The pandemic has brought Hollywood to its knees, cancelling TV and film operations, disrupting production schedules, and postponing movie releases left and right.
The Main Line is nowhere near Hollywood. But for the staff of The WorkShop Content Studios in Radnor, the pandemic has dealt similarly unexpected business workarounds. It has also deepened the personal connections its staff members have made on one of their biggest projects to date.
Tom Farrell, Matt Howley, Joe Witthohn, and other WorkShop staffers had expected to maintain some emotional distance as filmmakers from the subjects of their documentary, Basketball or Nothing. The Netflix series profiles a high school basketball team on the Navajo Nation town of Chinle, Ariz., a community made particularly vulnerable to the pandemic by poverty and a lack of basic services.
“We went to Chinle to do a basketball show and to help change the lives of that community,” said Farrell, The WorkShop’s founder and CEO. “But in reality, they ended up changing our lives in a way we will carry forever.”
Basketball or Nothing tells the tale of pride and persistence through the lens of the reservation’s fascination with high school basketball in Chinle, population 4,500.
They call it “Rez Ball,” a fast-paced, run-and-gun style that makes for high-scoring games played before enthusiastic crowds that often fill Chinle High School’s 6,000-seat gymnasium, especially come playoff time.
The documentary followed the school’s hoops team, the Warriors, through the 2017-18 season, which — spoiler alert — ended with a loss in the state semifinals. The six-part series culminates when senior guard Josiah Tsosie receives an Obama Scholarship, a full-ride grant to attend Arizona State University.
The series, which ran in August and September of 2019, drew an audience of 4 million and earned sweet accolades. Grand Rapids independent film critic John Serba wrote, “Basketball or Nothing is sincere, heartfelt, and absolutely worth your time.” Esquire’s Brady Langmann praised the series as “an important reminder that we need heart, history, and fun in our athletics.”
And the project earned a Sports Emmy nomination for outstanding serialized sports documentary (the winners will be announced Aug. 11).
The series’ success led to plans for another season, this time focusing on the Chinle team during this past school year. The WorkShop crew had shot footage of most of the season when the outbreak of the coronavirus forced them off the reservation in late February.
The staff rebounded, sending cameras, tripods, and microphones to players and their families, so they could self-shoot events such as drive-through graduations.
But finishing the filming wasn’t the only concern of The WorkShop staff. They were worried about the health of the people of Chinle, whom they’d come to love during four years spent getting to know its residents and tribal leaders.
Of U.S. regions affected by the pandemic, Najavo Nation has been one of the hardest hit per capita. Through mid-June, there were more than 6,000 confirmed cases, and more than 300 deaths, in a population of 175,000 spread out over 27,000 square miles in northern Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The infection rate of 3.4% is much higher than the 1.9% infection rate in New York state.
Exacerbating conditions is the lack of infrastructure in the region, according to Sriram Shamasunder, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
“I would say that one-third of the population doesn’t have electricity or running water,” he told HealthNews in June, and “that means that while ‘shelter-in-place’ may for us be an inconvenience, for many Native Americans it’s an impossibility. If you don’t have a refrigerator to store food, or water to drink, then you’re not going to be able to just stay at home.”
These were living conditions that Basketball or Nothing director Matt Howley and others saw firsthand in Chinle.
“Seeing the commitment of a 16-year-old who wakes up at 5 a.m. with his mother to be the first in line at the water well so that his family can have water for the week ... those stories are impossible to forget,” said Howley. “When one of these players invites you into his home and you get to experience their life in a very small way, it changes you. When someone lets you into their world ... it creates an entirely new level of empathy and understanding.”
So the team was particularly worried about the impact of the coronavirus on Chinle.
“We’ve been hearing over and over again, ‘Wash your hands, wash your hands,’” said WorkShop CEO Tom Farrell of instructions from the CDC on how to curb the pandemic’s transmission. “Well, what if you don’t have running water?”
Joe Witthohn, WorkShop’s executive producer, helped coordinate efforts in Southeast Pennsylvania to procure and send more than 3,000 masks and other items to Chinle’s residents. In addition, Farrell worked with Scott and Don Avellino of Revivalist Spirits distillery in Elverson, Pa., to donate two 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer to Chinle.
Their concern has not been lost on Chinle High School’s athletic director, Shaun Martin, who figures prominently in Basketball or Nothing.
“We hear from people who come through Navajo Nation and have big ideas, all the time,” he said. “But how many come to fruition? And the ones that come to fruition, how many have the best interests of the local people in mind?
“The people at The WorkShop told our story from our perspective. But then they stuck around in our community with the right intentions. Their actions have proven that they care. The things they sent have been enormously helpful. It was almost impossible for us to get masks and gloves. They showed we’re still in the forefront of their minds.”
The folks at The WorkShop know they sent a lot of material the Navajo people’s way. They believe they received much more in return.
“I think about these kids every day,” Howley said. “Our crew would talk on a nightly basis about the things that we complain about and how they pale in comparison to what we were seeing on Navajo Nation.
“But these kids didn’t complain or let their situations get the best of them. They fought and continue to fight. It can be very hard on the reservation, but they aren’t making excuses.
“People might think these kids are lucky because they got their stories told to a global audience. But I feel that we were lucky. We got to laugh with these kids, cry with them, get to know them, and now root for them.”