No American sports fan will ever forget the night of March 11, 2020. There was that cascade of news: Tom Hanks announcing that he had tested positive for coronavirus, and word soon breaking that the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert had as well, with a game between Utah and Oklahoma City called off at the last minute after Gobert’s positive test.
There was that unforgettable sight of Mark Cuban reacting at courtside when he got the text message, presumably letting him know that the NBA season had been suspended. By the end of the night, it became clear that there probably wasn’t going to be any more pro sports for quite a long time.
The Day Sports Stood Still is a new documentary that debuted on HBO Wednesday night, looking at that night, as well as the events that followed in the sports world over the course of the rest of 2020. The film’s first third is somewhat sluggish and been-there, done-that, but the documentary gets much more powerful as it goes on.
The documentary was directed by Antoine Fuqua, and he and his team appeared to have no trouble getting extremely prominent figures to participate. There are lots of interviews, with top NBA players, league executives, and medical experts, interspersed, in the beginning, with news footage of the announcements of the cancellations of the NCAA Tournament, the Olympics, and other sporting events.
The most frequent interview subject in the film is Chris Paul, who in addition to being an NBA superstar is also the head of the NBA Players’ Association (the oft-traded Paul was on the court, for Oklahoma City, in that fateful March 11 game against Utah.) He shows himself incredibly introspective and self-aware, although it’s worth noting that Oh Dipp!!! Productions, Paul’s production company, had a hand in producing the film.
Lebron James, his relationship with HBO notwithstanding, did not participate in the documentary, although knowing Lebron he probably has his own project in the works.
The 90-minute documentary’s first half-hour is mostly about March 11 and the days that followed, and it’s also the weakest part. There’s just about nothing here that we haven’t seen before, especially since ESPN showed a documentary on the anniversary of March 11 which was a lot of the same stuff. And most of it has been extensively covered in the sports media over the course of the last year.
The Day Sports Stood Still is a powerful chronicle of how sports confronted the challenges of 2020.
But once we’re through the opening weeks of the pandemic, we see footage of the players and other athletes bored at home, and it’s clear that many of them are struggling to find meaning, with their sport on hold. There’s also an interview with Karl-Anthony Towns, who talks about the death of his mother and several other relatives from the virus; Towns would himself get coronavirus during the current NBA season.
But then, George Floyd is killed by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day, and the film’s focus changes immediately, to the unprecedented participation of athletes in the nationwide protests that followed.
From that point, the film covers what those events meant to the athletes, coinciding with the launch of the NBA bubble in Orlando. And then, after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, another wave of player activism crested, culminating in several days of playoff games being canceled, Kenny Smith walking off the set of Inside the NBA, and the season ultimately continuing.
The Day Sports Stood Still isn’t really positioned as a chronicle of player empowerment and activism in the NBA, but that’s what it ends up being. Which ends up being a much more fascinating documentary than the one about the shutdown of the league.
There are a few things that don’t quite work here. The film both begins and ends with weird, incongruous montages of great sports moments throughout history. The movie is also about 95 percent about the NBA, so the few times it cuts away to athletes in other sports are somewhat odd.
The story about how NBA players were considering leaving the bubble, after Blake was killed, and were advised to keep playing on a phone call with Barack Obama, is omitted for some reason, even though the call was reportedly Paul’s idea. And the film inexplicably includes the footage of Chiefs and Texans players gathering for a “Moment of Unity” before last year’s opening NFL game- but omits the part where the crowd in Kansas City booed lustily. That would have been the only indication from this film that there was any kind of backlash against the 2020 athlete activism.
There’s going to be a lot of documenting of this period, with at least a couple of books about the NBA bubble on the way, and probably at least a couple of whole documentaries about it. The Day Sports Stood Still takes some to get going, but it’s ultimately a quite powerful chronicle of how sports confronted the challenges of 2020.