Inside the new ESPN doc on Caitlin Clark’s and Kamilla Cardoso’s final college seasons

Caitlin Clark throwing her sneaker against a locker room wall, frustrated after a tough loss. Iowa coach Lisa Bluder and UCLA coach Cori Close light up their teams at halftime. Players are upfront about which NCAA Tournament opponent they want to face. LSU coach Kim Mulkey told South Carolina coach Dawn Staley just before their game ended on Jan. 25, “Girl, they can say whatever they want, it’s no good.” no better than what you and I put on this f— floor! And never forget it!

Filmmaker Kristen Lappas has made, among other projects, documentaries about Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and the 1996 gold medal-winning U.S. women’s basketball team and one of its guiding principles as a filmmaker is not to make a limp film. So if Staley says to the stellar center Kamilla Cardoso, “You Gotta Play, Kamilla!” during an uninspired sequence from his star center against LSU, that’s what you’re going to see.

“Generally speaking, when we see content about female athletes, it’s usually very flowery, a little watered down, they’re polite, they don’t swear, everyone is friends and it’s very vanilla,” Lappas said. “That’s just not it. It’s intense and exciting, and the women are (as) authentic and uncensored as the men. We hope that if people come away with something from this film, they will realize that these women are just as intense and want just as much as the men.

That’s the takeaway from the upcoming documentary series, “Full Court Press,” which was directed by Lappas and features unprecedented access to UCLA’s Clark, Cardoso and Kiki Rice as they conducted their respective trips during the 2023-24 women’s college basketball season. The four-part series is produced by Omaha Productions and Peyton Manning’s Words & Pictures (Lappas’ employer) in partnership with ESPN. Episodes 1 and 2 air Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. ET, and episodes 3 and 4 air Sundays at the same time. All are on ABC and ESPN+. (Note: If you watch the ABC version, the explicit language is cut out in the audio with subtitles for the curses. For the versions streaming on ESPN+ and Hulu, where it will be available for a month starting Tuesday, the explicit language remains.)

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how does the story end? Well, you know that. Clark and Cardoso met in Cleveland in the NCAA Tournament championship game, an 87-75 victory at South Carolina that drew a record 18.9 million viewers on ABC.

Producer Hannah Bier spent 28 days with Clark filming the documentary, a trip that took her across the country. Clark was a huge figure when Bier began filming last October, but her stardom grew exponentially in April when the final scenes were filmed in Indianapolis after Clark was selected as the WNBA’s No. 1 overall pick by the Indiana Fever.

“We had spoken on Zoom, but the first time I met Caitlin in person was right around the team Christmas party that we filmed for Episode 1,” Bier said. “We made a connection really early on, and I feel like she just got it.” She understood what we were trying to do. She had obviously seen shows like this before where you follow a team and get to know them. She came up with her own ideas for the series regarding certain things she was passionate about in her life.

“For example, she asked us to go filming with her on Christmas Day with her family. It’s one of the most intimate ways to spend time with someone, because that’s when people want to disconnect and not focus or think about work. She told us that her family was going to the Kansas City Chiefs game at Christmas and that it was something important to her. That ultimately led to the making of the film, and it was a great starting point for us to tell his family’s story.

Thanks to Bier’s inclusion, we see Clark hug his family in private after the loss to South Carolina in the title game. We see her before games in hotel rooms with her teammates and read inspirational texts from Ted Lasso himself, actor Jason Sudeikis.

“She was good at saying, ‘Hey, I only have 10 minutes for you here, but we can do this,'” Bier said. “We had a really good dialogue throughout the year about what was important for us to capture and also making sure we respected her boundaries and allowed her to have a final year as a student. You only get that access if you build insane trust, and once we got to the tournament, I think they almost forgot we were there.

Caitlin Clark and Kamilla Cardoso

After facing each other in the national title game in April, Caitlin Clark and Kamilla Cardoso were the No. 1 and 3 picks, respectively, in the WNBA draft. (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Empire State Realty Trust)

Producer Adrienne Gallagher joined Rice while producer Suzy Beck followed Cardoso, including on two trips to Brazil. Rice let the filmmakers go into unexpected places, such as talking with his sports psychologist about huge expectations. We also hear from Susan Rice, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who is Kiki’s aunt.

Cardoso had the most interesting story. Beck traveled to Montes Claros and Bélem in Brazil to interview Cardoso’s mother, Janete Soares, and older sister, Jessica Silva. Cardoso came to America alone at age 15, speaking only Portuguese, and eventually became a WNBA lottery pick with big prospects. Lappas said she insisted on getting a travel budget so viewers could see where Cardoso grew up.

This is a small drawback, but the series would have been stronger if it had featured a third senior at the start. Rice is a fantastic player with a bright future but still trying to find herself as a sophomore. You can imagine the compelling footage had as its third subject LSU’s Angel Reese, Stanford’s Cameron Brink or someone else at a major program playing their final year in preparation for the WNBA draft, like Clark and Cardoso.

Clark said Manning approached her about doing the show — she has an executive producer credit — as a way to do a “Quarterback”-style show about women’s basketball.

“I think the most important thing is you get to see what we do outside of basketball,” Clark told reporters this week when asked about the film. “When you’re in college, you see us play for two hours on the field, and that’s really all you get. You don’t get anything else. Now you can see a little more of that in our lives.

The final episode features the NCAA Tournament for each team, and fans experience moments we’ve never seen on TV. For example, before the Iowa-LSU game in the Elite Eight, a rematch between Reese and Clark and a sort of media tsunami, Bluder is filmed in the locker room telling her team: “I advise you to go to social media or listening. on these TVs… it’s happening right now. This is followed by Clark advising his teammates to “delete that s—!” The coaches of each of the featured players gave the filmmakers access to unfiltered halftime chats and a few workouts, and it’s a glimpse into the reality of being a top college athlete.

“They were willing to let us in, to see these moments of vulnerability,” Lappas said. “They see it for what it is: a huge opportunity for the growth of the game.”

Episode 397 of the Sports Media Podcast features two writers from Athleticism who cover women’s basketball – Sabreena Merchant and Ben Pickman. They are also panelists on Athleticism’Women’s Basketball Show podcast.

In this podcast, Merchant and Pickman discuss what they see in terms of local and national media coverage of the WNBA in 2024; what preseason looks like; the next WNBA national schedule; how they predict Clark, Brink, Cardoso, Reese and other rookies will perform in year one; the dominance of the Las Vegas Aces and more. You can subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more.

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(Top photo from “Full Court Press” documentary premiere: Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

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