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Jumping through hoops

Sports doc The Heart of the Game chronicles seasons on the brink

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Practically every basketball game in The Heart of the Game seems to come down to a single, decisive shot. The rousing documentary chronicles the rise of a girls high school basketball team in Seattle, and the fate of its seasons invariably ride on a heart-in-the-mouth two- or three-pointer scored -- or flubbed -- an instant before the final buzzer.

Director Ward Serrill knows the sports-movie formula well enough to wring suspense from the big games, and having filmed over six seasons, he can cherry-pick the best moments for maximum effect.

More than the definitive basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, The Heart of the Game copies from the Hollywood playbook. The film's most compelling qualities, however, run contrary to pop culture's treatment of athletes, particularly the mass media's exaltation of star players. The Heart of the Game makes good on the rhetoric that sports encourage discipline, teamwork and other character-building virtues.

Not that the film doesn't have its leading lights. Like most of the best nonfiction films, Heart of the Game features numerous compelling personalities. The Roosevelt High School Roughriders see their fortunes turn around with the hire of new coach Bill Resler, a pudgy, middle-aged tax professor with no experience coaching at this level. You don't have to be a student of basketball strategies to realize that Resler is both a demanding taskmaster and a sensitive, passionate advocate for his players.

In one strange, touching image, a girl blows the winning shot in a big game and crumples to the floor, then Resler runs over and stretches out alongside her to comfort her. His strategy, though, proves far from touchy-feely. He gives his teams nicknames like "Pack of Wolves" and battle cries like "Draw blood!" Rivals and observers marvel at Resler's "attack"-based, full-court press approach as an anomaly among female basketball teams.

The Heart of the Game keeps an eye on promising player Darnellia Russell, who feels out of place at primarily white Roosevelt. Russell comes complete with attitude problems, an impoverished family background and an undeniable gift for the game. As the seasons pass, the entwined stories of Resler, Russell and the Roughriders feature twists that, in a fictional screenplay, would seem hopelessly contrived, including an unplanned pregnancy, court-room machinations to restore a key player and a championship grudge between Roosevelt and its arch-rival, Garfield High School.

Serrill presents the big game in David-vs.-Goliath terms because Roosevelt averages as a "short" team, but Garfield doesn't become a stock villain. Coached by Joyce Walker, a former Harlem Globetrotter, and featuring Russell's best friend as a major player, Garfield probably would have nearly as inspirational a story as that of the Roosevelt team.

The film features some amusing touches, like the team prankishly wallpapering the coach's office with tax forms, and the way a visit from a nonagenarian female coach inspires a brisk tangent about the history of women's basketball. Nevertheless, gender issues bring complications. The aforementioned courtroom machinations help raise the argument that female athletes get blamed for accidental pregnancies, where male athletes get a pass. Serrill's camera captures the girls' athleticism and exuberance without leering over them, but perhaps he puts their sex lives too far in the background. Two of the team's major problems derive from the players' relationships with males -- one falls victim to an older sexual predator -- and you wish Serrill had explored that side of the story more thoroughly.

Compared to Hoop Dreams' near-Dickensian portrayal of fate and class, The Heart of the Game proves more conventionally uplifting. Rapper/actor Ludacris' narration relies a little heavy on sports clichés, but the film still offers a rich, fascinating story. In the championship game, Resler eventually inserts every player on the roster into the game, even allowing freshmen players a moment in the limelight. When one of the untested girls nails some spectacular shots, she briefly draws our attention as if she's destined to be the next big thing. In fact, the unexpected showing of an out-of-nowhere rookie sounds like a great subject for a sports movie.

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