ESPN's '144' WNBA bubble documentary at its best with raw players-only meeting access

·7-min read

There’s a moment where Tianna Hawkins steps in front of the camera lens as her fiancé speaks to her 5-year-old son, Emmanuel, behind the curtain of the court at IMG Academy on Aug. 26, 2020.  

“There is stuff going on right now that you are a little too young to understand," he tells the young boy in his arms as Hawkins wipes tears. "It's not your fault, OK? Don't think they aren't playing basketball because of anything you did, OK? It's not you."

A minute later, Hawkins is with Washington Mystics teammate Ariel Atkins on the baseline, the team in white shirts with seven symbolic bullet holes painted on the back.

“What am I supposed to say? We f***ing matter? Stop f***ing killing us?” Atkins says, herself wiping a tear from her face, before stepping in front of national cameras for a composed live interview with ESPN's Holly Rowe.

The night the players opted not to play basketball in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake is where “144,” the ESPN Films documentary on the 2020 WNBA bubble season that premieres Thursday (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET), picks up and is at its best. On a night where the world saw the collective power of the WNBA, some for the very first time, the documentary brings viewers into the raw emotions and conversations these women had in private, including an intense players-only meeting led by the WNBA Players Association.

"As WNBA players, we operate with so much trust," Chiney Ogwumike, who executive produced "144" for ESPN, told Yahoo Sports. "Trust that we’re pushing ourselves on the court for the better of the game and the legacy. But then trust also off the court in moments like this knowing that we’re put in these situations to lead. And to be vulnerable, to be ourselves, for a greater purpose. I think [the players meeting] shows the essence of who these amazing women are.”

It's one of the few times fans have seen inside any professional sports league or teams' private discussions on the real-life challenges they face and the social justice initiatives they value. 

Atlanta Dream's Elizabeth Williams announces to ESPN reporter Holly Rowe that the WNBA will be postponing games on Aug. 26, 2020.
Atlanta Dream's Elizabeth Williams announces to ESPN reporter Holly Rowe that the WNBA will be postponing games on Aug. 26, 2020 as players protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

How cameras came to be in WNBA's players-only meeting

The night the WNBA players said they would not play in games was Day 12 of filming by the "Herculean" effort of a three-person ESPN crew allowed inside the bubble at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They had barely begun to develop relationships in that time, but a shared experience of living in a bubble environment helped build the necessary trust. 

While things unfolded in Bradenton, Florida, Chiney, who had opted out of the season, was across the country in Los Angeles hosting her afternoon radio show for ESPN. Nneka Ogwumike, her older sister and president of the WNBA Players Association, called on a commercial break en route to the arena to talk with teams. 

After Chiney signed off, having spent her show advocating for the players and speaking to their mindsets, she saw Nneka on ESPN discussing the boycott. It was then she called her sister, who doesn't "run to the cameras" like Chiney, and asked her to wear a mic in the players-only meeting.

"That was a day where we all doubled down on why we were here and why we had an opportunity to show the world who we are," Chiney Ogwumike said. 

From inside the bubble, Jenna Contreras, who co-directed with Lauren Stowell, recognized it as a turning point. When she heard early rumblings of a meeting that night, she asked Nneka to film.  

"What I saw in the bubble was that everything that these women do, it’s not just done because it’s trendy. It’s not just a hashtag. It’s not just a shirt," Contreras told Yahoo Sports. "This is a true movement and this is a movement that they are educated in. And I wanted viewers to know the thought process, the amount of decision-making that goes into every single situation that they do to find what is best for the league as a whole."

WNBA players have real conversation on camera

Nneka announced the presence of the camera crew to the group of 144 women ahead of the meeting. There was no pushback that they were there, and Contreras said no one asked to be taken out of the shot, or be censored in any way. 

"I think Nneka realized just how historic this was," Contreras said. "There was never going to be another time where there was 144 women — the entire league — in one spot in the same room. And so that was one camera on there and we had one mic on Nneka. If that trust from Nneka wasn’t there to allow us to put that microphone on her? That scene is not as powerful as it is."

The footage that made the cut is the exact conversation people around the country made in their own lives last year about jobs, money and the mental toll of life. Some made clear they didn't want to come in the first place, but they have families to feed. Others wanted to underline that the Black community is flat-out emotionally exhausted. 

And there was a clear statement that has slowly come from the passing of the collective bargaining agreement in 2020: The WNBA is not the NBA, and it's ready to make its own decisions. 

Out of the players-only meeting came the viral photo and video of the 144 WNBA players, arms locked, in shirts that read "Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor." They kept the pressure on that message through the rest of the season.

Later in the film, cameras captured Seattle Storm players watching Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron announce in September there would not be charges related to her killing in more raw moments. 

Lasting impacts of 2020 season, ESPN film

The documentary is odd to watch given that the world is still in the COVID-19 pandemic and in some ways, last summer feels like yesterday and a decade ago at the same time. There are jarring, but true moments, like when Natalie Achonwa says at least in the bubble the players are safe from COVID and the police.

It's also as uplifting as it is emotional. The 80 minutes put into perspective how much players dealt with and made change in their 97 days inside a bubble. 

"Seeing them doing what they’re doing, it changed my life," Contreras said. "I’m a stronger woman because of them, and they are role models for men, women, boys, girls, everywhere. The world would be a better place if it was similar to the WNBA just when it comes to unity, acceptance, respect and care."

Chiney Ogwumike has similar hopes for what viewers will take away, calling the WNBA "a model for what we aspire to have in this world." 

"That’s what the film represents, that anything is possible if we stand together and work for something that’s positive," she said. "I hope people take away that first and foremost, because we’re at a time where it’s really difficult and you’re seeing women, especially women of color, stand together not knowing what their impact will be and now seeing that that impact can really change the future of this country." 

Their impact as a collective 144 individuals from the bubble can be seen every day in the U.S. Senate.

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