Hannah Storm on Crafting Her 'Multifaceted' Sheryl Swoopes Doc for ESPN
The broadcaster tells THR her film about the WNBA trailblazer, who went bankrupt, is "an unfiltered look from the inside out of a woman who achieved great things but had great struggles.”
ESPN Films and espnW introduced its Nine for IX film series Tuesday during an intimate lunch attended by many women and a few men (ESPN president John Skipper and NBC’s Willie Geist, there to support his sister, ESPN producer Libby Geist). The series – an extension of the company’s award-winning 30 for 30 franchise – is comprised of nine documentaries about female sports trailblazers and directed by women. The franchise kicks off July 2 on ESPN and will air over consecutive Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
Owing to timing and marketing synergy, the inaugural film is likely to be director Ava DuVernay’s Venus Vs. about Venus Williams’ 2005 petition for financial parity at Wimbledon and the French Open, which did not become reality until 2007. Fittingly, Williams won that year, becoming the first women’s Wimbledon champion to earn as much as the men’s winner (Roger Federer). Wimbledon kicks off June 24 and ESPN will broadcast the tournament live; the second year of its 12-year, $480 million deal with the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. ABC's Robin Roberts and Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal are executive producers of Nine for IX along with ESPN’s John Dahl and Connor Schell. Roberts, a record-setting power forward for the Southeastern Louisiana University Lady Lions with a distinguished pre-Good Morning America career as a sportscaster covering women’s basketball, also serves as a producer on one of the films: Pat OX, about University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in the history of NCAA basketball.
Robins actually brought the idea to profile Summitt – who abruptly resigned last year after a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s – to directors and identical twin sisters Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern, who also produced 30 for 30’s Unmatched, about the rivalry and friendship between tennis greats Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, along with ESPN’s Hannah Storm. Robins, who returns to GMA Wednesday after a long absence during treatment for a blood disease, could not attend the lunch at the Time Warner Center's A Voce. But she appeared in a recorded video message with Summitt at Summitt's Knoxville, Tenn. home. Introducing a clip from the film series, Rosenthal recalled her humble beginnings in 1975 as a page and researcher for CBS Sports where she worked with the late Joan Richman, the first female producer at the sports division. "Film is a great leveler," said Rosenthal. "I didn't know we were breaking ground. I just thought we were really good at what we did."
Skipper noted that 30 percent of the ESPN audience is women. And Nine for IX will not only mark the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation that leveled the playing field among girls and boys sports, but is also a way to bring more female filmmakers to ESPN. "Part of the point of this was to form more relationships with women filmmakers," he said, adding that Nine for IX may not become an ongoing franchise like 30 for 30. Instead, he said, "The best thing would be to incorporate stories [about female athletes] into 30 for 30."
Storm, who joined ESPN in 2008, directs a Nine for IX film that is very close to her heart. Swoopes is about WNBA super star Sheryl Swoopes, a national champion at Texas Tech, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and four-time WNBA champion with her home town team the Houston Comets. Storm had just had her first child when in 1997, NBC Sports named her play-by-play analyst for the brand new WNBA. And Swoopes was the league’s biggest star, often referred to as “the female Michael Jordan” and the first woman to have a Nike shoe named after her. Yes, they were called, Air Swoopes. But before the season started, Swoopes became pregnant. She would return two-thirds of the way through into the WNBA's inaugural season and lead the Comets to the first of four national championships. Storm, who also hails from Houston, and Swoopes had their new motherhood in common, which produced an “immediate connection." Storm interviewed Swoopes numerous times during Swoopes' WNBA career. But by 2009, Swoopes was bankrupt, having lost an estimated $50 million in endorsements and contracts. The contents of a storage locker she rented in Lubbock, Texas were auctioned including letters from fans, Olympic uniforms and a box of Nike Air Swoopes sneakers. Despite their friendship, it took Storm five months to convince Swoopes to cooperate with the project.
“One of the things that makes Sheryl so special is that she is so complicated and so multifaceted,” Storm told The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s something that I definitely wanted to get across in this film; the breadth of her accomplishment and the depth of her struggle.”
Swoopes came out as a lesbian in 2005, but her current significant other is a man. And she still does not have a credit card owing to her bankruptcy. “She’s been unfailingly honest and doesn’t blame anyone." The film, said Storm, “is quite simply her story, told in her own words. [It’s] an unfiltered look from the inside out of a woman who achieved great things but had great struggles.”
Storm – a trailblazer among female sportscasters – can relate. She’s still recovering from first- and second-degree burns to her face and body from a horrific grill explosion last December.
“With burns there’s a lot of healing from the inside out, I’m certainly not back to 100 percent but I’m really fortunate that I look pretty much the same so I could go back to work.” Still, she added, “it takes a good hour of hair and makeup” to get camera ready. And she still wears hair extensions.
“And some of my more serious burns are in places where you can’t see," she added. Her left hand, which sustained second-degree burns, “starts out pretty good, but it will be purple by the end of the day.”
She did not require skin grafts, but she has to stay out of the sun for a year. And her compromised immune system means she’s prone to illness. She was done with principal shooting on Swoopes at the time of the accident, so her convalescence was largely spent sifting through footage.
“That was a blessing in a way,” she said.
Storm went public with her accident last January, when she co-hosted the Tournament of Roses parade with a bandage over her left hand and many layers of strategically applied makeup. But on this day, she looks every inch the TV personality in a purple and black sleeveless dress and tall, black boots. Sadly, her accident seems to have unleashed the Internet haters. “I still get a lot of Twitter snark about grills blowing up in my face,” she said matter-of-factly. “I got a Tweet today from a guy who [wrote], you’ve always just been a woman reporter. You should just watch the food channel. That comes with the territory. And that’s why I think it's even harder to be brutally honest about something because you’re going to hear from the dregs of the world.”
Click here for the entire Nine for IX lineup.