Dr. Donnie Strack sprinted through the inner hallways of Chesapeake Energy Arena, dodging ushers and arena workers, players and coaches on his way to center court. Just before the Thunder’s game against the Utah Jazz on March 11, 2020 was set to tip off, Strack made his message clear to the three NBA officials on the floor.
“We need to pause the game.”
OKCThunder Films is debuting its sixth film, Pause the Game, on June 12 at 8 p.m. CT at Booker T. Washington Park in downtown Oklahoma City as a part of the 2021 deadCenter Film Festival. The showing will be outdoors and free to the public. It is OKCThunder Films’ fourth straight project to debut at deadCenter over the past four years (The Everyday Saint, Growing up George and Mr. Thunder). All of the OKC Thunder Films projects can be found at okcthunderfilms.com.
“At OKCThunder Films, we are thrilled to continue our connection with deadCenter to be able to bring to life the stories of our organization and our people,” said Dan Mahoney, Thunder Vice President of Broadcasting and Corporate Communications, and OKCThunder Films Executive Producer. “Each year we strive to challenge ourselves to present this level of storytelling in new and creative ways.”
The 26-minute documentary utilizes interviews from 24 people that were crucial in the decision-making and outcome of the evening that changed the country’s understanding of the global pandemic. OKCThunder Films poured through 747 minutes of interviews, all shot with an emerging film technique that allows subjects to look directly into the camera, providing an intimate experience for the viewer. The documentary also incorporates dozens of angles of never-before-seen footage from inside Chesapeake Energy Arena, including in-house and television broadcast cameras along with drone and cell phone footage.
Placing viewers back in the days leading up to March 11, Pause the Game returns to the state of innocence and uncertainty when it came to the understanding of COVID-19, beginning with the Thunder’s east coast road trip from March 4 through 8 of 2020. Ironically, the Jazz had completed the same road trip just prior to the Thunder, using the same locker rooms, practice gyms and hotels along the way.
With an underlying sense of foreboding percolating underneath, Pause the Game then proceeds to track the movement of key personnel throughout the day on March 11, including the Thunder’s front office, broadcast team and entertainment crew, as well as fans. Tapping into their thoughts as they received new information and made decisions in real time, Pause the Game highlights how key figures acted with health and safety as the top priority during the tense moments before tip-off.
Dr. Strack, who is the Thunder’s VP of Human and Player Performance, wasn’t alone as he raced center court to deliver the information that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19. Alongside of him were Rob Hennigan, VP of Basketball Operations, and Amanda Green, VP/Team Counsel.
While Dr. Strack made contact with the officials, Hennigan alerted the coaching staff and Green searched for Thunder Chairman Clayton I. Bennett. As Green, wearing business attire, sprinted from the court back towards the locker room, she tripped and fell, bloodying her knees. Picking herself back up, she brushed herself off and encountered Bennett and Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, who happened to be in the arena that night for a Chamber of Commerce meeting. Leading the decision-making process throughout the evening were Bennett and Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti, who remained vigilant and prepared for all contingencies in the lead up to the test result and worked with the NBA league office to postpone the game.
Pause the Game taps into the concept of time as a central feature of crisis management, along with preventing a sense of panic by making careful, deliberate choices. In an unprecedented situation, those elements were particularly key in managing a building full of 18,000 fans, all of whom left the arena that night without incident.
Thunder players were escorted out of the arena with the help of the organization’s Director of Security Paul Huggins – a 26-year veteran of the New Jersey state troopers who also aided in the response to attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001. Stepping into a new state of heightened anxiety as they exited the arena, some players doused their cars with hand sanitizer, others like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort were on the phone with worried family members. All the while, Presti, Bennett and city officials like Mayor David Holt were busy trying to provide assistance to the Utah Jazz, who were isolated inside Chesapeake Energy Arena’s visitor’s locker room.
Though they didn’t have an up close and personal view of the dramatic events in Oklahoma City, the NBA and those throughout the United States looked at COVID-19 differently because of what took place inside Chesapeake Energy Arena on March 11, 2020. Now, as COVID-19 cases continue to drop and vaccinations are on the rise, OKCThunder Films’ Pause the Game provides a look back at the proverbial canary in the coal mine – the moment that informed the sports world of what was looming ahead.
An unforgettable night told through the eyes of Thunder players and staff.
Catch the free outdoor screening of “Pause the Game” on Saturday evening, June 12th, at the @deadCenter Film Festival!
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) June 4, 2021