'The Day Sports Stood Still': TV Review

The Day Sports Stood Still
Courtesy of HBO
Bits and pieces of three great docs make up one adequate film.
3/24/2021

Antoine Fuqua directs this HBO documentary about sports in 2020, from the COVID postponements of March 11 through the summer's protests and the NBA bubble.

Credit director Antoine Fuqua for being very aware that the documentary he started off making in The Day Sports Stood Still is not, in fact, the documentary that will premiere on HBO on Wednesday (March 24) night.

Twice in the 85-minute film, Fuqua plays the same Chris Paul quote about how when they originally talked about doing the doc, its focus was primarily the impact of COVID-19 on the sports world. From there, Fuqua and Paul couldn't have predicted the volatile summer of 2020 as, even with the pandemic still spreading, a movement for social action shook the country — one that had sports as a key rallying point.

It was a year of whiplash, and that shifting of course is reflected in The Day Sports Stood Still, though adequately representing 2020 doesn't mean that Fuqua's film isn't essentially three separate documentaries — or at least two separate documentaries and a third, partially developed compromise documentary that the director probably should have committed to making instead.

The first documentary revolves around March 11, 2020, an anniversary we all just commemorated, one that conjures either Rudy Gobert or Tom Hanks depending on your perspective. For Fuqua's purposes, the focus is on the NBA game between the Thunder and Jazz, which was postponed on the court in front of a full arena after all-star center Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Several key figures in that game, including Paul, Donovan Mitchell and Danilo Galinari, share memories of that strange night, which kicked off a series of postponements and cancelations as the realities of the coronavirus hit home.

This documentary expands outward with participants in a wide variety of sports from golf (Michelle Wie) to hockey (Ryan Reaves) to football (Laurent Duvernay-Tardif) to baseball (Mookie Betts) to the WNBA (Natasha Cloud) to gymnastics (Laurie Hernandez) to fencing (Daryl Homer). These athletes give takes on COVID that range from delightfully specific (the perils of trying to stay in professional sports shape if you don't have a full in-house gym) to sadly universal (Karl Anthony-Towns discussing his mother's death). This film goes on to explore the choices surrounding when and how to return to playing, which mostly means the remarkable coordination of the so-called NBA bubble. In fact, Fuqua has barely any visible interest in how any other sport returned to action.

The NBA bubble is the subject of the second documentary that distracts Fuqua from his original plan. And how can one blame him? The coordination of contained facilities in Orlando with rigorous and high-tech testing that, over several months, yielded zero new COVID cases is utterly fascinating, and that's before you get to the way the NBA bubble was impacted first by the murder of George Floyd and then by the shooting of Jacob Blake — August 26 being the second "Day Sports Stood Still."

The way sports pivoted to become a platform for Black Lives Matter and the call for social change is, in its own way, as big a story as COVID; you can understand why Fuqua would have chosen to refocus his documentary around it. But in the process it means that several of the people discussing their experiences with COVID in the first half of the film vanish and are never mentioned again — a logical choice in the big picture but a frustrating choice in context. To have Laurent Duvernay-Tardif in your documentary and then not even mention that he sat out the 2020 NFL season because, as one of four players in the history of the game with a medical degree, he chose to work on the healthcare frontlines in Quebec...means you probably shouldn't have introduced his story in the first place.

The intersection between the two docs is Chris Paul, best known to casual sports fans as a spectacular point guard with a spotty record of playoff performance — but at least as well-known to dedicated NBA fans as head of the NBA Players Association and, in that capacity, very probably the most powerful active player in professional athletics. Paul is a pesky player on the court and a likable figure off the court with a very appealing family; he's worthy of a documentary focusing on his past 12 months, even one that he executive produced. There's no question that The Day Sports Stood Still is a lot like that documentary, but it isn't completely that documentary.

You actually have to pause and step back to realize how entirely The Day Sports Stood Still is a vetted history told completely via Paul's approved version, just without acknowledging it. If you're hoping to hear Mitchell or anybody else talking trash about Gobert's recklessness before and after his COVID diagnosis, this is not that documentary. If you're hoping to hear about minor NBA bubble indiscretions or complaints, this is not that documentary. If you remember stories about communication breakdowns among NBA players surrounding the Jacob Blake protests and postponements and want to hear more about bickering in the union, this is surely not that documentary. Fuqua intersperses just enough social media footage from other NBA players in the bubble that you may not notice that once we get to that part of the story, we're basically hearing from Paul and Adam Silver near-exclusively.

If you're doing the story of the sports world during COVID, you would never want to ignore social action protests. But you can't stop telling the other stories just because you got distracted. If you're doing the story of the NBA bubble and its responses to 2020's summer of protest, you can't have Chris Paul and Adam Silver be your only voices. And if you're doing a documentary about Chris Paul that Chris Paul is executive producing, you probably need to be upfront and just say it.

Anyway, The Day Sports Stood Still is three potentially great documentaries spliced together into one decent documentary. It's not a coherent whole, but it's full of powerful and even funny moments and offers a good chance to check out which sports figures care enough to give themselves interesting Zoom backgrounds.

Premieres Wednesday, March 24, on HBO at 9 p.m. ET/PT.