The coronavirus crisis ended the 2019-20 NBA season prematurely. But for Gold State Warriors superstar Klay Thompson, that season never began. On June 13, 2019, in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the eventual champion Toronto Raptors, Thompson scored 30 points before exiting with a torn ACL in his left knee.
The 30-year-old, five-time All-Star, one of the game's premier shooters, who'd helped the Warriors win three titles, has battled to get back on the court ever since. At times, Thompson feels like he's drowning, enduring knee surgery and an intense rehab regimen as he watched games from the sidelines.
"Above the Waves," a six-minute film developed by Tool of North America director Floyd Russ (who also made the Netflix doc Zion) and creative shop Translation for healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente, follows Thompson on the comeback trail:
Along with scenes of the guard consulting with physicians, rehabbing his knee and discussing the mental, physical and emotional toll of the process, "Above the Waves" churns with unexpected imagery and symbolism.
We get fictionalized flashbacks to Thompson's youth, and later, he plays an intense chess match … facing himself across the board. There's also a moody, unsettling scene with a flooded basketball arena and an ethereal rooftop practice session in the clouds.
"As a basketball fan, I appreciate how much of the game is mental, especially at the highest level with a player as phenomenal as Klay, whose style and shot really embody that cerebral beauty," says Russ. "So, when we set out to make this film, we wanted it to show that mental aspect of a physical struggle. I wanted to contrast the physical, raw cinematic visuals we often see in sports documentaries with a surreal, dreamlike approach whenever we enter Klay's mind."
It's a surprisingly artsy affair, compelling in its way, though some coverage takes the filmmakers to task for over-indulgence at the expense of substance and depth. (Kudos, though, for limiting Kaiser's brand footprint to a small on-screen logo and name-check at the end.)
Below, Muse dives beneath the surface with some of the Translation folks behind the project:
Thompson's injury required a new playbook (also, he's played chess in an ad before).
"The Kaiser Permanente and Klay Thompson partnership began in 2019, alongside a commitment to a multi-year partnership between Kaiser and the Golden State Warriors to advance community health," says Translation group creative director Barry Katz. "Our initial work with Klay and Kaiser brought to life the importance of mental and physical wellness with our 'Rematch' spot, shot with Nicolas Winding-Refn, where we recreated the famous chess scene from The Seventh Seal with Klay and Michael K. Williams.
"Our plans for the partnership for the 2019-20 NBA season immediately pivoted following Klay's injury. Klay was immediately receptive, and knew that being able to help craft the recovery message would be helpful to people who've have to come back from their own injuries and illnesses. Floyd Russ and Tool were the perfect partners for this. Besides being an ultimate craftsman, he's also is an ardent basketball fan. And while they didn't previously have a relationship, Floyd, coming from the documentary world, was able to quickly connect with Klay, making the interviews and shoots more impactful."
It's a tale of two cities.
"We started shooting in 2019, following Klay between the two cities he calls home, Los Angeles and San Francisco, during his recovery process," says Alexander Kaplan, also a group creative director at Translation. "Klay has been rehabbing in Los Angeles when the Warriors were on the road, so that's where the predominant amount of our interviews took place. He said this was the first time he really talked about everything—his mental state, recounting the injury moment, how he's been working back to health.
"We then continued on to San Francisco, where the second half of our production took place, with those bigger set pieces you see through the film. It was a unique creative process where we really learned about Klay during our time with him in L.A., and then used those learnings to inform the rest of our story.
"Kaiser Permanente is the official medical partner for the Golden State Warriors, so the doctor you see in the film is actually a doctor who's overseen part of Klay's recovery. Our goal was to remain as true as humanly possible to his actual process, and Kaiser's medical expertise."
This one's for the fans.
"NBA fans—they're an extremely aware, culturally diverse fanbase, and loyally follow not just teams but players around the league," says Katz. "We wanted to give them a behind-the-scenes look at the resiliency of one of their favorite players, on one of the greatest teams in the league. And in the process, begin to understand the mental and physical process that goes on off-the-court to make the on-the-court magic happen."
As for the brand proposition…
"We want viewers to think of Kaiser Permanente as not just a healthcare company, but a brand that is looking out for their mental and physical well-being—whether you're an All-Star NBA player, someone going through a hard time, or someone coping with a serious injury or illness," Katz says.
What's up with the art-house imagery?
"Klay is an extremely cerebral player," Kaplan explains. "He's known for the focus he puts into every game, and the meditative off-the-court techniques he uses to keep centered. He's been an avid chess player since he was a kid—even traveling with a small set, and challenging teammates on the road. [This dedication to a second game inspired the earlier 'Rematch' commercial.]
"[Here], the chess, the court—they're challenges he faces throughout his rehab journey. The chess is himself—he needs to remember who he is, and who he's doing all this for±and on days when he feels down or daunted by the process, he needs to push through, and stay focused on his goals.
"Water is a release for Klay—he loves to swim in the ocean with his dog Rocco—but it's also big and impossible to control. When it's seeping through, it's Klay being reminded of that challenge.
"The clouds are above it all. [We see the overcast sky] clearing around San Francisco, as Klay himself is moving past these challenges and finding a way to the other side of this injury—[emerging as] a better, stronger self.
"We tried to lean into who Klay is, and establish a heightened reality to help convey that journey."
Putting Klay's struggles in a Covid context.
"One of our biggest challenges was determining the best time to launch this work—and the immediate need to pivot at the onset of the pandemic," says Translation head of client services Susanna Swartley.
"Our plans were to have a premiere in San Francisco, launch with the NBA playoffs—all of which went away when Covid-19 struck and shut down the league. The brand priorities shifted to making sure people were getting the right information, and that Kaiser Permanente was focused on the health and wellbeing of the community.
"But with the release of the ESPN documentary The Last Dance [focusing on the life and times of Michael Jordan], we saw that NBA fans were craving great basketball content, and saw this window as the right moment to share this story. Klay Thompson is an icon in the league, and we knew that hearing a bit about what he's doing to come back stronger might inspire people everywhere to keep fighting, keep safe, and do whatever's necessary to return to normal.
"It's not a Covid-19 communication, by any means, but it is an opportunity for people to see resilience in action, and feel inspired about the comeback journey we all face."