144 WNBA players arrived at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida in the middle of last summer. It’s impossible to present an itemized list of how every last one of those athletes felt about playing during such a tumultuous time, but the new ESPN documentary “144” strives to capture the same mixture of resolve and openness that it recorded over the 12 weeks inside the bubble. The result is a portrait of a league that prioritized a unified message over competition, while still managing to let its players chart different paths.
“144” features conversations with players, coaches, team staff, and league officials, some conducted with hindsight, reflecting on the events of last year. High-profile stars like Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, and Sue Bird offer their thoughts on the season, but there’s a wide cross-section of players shown balancing the demands of world-class athletic competition and maintaining a connection with their families. What gives the film a vitality that few (if any) other 2020 sports time capsules will have is that camera crews were present in Bradenton, too. Team huddles, hotel room heart-to-hearts, practice sessions, afternoon playtime with children: all become part of a careful look at how many of the players approached life away from the court.
The film wastes little time addressing one of the other main issues that those with only a glancing knowledge of the WNBA could be familiar with: During her time as one of Georgia’s two U.S. Senators, Kelly Loeffler was also an owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA franchise. “144” offers some insight into the “Vote Warnock” T-shirts that players wore in response to Loeffler’s comments about the Black Lives Matter movement and political statements from athletes. Everyone who speaks about the decision is unapologetic. In a way, the existence of this film and the breadth of bubble experiences it manages to capture (in addition to the Rev. Raphael Warnock’s eventual victory four months ago) is their vindication.
Of course, the most lasting statements from Bradenton were not concerned with political campaigns. Directors Lauren Stowell and Jenna Contreras open “144” with a players vigil, held days after a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake on August 23. The key pivot point for the film shows the Players Only meeting held in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Rather than cut between players merely talking about the tenor in that room, the cameras are there capturing the discussion as it unfolds. The players’ resultant decision not to play in the days after is not a completely unanimous one. There’s also a strong understanding that their decision is happening independent from their NBA counterparts (“If we had canceled our season, do you think they would have?”)
The reverberations of these statements within and outside the bubble are more than just a compelling preservation of a pivotal moment in the 2020 sports world. Combined, they form a strong refutation of an entire take ecosystem that dismissed these as empty actions from privileged athletes. “144” isn’t simply a laudatory recap of all the striking decisions made by a collective in the middle of a health crisis and national turmoil. It’s trying to present a document of how it unfolded and the emotional toll of those days on the entire gathered WNBA community.
There’s also an attempt in “144” to try to live up to the professed promises of the players it’s chronicling. Much of the in-game footage is framed around the name “Breonna Taylor” on the back of players’ jerseys. Even though the developments in the case of the officers involved in the raid that led to her death give the film part of its structure, “144” also gives room to show Taylor in joyous moments during her life. One sequence intercuts phone videos of Taylor dancing with players at practice, underlining the argument that many participants in the documentary across all teams make: what happened to her could easily have happened to them.
With all the earned focus elsewhere, “144” doesn’t lose sight of the fact that an entire season was playing out amidst this uncertainty. In contrast to the measured windows into the downtime in Bradenton, the in-game action sequences are rapid-fire doses of skill and physicality. (The film is so efficient in distilling all these highlights at a breakneck pace that it’s on the verge of going through some of these games perhaps too quickly.) “144” isn’t primarily concerned with following individual team arcs, but there’s enough in these sequences to reflect how the various mindsets of players on the Dream and the Seattle Storm and the LA Sparks and the Las Vegas Aces translate to the court.
It’s to Stowell and Contreras’ credit that they don’t simply rely on ESPN broadcasts of the event — like most docs on the network, it’s peppered with footage from the greater Disney family of shows, from “Pardon the Interruption” to “Good Morning America” — but lean mostly on more proprietary glimpses into these contests. It’s the same reason that a court’s-eye view of a buzzer-beater is more satisfying (and often has a better chance of going viral) than the official feed. Getting more of the ambient, spectator atmosphere makes those on-court triumphs feel even more cathartic.
Joshua W. Smith
It’s striking for a film made in such quick turnaround to already have a sense of perspective on how those months unfolded. Some of that comes from the direct conversations with interview subjects. Much of it comes from the fact that the players at IMG Academy already had an eye toward the future. It’s not to say that players in other sports weren’t, but by virtue of watching it as it unfolded, “144” has the focus that another recent pandemic sports doc —HBO’s Antoine Fuqua-directed “The Day Sports Stood Still” — noticeably lacks. Even if “The Day Sports Stood Still” wasn’t only partly about the NBA, that’s a league that was not going to embrace the same level of access that “144” benefits from.
Each film happens to prominently feature the heads of the respective league’s players associations. Where Chris Paul’s participation in “The Day That Sports Stood Still” is a personal account of what transpired during his and his teammates’ time in Orlando, Nneka Ogwumike provides much more additional context for her and her fellow players exerting their autonomy. It’s rare to see an American sports league where its players can take this kind of visible action (both symbolic and tangible) and not have it subsumed under league intentions. “144” could very easily have come across as a commercial for the WNBA itself. By foregrounding the players themselves, it rejects that framing.
Even as it details the psychological toll that being effectively separated from society takes, the thing that might separate “144” from other similar efforts to show what 2020 life was like is how much it shows the things that didn’t change. A global health crisis can’t dampen the joy that comes from a celebratory FaceTime session with family in other parts of the country. It doesn’t hurt the camaraderie of a kitchen-prepped team meal night. It also doesn’t change the fact that Black children grow up in a country where people who look like their parents continue to die for no reason. From the tears that come with fulfilling a lifelong professional goal and those that come from not being able to explain senseless violence to a young child, “144” manages to encompass it all.
“144” premieres Thursday night at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.