LOS ANGELES -- To some, Darnellia Russell is a bona fide hero.
But it's not so much what Russell -- the focal point of "The Heart of the Game," the award-winning documentary about a high school girls' basketball team -- accomplished on the court at Seattle's Roosevelt High that is most impressive. Rather, it's the less-than-idyllic experiences she endured and conquered off the court that have people like Chris "Ludacris" Bridges using the H word.
"She taught me," said Bridges, the rapper/actor who narrates the film that opens in theaters (New York and Los Angeles) on Friday. "I think I'm such a fan of hers because she stuck in there and defeated all the odds. So, yes, she's a hero to me."
During an interview at a five-star L.A. hotel to promote the film, Russell, whose often turbulent high school experience included a visit from the stork and a lawsuit against the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (the state's governing sports organization), nervously giggled at the notion that her favorite rap star thinks she's all that.
"I don't really think of myself that way," she said wistfully. "I just did what I had to do."
According to Bill Resler, an eccentric, Birkenstock-wearing college tax professor at the University of Washington who moonlights as Roosevelt's girls' basketball coach, Russell's simple assessment of her plight is right on.
"She had a set of problems in front of her," he said. "There was only one way to solve them so she looked down the road and did what she had to do. She still doesn't accept the idea that a lot of kids would have made other choices."
Given a choice Russell, an African-American who grew up in a part of Seattle that you won't find on any postcards, would have played hoops at the more racially diverse Garfield High as opposed to predominantly white Roosevelt. But her mother, April, citing Roosevelt's superior academics, felt RHS would offer her daughter, a talent with WNBA potential, more and better options in life.
Being a raisin in the sun, however, didn't exactly do much for Russell's self-esteem. On the court, she wasn't the best teammate, and was often so combative and cocky that her Roughriders teammates considered her their toughest opponent. Off it, she was a less-than-stellar student, always in danger of being academically ineligible. And then by the time she had gotten it all together her junior year (the Roughriders placed fifth in the state that season), Russell became a statistic -- yet another teen mother from the inner city.
Despite that bump in what was already a rocky road, Russell fully expected to resume her hoop dreams after the birth of her daughter, Trekayla, which forced Russell to miss the 2002-03 season. But Russell was hit with a flagrant foul when the WIAA denied her a fifth year of eligibility. Armed with the support of Resler, her teammates, family and a posse of community supporters, Russell filed a suit against the WIAA -- she twice challenged the group's ruling in court and won temporary orders allowing her to play before the WIAA eventually dropped its case -- and won. This battle -- which was punctuated by the Roughriders' ensuing march to the 2003-04 Class 4A state championship -- is the defining moment in "The Heart of the Game."
"At its deepest, 'The Heart of the Game' is about the team and how the girls pull together as one to help each other out," said the film's writer and director, Ward Serrill, who spent seven years chronicling Resler and the Roughriders. "It's about never giving up and taking that next step forward however difficult or frightening."
Currently, Russell's present seems a little more scary than her past. All of the interviews, photo sessions and TV appearances she has done on behalf of the award-winning film (which won best documentary honors at the Portland Film Festival and drew rave reviews at the Toronto festival before being picked up by Miramax) have collectively propelled her into a stratosphere that exceeds her comfort level. Now that she's older and wiser, Russell said she might think twice about allowing Serrill's lenses to chronicle her rather chaotic formative years.
"Now I'd probably be like, 'No, that's OK,' " Russell said with a grin last week in L.A. "But I was young, so I didn't care. I thought he was a weirdo. He was like, 'Yeah, we just need to do an interview for this little documentary that we're doing,' and I was like 'OK.' "
But looking back on her past has been very cathartic for Russell. She now realizes how much her pregnancy hurt her mother and her coach. Russell teared up when recalling Resler's initial reaction to that newsflash.
"I remember seeing the look in his eyes when he found out I was pregnant and seeing that hurt," Russell said. "That just really touched me that he cared so much about me."
She also wishes she had done better in school. "Maybe it wouldn't be so hard now if I had done what I needed to do then," she said. "Then again, maybe it was meant to be this way. You never know."
Currently, Russell, 22, is a North Seattle Community College student who is rearing 3-year-old Trekayla "with a lot of help" from extended family members -- including the child's father, with whom she is no longer involved.
But even though she's on the road to pursuing her dream of going to a four-year university and perhaps getting a shot to play in the WNBA, the academic woes that plagued her during her years at Roosevelt have followed her to NSCC. Frustrated over an apparent administrative snafu that resulted in her taking several classes that didn't go toward her A.A. degree, Russell briefly left NSCC shortly after being named the basketball team's 2004-05 MVP and the MVP of the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges All-Star game.
"I was really mad," said Russell, who now has two quarters of course work to complete before graduation. "That's why I took a quarter off. I took all these classes and later found out that none of them were going toward my degree. I wanted to quit, but then I thought I've come too far to throw it all away now. I've got to keep going."
Getting recruited by a four-year, Division I program such as Washington, Tennessee or LSU is where the unfailingly confident Russell would like to go next. She is certain she has what it takes to play at that level.
"I really take pride in my defense and I average like nine steals a game," she said. "Females, I have them so scared that they don't even want to come up the court. They'll be dribbling and once they cross I'll be like [she makes a beeping sound]. I'll be up the court so fast it takes forever to catch me."
"She has the skills, the talent and the heart to play at a top program," he said. "And more importantly, she's a team player. She's going to make everyone around her better."
Russell can't wait for the day when she can test her skills against some of her favorite WNBA players such as Sheryl Swoopes, Lauren Jackson, Tamika Catchings and Swin Cash. Russell recently got an opportunity to meet and dust two of Seattle Storm's top players -- Sue Bird and Betty Lennox -- during a photo shoot for ESPN The Magazine.
"They had us play a game to kind of settle us down for the interview," Russell said. "They said everybody has to shoot 10 3s and whoever gets the most wins a prize."
The seasoned vets gave Russell only a few minutes to warm up, but that proved to be more than enough time for the talented juco guard. "I hit the first eight and missed the last two," Russell said proudly. "Betty and Sue were like 'What?!' "
Even though she got schooled on the court, Lennox graciously dropped some wisdom on Russell that she can use off the court.
"[Lennox] said just keep your head up. Just pray and have faith that whatever I want I can get it. The sky is the limit," Russell said. "She was real cool. She had some real stuff for me. She told me that everybody won't want me to succeed so I have to keep my eye out for people like that."
Resler, whom Russell still refers to as a "crazy old man," definitely doesn't fall into that category. Despite their rocky start, he's one of Russell's biggest fans.
"I believe she's a hero," Resler said. "She doesn't understand how powerful she is as a person. And young kids all over the place are going to look to Darnellia Russell as somebody they can model their lives after."
Russell tears up when she recalls how supportive Resler always has been.
"He would always tell me that I was smart and whatever," Russell said. "I wouldn't believe him because I'd say, 'If I'm so smart how come I can't pay attention and do right. I don't understand.'
"After awhile I just figured maybe he is telling me the truth and not just saying that because I'm a good basketball player and he just wants me on his team. Maybe he really does see that I'm smart and I can do it. After I realized that, that's when I started doing better and believing in myself."
Now Russell, the reluctant hero, is hoping that her story and this film will help inspire others that they can achieve their goals despite all of life's obstacles and hurdles.
"I just hope it inspires people -- especially young girls who might find themselves in my situation -- to keep going and never give up," Russell said. "Everybody has a dream. Sometimes you just don't follow it or it just goes away, but it's always there if you just think about it. It's going to be hard. It's life and things are going to happen. You just have to try and get through it."
Miki Turner is a freelance television producer and writer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.