Chiney Ogwumike discusses ESPN’s “144” WNBA documentary

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In July 2020, two months after the initially scheduled start to the season, 144 players from the WNBA’s 12 franchises gathered at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida to play a truncated season in an isolated bubble.

Limited family was allowed. There were no fans. There was no coming and going. Save for the TV crews, there was no media except for a lone camera person and sound person. And that tiny crew captured all the footage necessary for “144,” an ESPN Films documentary that aired on May 13, on the eve of the league’s 25th season.

The documentary was the executive production debut of Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike, an ESPN broadcaster and radio personality, in addition to being an All-Star and former No. 1 overall pick. Ogwumike opted out of the 2020 season, but played a pivotal role in making sure that the unprecedented experience will never be forgotten. The players embarked on a season, complete with a championship. They held Breonna Taylor front and center, and put activism first as numerous Black people around the country were victims of senseless violence. And they played a key role in electing Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock.

I caught up with Ogwumike while she was driving home from a Sparks practice. Less than a half hour after our conversation ended, I turned on theTV and there she was, live on air for her weekday ESPN show “Chiney and Golic Jr.” Thankfully she found time in her hectic schedule to explain how the project came together, what she hoped it accomplished, and what’s next.

I just finished watching the documentary for the third time, and feel like I got something different out of it each time. When you were making it, what were you hoping that it would teach sports fans — people who follow the league and people who don’t? What was the takeaway that you were hoping to imprint on the audience?

Chiney: To humanize athletes, especially the ones that we look past far too often. These WNBA players are the best at what they do, and they do so much more than that. To be able to tell that story where you can relate, and then also choose to empower them as well, based on what you see on the courts. Like, “Oh, I can relate to being a mom. I can relate to doing a job that’s difficult. I can relate to existing in a society where people might have biases at times.”

There’s so many things that make our league relatable. And then on top of that, just celebrating these women for triumphing despite all the obstacles in their way, both on and off the court.

So I think it was twofold: humanizing the athletes, and also empowering the women who play the game.

One thing that struck me from the start when the project got announced was the name. The fact that you went for the name of “144,” instead of something that was more overarching like “The Wubble,” to me that just immediately put the focus on the 144 individuals, rather than the collective. Why was that so important for you to really highlight all 144 players, starting with the name?

Chiney: Because there’s a notion of family that comes with “144.” I’m sure you’ve heard, multiple times, players will say, “Yeah, I’m one of 144.” That’s a small group of people, which means put respect on our name because we compete at a very high level.

But also there’s the duality that this small group of elite athletes, the 144, when brought together is really powerful. It sort of represents the players as top-notch individuals, but also when you combine everyone together we can achieve things — the activism, the perseverance in the middle of a pandemic, crowning a champion. It just encapsulates everything that makes our league different. And it starts with the individuals, but it’s felt through the collective.

How do you balance trying to just document the story of those individuals, and also trying to inspire the next generation of athletes, or even the current generation of athletes. I’m sure there are a lot of young boys and girls who watched and see how they don’t need to have their influence limited to a court or a field. Were you trying to hold both of those things together, or does that organically go together, that you can document what these amazing women are doing, and use it to inspire other people?

Chiney: I think that it was all hand in hand, because the WNBA players are inspiring. I think that’s why it was so important to fight to capture it, and to get buy-in for an ESPN film — because once you get that buy-in, you know you’re going to capture something special. You know you’re going to capture something that society has not seen before.

I always tell people, “Everyone should experience the WNBA, because it represents everything that you hope society will be.” Advocates for one another, not just for themselves. Diversity. Also, we can argue, but understanding that we’re listening to each other’s voices and pushing each other to be the best version of ourselves, because we know that creates the best version of our community.

So I think it was so easy, once we got that green light, because we knew that people had not seen these players in their element. You see us on the court while we’re playing, but do you see the in between? Because that’s where a lot of the magic happens. The hardest thing, and I think a lot of people know this, in women’s sports is getting that initial “Yes. Yes we’re investing. Yes we’re green-lighting.” Once we do that, we know the stories are there. We know the inspiration is there. So that’s why I’m really proud to be at the helm of a place that understood that that story needed to be told.

Now mind you, we didn’t know what was gonna happen when the bubble happened. We didn’t know everything that would transpire from social justice at the highest levels. The advocacy for voting, in the middle of an election, at the highest levels. We didn’t know what the ripples would turn into — how those small ripples would change the tide. And I think that just represents why it’s so important to say yes to telling stories equitably, because now we captured something that was truly historic.

What was your experience with the bubble? You opted out, but you were so involved, not just with executive producing. Your sister Nneka was arguably the most important person last season, and your coach Derek Fisher always mentioned that you were in contact with the team, and you were staying connected. With all those initiatives, and all that took place, what was your experience like, where you weren’t physically there, but you were pretty involved?

Chiney: I’m a forward, but that was the first time I truly felt like a point guard, because I have so many different roles. As a member of the LA Sparks, my role was to work out and get ready for the now — playing this season. My role at ESPN, as an NBA analyst and a basketball analyst, was to translate what the players were doing in real time, and why their activism in that moment mattered to our national audiences on “SportsCenter,” “First Take,” “The Jump,” and also in the middle of the launch of my new radio show. And then as an executive producer, after getting the green light to have a camera in the bubble, it was playing point guard and talking to all the players, and explaining, “Look: the world should experience what we are doing in real time. They should be able to see that, feel that, be transported into that with this documentary.”

The crazy thing is, my day-to-day was reaching out to players to say, “Hey, you cool with a camera coming to follow you?” It’s easy to say, “Hey Dearica Hamby, can the camera come and follow you after practice while you’re hanging with [her daughter] Amaya?” So I could help facilitate that on the ground. Or, “Hey Nneka, can you wear a microphone in this players only meeting?” Because the world should see and hear how we already know the communication goes, where people can feel free to be themselves, and talk about their points of view, and then at the end of the day we know we’re gonna stand together the next day. It’s that safe space.

My day-to-day was all of those things together which, even though I wasn’t playing in the bubble, it was complicated wearing those different hats: getting myself right as a player; translating to a national audience what these players are doing, that I know is happening in real time as a member of the executive committee; and then also positioning our doc to be where the magic is happening. So yeah. It was a lot going on.

Did you have your eye on executive producing, or was it that this came up and you saw it as a story that needed to be told?

Chiney: Now that you ask, it’s really funny to mention, because I’ve had a lot of ideas. I think we all have a lot of ideas, especially those who are in the sports world where we’re committed to telling women’s stories. I just never thought that this idea would come to fruition so fast.

I have things in the chamber, my friend, that I’m ready to unload, at ESPN and beyond. But when this opportunity presented itself, I didn’t know that this would just happen. It literally took 10 minutes. It took a text to [WNBA commissioner] Cathy [Engelbert]. It took searching at ESPN, seeing “Who runs this?” Reaching out, getting an instant, “Let’s talk on the phone, yeah we’re interested.” Then a text to Cathy, “Yeah. Our league needs this.” And then a group call. Collectively that took 10 minutes, and it happened.

It was an exercise in trust. Trust in our partners, WNBA and ESPN — because remember, this was during the pandemic, where moms were trying to weigh whether they’d bring their children into the bubble. That’s how much we were trying to protect this environment. And in the middle of that it’s, “Hey, by the way, can we send a camera crew and a producer in there?” That was a risk. So it was an exercise in trust that made this happen, and I’m grateful that everyone trusted each other. Especially for me as a young player to be put in that position, to be an executive producer.

So for this to be the first big project, I think it was perfect. And I’m hoping that it opens the door to many more.

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