The WNBA finally gets the sports documentary it deserves

The WNBA finally gets the sports documentary it deserves

In the early days of the WNBA, it wasn’t a given that the league was going to make it. A new film set for theatrical release this weekend, Unfinished Business, goes back to the first year through the lens of the New York Liberty, to lay out the stakes those young players experienced.

The origins of the WNBA

“All of us, because we lived most of our life without a WNBA, really took great responsibility that we needed to do everything we could to make sure it wasn’t going to be done one year and done or two years and done or five years and done,” forward Rebecca Lobo says in the film. “We have to ensure that this league is around for the long haul.”

There was a competing pro league that wasn’t affiliated with the NBA, and a tension between the image women were explicitly expected to present and who they wanted to be. Teresa Weatherspoon, the explosive guard and co-captain for the Liberty just wanted to be accepted for her game, regardless of gender and the regressive question of who belonged on a basketball court.

“If you don’t believe in us, why are you here? That might be the question,” Weatherspoon says in the doc.

The movie will be released theatrically this weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and elsewhere after premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival last June. Amazon will be streaming the movie and it will be shown on ESPN2 on May 14.

Co-producer Samantha Bloom told Deadspin that after many of the interviews, players would thank the filmmakers for telling their stories – because despite this team providing the origin story for the New York City franchise, it’s a story that hasn’t been told at scale all that often.

“They really haven’t had that much coverage,” Bloom said.

Twenty-five years after the WNBA’s founding, its time to start telling these histories, and that’s what the new documentary “Unfinished Business” attempts to do with the Liberty. As one of the league’s few original teams, that history stretches back to the signing of Rebecca Lobo, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie, the WNBA’s original marquee players.

“We were the faces of the league because we were the only three players who had signed to play in the league,” said Lobo.

But then there were others. Sue Wicks talking about how she grew up wanting to play sports and only saw women playing tennis and roller derby, and when those weren’t available to her, she picked up a basketball and set her sights on the New York Knicks.

That was my first year as a reporter, and I covered the Liberty’s Madison Square Garden home games for the inaugural year. I’m one of the voices in the documentary as well, giving context to the cultural currents the league was trying to navigate at the time. One moment that stood out then, was Wick’s decision to be forthright when asked whether she was a lesbian.

“There was a backlash from that,” Wicks said. “And being used to people loving you and being so proud of you to they don’t talk to you or walk away… It was sad, very sad.”

Where are all the documentaries on women’s sports?

There have been studies done on how much coverage women’s sports have gotten in traditional media outlets relative to men. Usually, women’s coverage is cited at 4-5 percent of the overall content, even in years where the US women win the World Cup or make a splash at the Olympics. So most of the stories get left out.

Where men’s sports have shelves full of fawning coverage of heroes like Babe Ruth or Jack Nicklaus, or more nuanced retrospectives of complicated players like Ted Williams or Michael Jordan, there are few figures in the modern era of women’s sports – aside from Billie Jean King – who can claim legend status.

“Everyone is always afraid to be the first out of the gate,” Unfinished Business producer Nicholas Ma told Deadspin, “But if you can’t see it, you can’t know you want it.”

We need our legends. We need our role models. That’s something that is starting to be better understood. And there is no shortage of players who deserve that status: Take a look at some of the new books aimed at youth readers, like Hoop Muses by Seimone Augustus and Kate Fagan. And it has been hard to get publishers to bite on books about women’s sports.

“It‘s similar in the documentary space,” Bloom said.

There have been excellent documentaries on women’s sports, of course. ESPN and espnW have shown the excellent 99ers, produced by soccer icon Julie Foudy with unseen video from the 1999 women’s World Cup, which the US won in a packed Rose Bowl. There was also Let Them Wear Towels from espnW’s IX for IX series on women’s sports.

Yet, when the traditional media networks are functionally capping their coverage of women’s sports, how do we codify those histories? In the case of Unfinished Business, the executive producer is Liberty co-owner Clara Wu Tsai, wife of Joe Tsai. Russell and Ciara Wilson, yes, that Russell Wilson and Ciara, were also producers. Ma and Bloom said the filmmakers had editorial independence, and Tsai didn’t see it until the final cut.

About half of the movie tells the origin story, and the other half tells the story of the 2022 team. Comparing and contrasting these players and their expectations, and including the game footage, could have easily been a four-part documentary-style series.

There are things missing from this documentary. It doesn’t get into the rival league that was established in 1996, the American Basketball League. Or the experiences of playing overseas in the offseason. It doesn’t linger on former Liberty owner and general sports villain James Dolan. It doesn’t touch the Isiah Thomas disaster, which I don’t really want to get into because I need less stress in my life but feel free to catch up on it here.

To be fair, all of those issues probably deserve a documentary of their own. And there are many more stories like this that have yet to be told in women’s sports.

Unfinished Business details the first chapter in the WNBA story, and more importantly gets each of those inaugural players on the record about what it was like to play professionally at Madison Square Garden that year.

“This is where we belong,” Weatherspoon said.

Original source here

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.