May 10, 2021 

“144” reminds us that the WNBA is so much more than a sports league

ESPN's new documentary premieres May 13

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In the opening moments of the ESPN Film “144,” WNBA players are seen lighting and distributing tealight candles in small plastic cups. It’s August 26, 2020, and each of the league’s 144 players are gathered to honor the life of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot and seriously injured by police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin earlier that week. For the first time on May 13 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN, viewers will have the opportunity to see the inside story of what transpired over the two-and-a-half-month 2020 WNBA season set entirely in a bubble on the campus of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

The documentary is an honest and vulnerable portrayal of a league of the world’s most elite athletes coming together on one campus to balance basketball, daily testing, and the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic with the demands of activism in the context of unrelenting police brutality. For a league that is 80% Black, these struggles are deeply personal.

WNBA fans watched the 2020 season from outside the bubble as these incredible athletes and activists used their platforms to amplify the voices of Black women victims of police brutality and called for justice for Breonna Taylor, all while managing the physical and emotional demands of being professional athletes. For film co-director Jenna Contreras, who embedded herself in the bubble with one camera and one audio tech, it was critical to show the entirety of the experience in the bubble on and off the court.

We wanted to make sure to cover the entire essence of the bubble. Let’s get some practice and let’s get some games, but also some lifestyle and access. Who is having a team bonding dinner? Who’s going to be hanging out by the pool? A lot of it was us just kind of being around and being reactive to what was going on.

In one scene, Las Vegas Aces forward Dearica Hamby explains her decision to bring three-year-old daughter Amaya to the bubble, leaving their Vegas home for the 600-acre campus of IMG academy for over two months. In another scene, we hear from then Indiana Fever forward Natalie Achonwa who describes over breakfast the realities of police violence for her as a Black woman in the world outside of the bubble.

As hard as it’s been to be in this bubble, it’s also been a privilege to be in this bubble; because this bubble is probably one of the safest places from COVID, from interactions with police so in a sense this bubble has been protection.

From the start, the WNBA’s 2020 season was about far more than basketball. Many in the league predicated their decision to leave their families and communities during a pandemic on the opportunity to use the league’s platform to advance social justice. While each individual decision to play the condensed season inside a bubble was personal, the collective was united in honoring the Black Lives Matter movement and #SayHerName campaign.

After the shooting of Jacob Blake mid-season, players decided to postpone the games scheduled for August 26th between the Atlanta Dream and the Washington Mystics, the Los Angeles Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx, and the Connecticut Sun and Phoenix Mercury. Hours later, players gathered for a closed-door meeting to discuss whether the following day’s games should also be postponed and whether the season should continue at all amidst the national epidemic of police brutality and violence. The documentary reveals the conversations that took place during that players-only meeting and shows the complexities of the decision to keep playing the season. During that players-only meeting, Atlanta Dream guard Courtney Williams highlighted the financial realities of being a WNBA player.

I’m gonna be honest and put it all on the table. I came here to get paid. Breonna Taylor died and George Floyd died and we still came [to the bubble] and decided to dribble a basketball. That’s the decision that we made as a whole. These people died and we still decided to come dribble a basketball…I didn’t want to come here, like I didn’t. I feel like to me this shit hit so hard, I didn’t want to come here…I didn’t come here like ‘Power to the People’ let me come here to make a stand…I could of did that at the crib. You know what I mean, I came here to get a check.

In a league like the WNBA, where players are not compensated like their male peers in other domestic professional leagues, these conversations about the personal financial trade-offs of walking away from the season very well may have never happened. In this league, though, these conversations were critical to the collective’s safety and livelihood. This documentary lays bare those realities and shows the democratic process that 144 professionals facilitated to decide to keep the season going, thereby continuing to promote their message.

“144” is more than a basketball story and it transcends sport. It is the real-life story of 144 athletes who united — especially when it was difficult — to create unprecedented social change while navigating professional sport and the emotional weight of activism. It’s a story of fearlessness and bravery. It’s a story of how 144 athletes chose not to “stick to sports” and instead helped to swing a national Senate run-off election by endorsing ex-Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler’s opponent, Raphael Warnock. It is a story of pain and vulnerability and resilience.

As co-director Lauren Stowell states so clearly, it a story that deserves to be told.

We hope that people will see that these women are incredible, they’re amazing. Their stories deserve to be told, they deserve to be seen, they deserve to be heard. They are making change — actual change — in our world every day. They’re united in their efforts. They’re fearless in taking a stand for what they believe in and they are firm in their convictions. I just hope that people can see that and that the issues that we’re facing today in a way are humanized through their vulnerability and through their ability to share those stories in such an open way.

The world is better for knowing the story of the WNBA’s 2020 season in the bubble, and it serves as an important reminder that athletes are, above all else, human.

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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