Before the WNBA and its 144 players celebrated their 25th anniversary season, which kicks off Friday, they faced the most unusual season in their history of the quarter century. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced players (some with families), coaches, and support workers into a bubble in Bradenton, Florida. Isolated but not protected, 144 players protested together after the shooting of Jacob Blake. They were tested for coronavirus daily. They practiced and played. As depicted in ESPN Films’ “144,” which hits Thursday (9:00 p.m. ET, ESPN, and immediately afterwards on ESPN +), the challenges were both physical and mental. A’ja Wilson, the reigning MVP of the league; Dearica Hamby, the mother of a then 3 year old daughter; and Nneka Ogwumike, President of the Executive Committee of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, reflect on the challenges they faced and the lessons they learned before, during, and after their nearly 100 days on the Wubble.
Dearica Hamby: ‘The days went on forever’
Dearica Hamby and her daughter Amaya brought books, toys, and snacks to make the bladder feel at home. Dearicamarie / Instagram
Amaya has been on the move since she was born. She didn’t live much – she’s 4 years old – so she doesn’t know anything else. Like me, she lived out of a suitcase. The only thing I can guarantee is that no matter where we are, we can sleep together in one bed. It’s some kind of consolation for both of us. My bed is huge, a King XL, but no matter what, it’s literally on top of me and I’m on the edge. Almost every night I ask her to give me a foot and she says, “But I love you so much,” and cuddles me closer to me. I think, “Oh no, I made a monster.” It is difficult to strike a balance when you are on the go so much and you want to give your child some kind of familiarity and routine.
For the bladder, I packed her clothes, toys, various types of food, and snacks. I brought her scooter, her ice skates, her basketball goal and some books she likes. I also brought her grandma with me. My mother is a lifesaver. She carried a lot of the burden for me. She does every season. In Bradenton we had a kitchen area, living room, and two bedrooms on opposite sides. My schedule was pretty consistent, and although the exercises were long, the days seemed to go on forever.
There was no escape from that basketball bubble. There were a few days when I didn’t leave my room. I was just exhausted. Things that I normally could have done to “escape” I couldn’t do in the bladder. In a normal situation, you can go to dinner with family and friends after a hard game, or just relax from the comfort of your home. But in the bubble you would go outside and you would see referee or you would see DT [Diana Taurasi] and Brittney Griner in the hallway after being hit at 8pm. Not to mention, you may have had to share your apartment with a teammate. You couldn’t just go home and be frustrated without locking yourself in your room. And personally, I certainly couldn’t bring those frustrations back to Amaya.
Parenthood is the most important thing to me. I’m not perfect and some days I don’t, but I do my best to create a safe environment for my daughter. I want to show her how to be aware of yourself so that she can control situations differently from me. I always kind of clung to my mother. My mother and I were very close when I was growing up. It was just me and her for a while. It certainly influenced the way I am with Amaya. Don’t do it wrong and it’s nothing against my mother; She loved me unconditionally. I wouldn’t change the way she raised me.
The bubble was an eye opener for me. Before the bladder, I never saw myself as someone struggling with mental health. I also never had enough time to sit with myself and just myself, so maybe I wasn’t aware of it. There are soooooo many unconscious thoughts and fears that dictate many of your decisions without you even realizing them. I try to navigate to have a healthy balance. How to love without projecting ego or fear. For me … but also for Amaya.
– As Elizabeth Merrill relates
Nneka Ogwumike: “There was no place where I could relax.”
Nneka Ogwumike may have had more on his plate than any other player in the WNBA bubble. Ned Dishman / NBAE / Getty Images
The blurry vision scared me the most. I had never dealt with migraines before but last year in the bladder it hit me in the postseason. A seven-day migraine kept me from losing the Sparks in the second-round playoff to Connecticut. That was at the end of a season when I realized all too late that you can’t really pour out of an empty cup.
When I was first elected union president in October 2016, I had to learn how to ride a bike. Just when I really got the hang of it and was feeling good, I was hit by this insane, insane marathon in 2020.
There was a lot going on with everyone last year and I wanted to be the support to make sure everything went smoothly. But I didn’t get the rest that I needed, either physically or mentally. When I wasn’t playing or practicing, I would go to meetings at zooms and take calls from players. What I really like to do. But being in a bladder situation certainly added to what was limited. We had so much to do with the pandemic and racial injustice that it felt like there was nowhere else to relax even in my sleep.
On August 23, Jacob Blake was shot dead by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the sports world responded. My job was to discuss it with our players and make sure everyone understood our options. We have postponed the WNBA games from August 26th to 27th in protest.
The league returned to action on August 28th. The Sparks defeated Connecticut; I played 34 minutes and scored 17 points. But against Atlanta on August 30th, I had to leave the game when my back was locked. I also missed the next three games.
I realized that all of my stress was on my back. I wasn’t hit there or wrong or anything. It was like my body was forcing me to rest and only protect myself because I wasn’t exactly doing it well.
When I look back, I know that those days of suspending games in protest – and the tragic reasons we had to do that – really impressed me. After that, there was no longer any way for me emotionally.
Nevertheless, I returned on September 6th and finished the regular season with 24 points in 37 minutes – both season highs – in the final on September 12th. But five days later I was in the middle of Monster Migraines for our playoff game.
I couldn’t sleep well, my vision was blurry – that had never happened before and it freaked me out – and I just felt sick the whole time. As an athlete, you have a high tolerance for pain. But I really hadn’t considered my sanity, a big reason why the migraines started and got more persistent.
It was actually a solution of mine to get a therapist by 2020. When the pandemic broke out, I was so busy that I never did. But as soon as I got out of the bladder, I found a therapist. That was probably one of the greatest self-care moments for me. I really wish it wasn’t like a “luxury” for a lot of people.
It is strong to seek help. To know that you don’t know everything, to always have the answer, and to seek those who can help you at least find your way. This is what I realized when I started going to therapy: understanding that it is okay to be not okay and that there are resources that will help you get to the other side.
– As Mechelle Voepel tells
A’ja Wilson: “I’m just trying to thrive.”
A’ja Wilson has said she was “overwhelmed with emotion” when she was named the 2020 WNBA MVP. Ned Dishman / NBAE / Getty Images
When we exited the bladder, I was excited to return home and be free. I didn’t have anyone with me so I was just excited to come out and see my pups and family. You’re still thinking about how to be different next year. that was in the back of my mind. But in the foreground, I was just making sure I could get out, get home safely and try to get back to my normal life.
When I got back to Las Vegas it was probably harder than I thought. It seemed like the world had changed a little. I just didn’t feel like me. I was always worried; I was always on needles. I felt like I was missing out or not doing enough. I had never felt like this before. I felt kind of bad because I wanted to enjoy the outside world. I was so ready to go back to my life.
I went on vacation with my family and then it really hit me: something was really wrong. This was not an ordinary thing that I will work my way through. I got panic attacks that rocked my whole world. As an athlete and a woman, we need to be in control of what is going on around us. When it comes to that, you really can’t control it. You cannot control your body movements; you cannot control yourself. It made me grapple with what was wrong with me.
I knew I really needed help. Then Laura Ramus, our trainer, put me in touch with a therapist and she really helped me with a lot of different things. She was an unbiased ear, someone I could talk to and who didn’t know who I was. She just kind of knew what I was doing for a living. It allowed me to spill everything that was going on and it helped me put it in perspective. She didn’t feel sorry for me.
I still mourn my grandmother’s death in 2016. It was always there, but I had a point of sale to go that stopped me. When you’re in the bladder, you don’t have any electrical outlets. That attracted me. I struggled with a lot of self-neglect. I’ve always tried to please everyone and do anything for everyone, and you just can’t do that. I gave up on myself. And I absolutely hated that feeling. I will never go this way again.
I think there is a huge stigma in the black community when it comes to seeking help because it looks like something is wrong with you or you are just having a bad day. But it’s so much deeper than that. I know. I saw it from my friends. They turn their heads or they turn the other way because they say, “Oh no, there’s nothing wrong with me. I don’t have to talk to anyone.” But in reality, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with you. It’s just about seeking help from another person who is listening to you and not always trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, being real with you and giving you a better understanding of what is going on with your mind.
Right now I feel better than ever in my professional career. I’m so in love with who I am and where I am in my life right now. I’m just trying to thrive and be the best teammate and person I can without losing myself.
– As Elizabeth Merrill relates