about life and getting older," added Resler, proffering a glance at Serrill and then adding: "But you stuck to it."
It took Russell a while to get used to Serrill's presence. "It was kind of annoying at first because he would be there every day and you'd say, 'Why is this man here?,' especially when you didn't know what was going on."
Serrill announced his intentions to the players only during the first year of production. After that, he relied on word of mouth among the students: "My philosophy was to be as invisible as possible. Most of the time I was wandering around, not talking to them."
The documentary is filled with footage of several heart-pounding battles, especially the Roosevelt Roughriders matches with the Garfield Bulldogs. But the game sequences take a backseat to the personal stories, such as Russell's successful court battle to become a fifth-year senior after the Washington Interscholastic Activities Assn. declared that she was ineligible after leaving school for a year to have her child.
"I firmly believe it all came down to sexism," Resler said about the governing sports organization's actions. "I am not a guy who gets angry very often," he added.
"Darnellia views herself as nothing heroic," Resler said. "But she had a problem and there was only one way to solve it, and she solved. She doesn't understand that other people would have made other choices."
"I really thought I wasn't going to be able to play, but everybody kept telling me that I could," Russell said.
Russell, whose daughter is now 3, finished two years at a Seattle community college. "I still have two more quarters of school to do before I can transfer [to a four-year college]. I still play basketball, but just not for a school."
And Resler is still leading his girls to victory: "We might have the best team we've ever had next year."
Serrill is working on a screenplay version of "The Heart of the Game" that will go more in depth into the lives of Resler and Russell.
Resler joked that a casting battle is already underway: "I hear Brad Pitt wants the part!"