When women's basketball returned for the 2020 season, fans rejoiced at the opportunity to see their favorite players play in action again.
The efforts leading up to that moment, however, were less than ideal. WNBA players from 12 teams headed into an isolation bubble last year to train and play games while warding off the coronavirus.
Lauren Stowell and Jenna Contreras documented this experience. They’re co-directors of the ESPN documentary “144,” which follows the players as they lived within the “Wubble,” an isolation bubble located in Bradenton, Florida.
After quarantining, they joined the players inside the bubble, eating with them and staying in the same lodging areas.
Their film crew was limited. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, they could only bring a camera operator and an audio technician along.
“When we were there, we were kind of, you know, on the same wavelength of what the players were doing,” Contreras says.
Without the risk of COVID-19 while inside, Contreras says she felt safe, adding she could be productive and decompress from the stressful news cycle.
In some ways, the same couldn’t be said for the players. For basketball fans, the idea of the sport returning was exciting, but Contreras says the mental toll the players endured is underestimated.
Neka Agama, the WNBA Players Association president and a player for the Los Angeles Sparks, says there was also concern about players who were high risk, the length of training and being asked to play again after five months off.
Additionally, the teams had to play 22 games every other day during the 50 day period. They would also have to practice, and undergo therapy and rehab to keep their minds and bodies in shape.
“These coaches had to change the entire way they’ve known to coach because they had to just save the bodies,” Contreras says.
While in isolation, the players learned of the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
The season had just begun when Taylor was shot in her home in Kentucky by Louisville police. A few months later, George Floyd was murdered, spurring worldwide protests.
In the WNBA, 80% of players are Black and many of them identified with the ongoing events.
“It really hits home cause it could have been me,” says Natalie Achonwa of the Indiana Fever. “And that’s the hardest part. Like it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, I take off this jersey, I’m still a Black woman. So that’s where the fight comes from, that’s where the passion comes from. Because it could have been me.”
Following Taylor’s death, the players began wearing her name on their jerseys during games. They became unified with the goal to seek justice for Taylor through their platform.
The players expressed their desire to use their platform to speak out against what was unfolding in the U.S., Stowell says.
“It was the reason that they felt the responsibility to take a stand on that platform with the national coverage that they would get by playing,” Stowell says.
There was also a choice on if they should stop playing for a few days — a decision that wouldn’t be easy for players who depended on the checks they’d receive to support themselves and their family, and a choice men in the NBA wouldn’t have to consider.
“This was a real conversation of if we don’t play, how are you going to pay your mortgage the next day? How are you going to feed people in your family?” Stowell says.
Reflecting on the experience spent in isolation, Contreras says she feels it brought the women together.
“I think it was important that you see a league of women that are from different backgrounds, from different walks of life, come together and be able to explain their different points of views, take all that information and then figure out what is best for everyone,” she says.
For Stowell, she believes the experience made a difference, not only on the league, but the players and fans. Their time spent inside the bubble became a message of unity.
“I hope that it’s going to be a message of unity that resonates with people right now as we try to put one foot in front of the other as a country and move forward and become less divided and more united,” she says. “That’s what I hope.”
This segment aired on May 13, 2021.