Unfinished Business explores the past, present and future of the WNBA

Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images /

The new documentary Unfinished Business uses the New York Liberty as a lens to explore the evolution of the WNBA and the work that’s still left to do.

At halftime of their game against the Washington Mystics on September 17, 2021, the New York Liberty led 46-29. It was a must-win for the team if it wanted to reach the postseason. But after the Mystics won the third quarter by 10 points, it looked like the Liberty’s shot at making the postseason could be slipping away.

But the team rallied, winning the fourth quarter and the game overall 91-80. The win improved the team’s record to just 12-20, but that was enough for the franchise to sneak into the postseason. After a long season of ups and downs, New York was playoff-bound for the first time since the 2017 season.

This is one of the many moments in New York Liberty history that is highlighted in Alison Klayman’s Unfinished Business, a documentary that uses the past and the present of the Liberty to tell a story about the ups and downs of the WNBA. The film was an official selection at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Klayman’s film filters back and forth between the 2021 team and the players who were part of the original Liberty team, featuring interviews with former WNBA players Teresa Weatherspoon, Rebecca Lobo, Sue Wicks, Kym Hampton and Crystal Robinson. The film mixes archival footage of the Liberty’s first few seasons with a behind-the-scenes look at last season’s team as a way of highlighting the continuing work being done in the WNBA.

The film as a whole is about just what the title suggests: unfinished business. Taking its name from a song that rock musician and Liberty superfan Joan Jett penned about the team after its loss to the Comets in the 1999 WNBA Finals, this idea of “unfinished business” permeates through Klayman’s documentary.

Unfinished Business explores just how far the New York Liberty and the entire WNBA have come

Unfinished Business packs a lot of material into its hour-and-a-half run time. There are the highs and lows of the Liberty’s 2021 season, from Sabrina Ionescu’s buzzer-beater against the Fever on the opening night of the season and Jaz Jones’ big night that led to a comeback win over Washington to Natasha Howard getting injured early in the season and the team’s playoff loss to the Mercury, with a Brianna Turner free throw with 0.4 remaining breaking the tie between the two teams.

And like any documentary focusing on the Liberty should do, the film highlights the most iconic moment in franchise history: the buzzer-beater, half-court 3 from Teresa Weatherspoon in Game 2 of the 1999 Finals.

But while the on-court action is spotlighted throughout the film, that action really serves as a conduit for Klayman to dig deeper into how the WNBA has evolved.

One particularly poignant moment comes with former Liberty player Sue Wicks. Wicks, who was the first WNBA player to come out in 2002, discusses the league’s early marketing strategies, which often promoted heteronormative lifestyles. In the early days of the W, LGBT fans were often ignored by the media. The male gaze was an important part of the league’s approach. It was an approach that left many, including Wicks, on the outside. The film shows the progress that has been made in the league by contrasting the erasure of LGBT voices in the league’s early days with the drafting of Brittney Griner in 2013, who was already out when she was taken No. 1 overall by the Mercury.

But, as Klayman’s film suggests throughout, that moment didn’t mean that the work was over. Unfinished Business is all about the continued need for work, both in the basketball realm and in the social justice realm. From the Liberty’s quick end of the 2021 postseason to the league’s steady, but still slow, progress on promoting equality, there is still more to be done.

But even in a film that deals with such heavy material, Klayman finds ways to work in lighter moments, from DiDi Richards trying to decide which eyelashes to wear for a game to Joan Jett having a voodoo doll that she would bring to Liberty games.

The path from the beginning of the WNBA to now has been bumpy, and there’s something joyous in watching the 2021 Liberty season. The team had essentially been forsaken by its previous ownership and sent to play in Westchester, where attendance plummeted. But with Joe Tsai — whose wife Clara Wu Tsai served as executive producer on the film — purchasing the team, the Liberty were able to move to the Barclays Center, opening up a new era for Liberty basketball.

And ultimately, it’s that kind of hope that’s at the heart of this film. The Liberty have unfinished business. The league has unfinished business. Underrepresented groups have unfinished business. Klayman’s film is the story of the journey to complete that work and showcases all of the various strides that have been made so far. And, in the end, it suggests that whatever’s next will build on the work that’s been done.

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