The WNBA has always demonstrated a sense of urgency around societal issues, but a new ESPN doc shows how the 2020 season took this commitment to a new level
When the WNBA decided to operate in Bradenton, Florida, last July, it marked the start of a season like no other, one that interrogated the careers, identities and principles of every player inside the league’s campus-style bubble. It was an emotionally grueling summer: not only because of the global pandemic that disproportionately affected communities of color across the US, but for the deaths of innocent Black people including Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police brutality. By the time the gruesome murder of George Floyd was broadcast worldwide, the grief and the exhaustion of Black communities in America were palpable – and professional athletes were not spared.
A new documentary by filmmakers Jenna Contreras and Lauren Stowell entitled 144 – which premieres Thursday on ESPN, the day before the league’s 25th season tips off – offers a behind-the-scenes look at this unprecedented moment at the intersection of sports history and social justice.
144 was filmed over 62 days while Contreras was in the WNBA bubble, with one cameraperson and one sound person. Normally a feature of this scope would require a much larger production crew, but pandemic restrictions prevailed. After all, the bubble itself was an unprecedented concept: the 12 teams had 12 players and core support team and coaching staff, no spectators and very few family members or children permitted.
Stowell and Contreras told the Guardian their objective was to humanize the stories of the Black women and non-binary people that comprise the majority of the WNBA. The film shows the players in vulnerable moments while highlighting the processes by which the WNBA – and all of its 144 players, hence the title – arrived at the decision to dedicate its season to Taylor, the 26-year-old African American woman killed by plainclothes police officers while asleep in her Louisville home. The film vividly illustrates how “Say Her Name” was not only an Instagram hashtag, but a sentiment deeply held by the players.
In the film, Nneka Ogwumike, the Los Angeles Sparks forward and Women’s National Basketball Players Association president, stated that there were “so many concerns” about the proposed bubble. These only began with the physical: namely, the looming threat of Covid-19 and the rigors of 22 games in 50 days (and the effects on their bodies). As Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird described it: it was as tantamount to the WNBA season being “on steroids”.
Another aspect closely examined in 144 is the emotional demands that players faced to be game-ready in such a trying environment. “I have to be as tough up here as I am with my jump shot,” says Minnesota Lynx forward Natalie Achonwa as she taps her head. The framing of the players and the close-ups on their faces make an impact because they wear their emotions so sincerely. Amid an absolute crisis of attacks against Black and racialized communities, a league that is over 80% Black collectively used their platform to confront the issue in a space that was relatively safe from Covid and from police.
The unscripted nature of the documentary means the looks of distress, expressions of joy and pure intensity on the court and off are all too real. Many of the players have remarked that the name Breonna Taylor reverberated in their hearts and minds because she represents that it could have been any one of them. Achonwa explains to the camera that her passion comes from knowing that it could have been her. When she takes off her jersey, she is still a Black woman. It can not be lost on viewers that the filmmakers are all racialized women and the literal and figurative lens with which they approach the bubble is formidable.
The comfort level of the players in speaking their truths was facilitated by the involvement of former WNBA All-Star Chiney Ogwumike, who shares an executive producer credit on the project. Stowell and Contreras explained that Ogwumike came to them with a variety of ideas on how to tell these stories. Stowell and Contreras admit there were moments when they checked in with one another after Contreras was done filming and the duo simply shed tears. “I just needed to cry,” Contreras explained. “It was literally about human life.”
Layshia Clarendon of the New York Liberty, a stalwart of the WNBA’s Social Justice Council, is a leader on the court and in the fight against oppression. As they told the Guardian: “The 144’s documentary and storytelling in general are so vital to the work we do in the WNBA. In a year where fans weren’t allowed in arenas and around us, I think this documentary will not only give a great behind the scenes look into what it was like in a history season but will also continue to solidify us as the badass leaders in the sports world.
“Too often our stories go untold and that is truly an injustice and a disservice. I’m so proud of Chiney [Ogwumike] for heading up this project because I know she tirelessly fights for the success of this league.”
One of the most potent scenes of the film comes when the players find out that none of the officers who shot Breonna Taylor will be charged with her murder. This moment feels surreal because we know the players, who have shown a bond with the victim, watch as the structures of racism and misogyny manifest in the legal system. It is harrowing and upsetting. We see how Black trauma is forced to be resilient sans repose. In all the midst of this, the players are expected to perform physical feats of world class standards almost immediately after.
Later on, the shooting of Jacob Blake impacts the players and they discuss not playing as a boycott. We get to witness their player-only meetings and discuss why and how it remains important to use the most powerful platform of basketball to disseminate information and help people learn about the intersections of sports and racial equality.
In the moment, Washington Mystics player Ariel Atkins is overcome by emotion. According to Contreras, there were “many tears” after the footage of Blake’s shooting emerged. After the players unanimously decided not to play that day, Elizabeth Williams of the Atlanta Dream read a statement in which the players demanded change. As the film pans from players supporting each other, basketball commentator LaChina Robinson is heard in a voiceover saying that “this was their way of putting their arms around a community – from a distance.”
One of the most poignant aspects of 144 is how the players are shown to laugh, tease each other, dance and laugh as they sit in frigid ice baths, share meals and interact closely as a community. Watching the players in the pool or skipping double dutch on a driveway with their physical trainer was heartening; their need to have a release is critical.
It is extraordinary that the players of the 2020 WNBA bubble season balanced being advocates of racial justice while also competing for a championship. 144 offers a masterclass in not only how to cover topics that are considered polarizing, but to show how strength and vulnerability are not diametrically opposed. The 144 players of the WNBA were deliberate and steadfast in how they carried themselves in the season, and the film mirrors that intention in how these players’ lives are shared with integrity and with purpose.
It is hard to recall another recent documentary that so magnificently teaches about the importance of women’s sports through the direct lens of the players’ lives and personalities. There could be no better advertisement for the latest WNBA season, which begins on Thursday.