Directed by: Spike Jordan and Maxime Quoilin
Distributed by: TBA
Written by Patrick Hao
For many Americans, the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic did not truly hit until the National Basketball Association announced that it was pausing its season. The image of Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks reacting to the news still resonates to this day. “Game Change Game” is a documentary, co-produced by the NBA Players Association, that gives an unprecedented look into the mental headspace of the NBA players as they navigate restarting their season in the “NBA Bubble” while a massive protest movement sparked by the George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers was occurring.
The NBA is in a unique position within the sports landscape. The league is made up of 74% black players and more so than any other sports league, the players have gained a lot of agency in their player movement. Called the “Player Empowerment” movement, sometimes derisively, this level of agency could be attributed to the fact that the players of the NBA have the ability to exhibit their personality and become stars, something akin to European soccer stars. As can be seen in this documentary, the players of the NBA take this responsibility very seriously.
In real-time and with hindsight talking head interviews, the players interviewed, including Chris Paul, Matisse Thybulle, and Javale McGee discuss their thought processes and mental headspace trying to continue the 2019-2020 NBA season. This included creating the NBA Bubble on the campus of Disney World, in which the players quarantined themselves in the Disney resort, away from their homes and family, to finish the season with makeshift courts. It is fascinating seeing the myriad of real-time testimonials, vlogs, and footage of the league adjusting to this new way of life, trying to compete at a high level, and keeping their sanity.
When the America-wide protest sparked by police brutality began to occur in the summer of 2020, the players began to confront their place in the public eye and their positions as prominent black men in the cultural landscape. Testimonials by Thabo Stefalosha and Sterling Brown discuss with frank honesty their own encounters with the police. The most engaging moments of the movie come when the disparate voices of the men in the bubble argue over whether they are going to stop playing, breaking their collective bargaining agreement with the owners, and feeling uncomfortable playing during the time.
That is also when the film reveals itself. Because it was co-produced by the Players Association, this thorny decision is rendered rather simplistically, especially when compared to the way the film deals with the other controversial topics in the film. A borderline hagiography, the way the film portrays the players’ decision to continue playing, whether right or wrong and the use of other talking heads like the family of some of the police brutality victims, is rather uncomfortable. The Players Association is great at branding after all.
But, sports and politics have always been intertwined, no matter how much the “shut up and dribble” crowd quibbles. Footage of Muhammed Ali, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are used to contextualize that fact. It is affecting to see how much consideration these young men are taking in their place. The talking heads are allowed to speak bluntly as such.
The film is ambitious, wanting to cover much more than it probably could, leading to a long run time, made longer by its uneven tone of trying to balance traditional fun sports docs with the magnitude of racial justice. It might also have benefitted from having more time to be more of a retrospective. It would be interesting to see how the players reflect on this experience with more hindsight. But, with the film, we have now, “Game Change Game” is an interesting mess, made worthwhile by the intimate footage it has access to.