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Director Alison Klayman on ‘Unfinished Business’ and the perseverance of the WNBA

The director speaks about the 1997 and 2021 New York Liberty teams as well as how far the WNBA has come, and where it’s heading.

Julia Liu

In April of 1996, the NBA Board of Governors approved what would be now known as the WNBA (or Women’s National Basketball Association). This was announced with a core three of Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, and Rebecca Lobo. The beginning of the league was hot off a 1996 gold medal women’s basketball Olympic team effort, and on June 21, 1997, the WNBA started its history with the appropriate tagline, We Got Next.

Within the short time the league has existed, it’s been through a lot. Expansion, contraction, threats of strikes over wages, and a change of leadership. This is all while great players such as Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson, Lauren Jackson, Diana Taurasi, and Tamika Catchings, to name a few, all upped their game on the court. Unfinished Business is the tale of two stories. First, there’s the macro story of how the league began, the buzz that happened in its inception, and the difficulties it faced.

Inside that, director Alison Klayman bridges a narrative between two New York Liberty teams. The inaugural versions, with players such as Lobo, Sue Wicks, Teresa Weatherspoon, and Tari Philips, played inside Madison Square Garden with indiscriminate belief within themselves. Then there was the 2021 version of the squad which was looking to turn a 2-20 2020 campaign around with new players such as DiDi Richards, Sabrina Ionescu, and Natasha Howard.

A story of perseverance is present within the New York storylines, but this also permeates throughout the history of the WNBA. Unfinished Business strikes a balance to show these athletes were at the forefront of speaking about social justice and sexual equality. Even when resources started to shrink, they never gave up on the game they loved. Now armed with a new CBA and a growing fanbase, the league, and the New York Liberty are looking to take the WNBA to new heights. Klayman’s film serves as a marking point to chronicle this history.

Unfinished Business is a beautiful intersection of the New York Liberty's history and how far the WNBA has come with all the struggles and advancements.

Alison Klayman: I think it was the intention from the beginning. In getting access to the Liberty, I thought it was an incredible opportunity to tell their story. With that, I also used the team as a standard for the history, the ups and downs, and the potential of the WNBA as a whole,

It’s a team sport, so focusing that story on New York makes sense. It was so perfect with the dream deferred at the championship, and essentially being kicked out to West Chester were observable examples of the challenges and the lack of investment. The idea was to bring more people to be excited about the WNBA. Some might not realize the level of hype and investment and all that at the beginning. I wanted the film to have a dual timeline, and it was hard.

The documentary makes good use of the hour-and-a-half run time. If you’re new to WNBA history, it gives a sense of the culture in the late 90s. I remember seeing players such as Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson, and Sheryl Swoopes when I was younger. There was a considerable amount of buzz when the league first started. How did it feel for you to go back and dig through all this history?

Alison Klayman: In doing this project, it was a return to fandom for me with the WNBA. I followed it as a kid and lost track for many reasons, including living abroad. Then reasons chronicled in the checking in on it later and thinking back to how I felt about it as a kid; it is disappointing. It made me realize how naive the assumptions that some of us might have had at the beginning,

I think also that’s a great thing about making a documentary with a retrospective look; 20 to 25 years later, we can start to tell the story of something that happened in the 90s and early 2000s. I made some films set in the late 90s, dealing with Alanis and Abercrombie and Fitch.

My headspace has been in “What did we think we were doing with racism, misogyny, and all these things in the 90s and early 2000s?” Looking back now, there’s disappointment and a need to look at things systemically. I don’t buy that it’s like people don’t want this or don’t like it as a product. Indeed, it’s only reached new heights in recent years in terms of the level of play and everything people say about the league.

There was so much buy-in regarding sponsorships, celebrities, and media investment before the decimation of local newsrooms and other structural factors. The loud reply guy's voice wins when you write it off as, “Oh, yeah, remember that thing that didn’t work out?” That is not the story. I wanted the movie to exist to tell the story the way it was.

You have done two documentaries; Jagged, based on the rise of Alanis Morrisette, and White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, which fit around the 90s/early 2000s. There are some themes of sexism, racism, and bigotry that run concurrently inside Unfinished Business.

Sue Wicks speaks about how the league and people around were not as accepting of same-sex relationships. The lack of investment also led the New York Liberty to leave Madison Square Garden and play at Westchester County Center. Many issues, including players leading talks on civil rights, are touched on within a sports story. How did you balance everything?

Alison Klayman: I had to fight with myself because I wanted that to be a big part of the story. It’s there, but with a light touch. In the end, some things you might have to read more about; you have to serve the story that the movie is. Unfinished Business is ultimately about the present looking to the future. It would have a positive outlook because my perspective is positive – not because it’s propaganda, but because that’s my point of view as the filmmaker.

I interviewed so many people and spent hours discussing all these things. I wanted to understand the disconnect, structural forces, and what the numbers were really like. Many people have wanted to cover these things more, and gatekeepers keep the stories very limited. It’s why the public’s appetite and understanding is how it is. There’s only so much you can get into it without dragging the narrative momentum.

We also have these fun characters, the stakes of one season, and a championship for a team. I hope people who watch or write about it will discuss these issues more.

On the surface, it looks like the league is ahead of its time when the players dragged the officials kicking and screaming into standing up for social justice and LGBTQ+ rights. There is equal parts admiration on both sides of the young and retired players of the WNBA with the understanding of carrying the mantle.

Alison Klayman: I think that that’s why there is an intergenerational story that moves through individuals on an emotional level. Would today's players feel the way they do not for the previous players and what they pushed for? The stakes were higher and higher as you went back in time. Whereas today, sometimes the league is not as antagonistic regarding players wanting to express themselves or make a statement regarding social justice issues. You can see that that wasn’t always obvious from the beginning.

It’s another thing that’s just lightly touched on. Still, it’s about the players organizing and coming together. Swim Cash describes that so well in the film. If you think about when the WNBA was founded, there was a Players Association within that first year.

Even when you have organized labor solidarity, everybody coming together, it doesn’t mean it’s been easy. The story I didn’t want to make was like “the league was always ahead of its time” because, as Rebecca Lobo says, they got there because of the players' bravery. It’s also not surprising that black and queer women will be the ones who see things, say things first, and have the courage to do it first.

In other stories I’ve done documentaries about in the past, it’s consistent. I came into Unfinished Business knowing that is a truism. What becomes so beautiful is that you get invested in Didi, Sabrina, or Betnijah, and then you see them refer to the players that came before. Then you see the players that came before talking about how proud they are to see this new woman. It brings it all full circle.

With Unfinished Business, a sports narrative exists between two New York Liberty teams. There is the 1997 team that battled the Houston Comets in the finals, with Teresa Weatherspoon hitting that immaculate half-court shot in game two. Then, there’s a young 2021 team looking to change the fortunes of a bad season the year before. Toughness and grit exist between both entities, which comes off well as they play off each other.

Alison Klayman: Much credit to my editor and the team of like us trying to make it feel as tight as it is. It’s like getting to the essence of the story, and I feel like we got to something true. I think this is one of the first films to offer this kind of definitive arc story of the WNBA – but there’s so much more to tell.

Given the connection between the generations, our cast of characters within New York Liberty was a way to have that cohesion. They both played off one another to make the drama of the past play and raise the stakes of the drama of the present day. The players are just so great. You get to spend much time alongside the present day and fall in love with them. Then you hope that others fall in love with them, too.

Going into this upcoming season, the WNBA’s outlook is as bright as ever. There were recent wins in the new CBA, raising wages and an increase of chartered flights, more awareness of the game with many young stars, and a new television deal. How optimistic do you feel about where the league is going?

Alison Klayman: I feel extremely optimistic. I want this movie to lift this league and bring more fans to watch it. My life has been deeply enriched by getting deep into this. I don’t have to follow WNBA Twitter now that I’ve done the film, but I am a Liberty season ticket holder. I watched the draft live, and I’m just really excited.

Unfinished Business is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video