SPORTS DOCUMENTARIES are not unlike sports themselves. Preparation, execution and standout performances are plenty important. But it's also hard to discount the role of luck. Catch no breaks, and you end up with Bonds on Bonds, the viewer-deprived reality show that ESPN, mercifully, canceled on Monday. Never mind the loathsome protagonist or the awkward pas de deux around the steroids issue. The real flaw was more elemental: As John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president for content, told The New York Times, "The story just didn't happen."
Contrast this with The Heart of the Game. Though it doesn't appear in the credits, providence plays a starring role in this deft, powerful documentary. In 1998 Ward Serrill, a recovering accountant, was at a dinner party and met Bill Resler, an eccentric, enormously likable (as Heart shows) tax professor at the University of Washington. Resler had recently begun coaching the girls' basketball team at Seattle's Roosevelt High, and he regaled Serrill with stories of his experiences. Intrigued, Serrill brought his camcorder to a practice and realized immediately that, as he puts it, "there were sparks coming off everyone's head." He had no grand plan and no financing, but he had the good sense to continue shooting.
If the makers of Hoop Dreams hit the lottery with the crisscrossing fate of its two subjects and other serendipitous plot twists, Serrill hit the Powerball. The movie could scarcely have been scripted any better. The narrative threads its way between a sexual assault; a bitter, racially tinged rivalry; a fierce courtroom battle; and a star player's habit for both singular excellence and self-sabotage. The movie took seven years to make, during which time Serrill burrowed increasingly deeper into debt. Still he pressed on, convinced that there was gold in his 200 hours of tapes. His instincts were validated when Miramax purchased the rights to Heart. The final stroke of luck came in December when rapper Ludacris agreed to narrate the movie.
Long before he shot his last scene, Serrill came to appreciate the parallels between his project and the Roosevelt Roughriders teams he chronicled. "There were swings in momentum, there were turnovers, there were really intense periods," says Serrill, who's now working on a documentary about the Seattle tango scene. Speaking of the vagaries of nonfiction filmmaking, he says, "You can win and you can lose." In the case of The Heart of the Game, he won big.