Hot Rod Hundley’s Life Told Brilliantly in New Film
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As a crowd of approximately 600 waited for the beginning of “Hot Rod”, the long anticipated film story of West Virginia basketball legend Rod Hundley, the sound of rustling bags of popcorn was prevalent in the Clay Center. Between clips promoting the sponsors of the film and the premiere, it was the dominant soundtrack as those fortunate to have scored tickets to the event ate their snack and waited for the main event. Five minutes in, that backdrop sound dropped away to nothing as those on hand were sucked in to a story that many were familiar with, but that almost no one knew the entirety of. Cell phones stayed in pockets, conversations ceased, people forgot to dip into their bags as they were mesmerized by the tale of Hundley’s life. In this day of short attention spans, can there be any more telling review of the power and excellence of a work?
By turns humorous, agonizing, endearing, tearful, inspiring, empathetic and yes, at times, angering, the film, directed by Dan Lohmann and produced by Lohmann and Tony Caridi, tells the story of Hundley’s life without flinching. There’s no sugarcoating of the tough parts of the story, including Hundley’s childhood of neglect on the streets of Charleston or his self-admitted massive shortcomings as a father and husband. There’s deserved adulation for his achievements on the basketball court and behind the microphone. Funny stories and anecdotes abound. Through it all, Lohmann weaves the narrative of the events that shaped Hundley’s life, and explains, if don’t excuse, the causes of the failures in his personal life right along with the successes of his career as both a player and a broadcaster. It balances all the highs and lows in an exquisite manner, bringing viewers up and down in a rollercoaster ride of 92 minutes that elicits the gamut of emotions, but never toys with them.
In making this film, or any one that covers a subject with so many facets, there are traps that can be fallen into. Concentrate too much on the positive, and it becomes a puff piece. Highlight only the negatives, and it can be viewed as an attack that sensationalizes the worst moments of the subject. Lohmann deftly weaves his way along the narrow path between those extremes to tell the story from a number of different angles, producing a work that’s part documentary, part storytime, but 100% true, and always on target.
In doing so, Lohmann presents his story in a number of different ways. None of the places that served as touchstones in his childhood in Charleston exist any longer. Film clips, even of his time at WVU, are somewhat rare, so he relied on a different way of telling that part of the story.
“It was difficult to put a finger on what it was like for him as a child,” Lohmann said at the premiere in Charleston. “We spent a lot of time trying to put that in context. We spent time with his mother’s words (from the biography “Clown”) and with animation to show what it was like to be Rod Hundley as a child. That was important because a lot of his life traces back to those formative years. We tried to dig through everything we had, like yearbooks, and there were little hints of who he was. Every bit of that went into the film.
“We did not find any film clips that were unknown,” he continued. “There was a newspaper clipping that showed him in the T-formation [they ran on the court] that I had not seen before, but not much else.”
It’s a rare film that mixes animation, voice over narratives, game highlights, still photos, audio clips and on-screen interviews with some 15 people (and many more that served as source material). Despite all those disparate story-telling methods, the narrative flows freely, and never loses its pace. It’s engrossing, captivating and shares a life that probably could not play out in today’s society, given social media and the immediate reactions and judgments it engenders.
“I can’t even fathom what it would have been like today with social media,” Lohmann said. “Number one, I don’t think he would have gotten away with it. He probably would have gotten punched in the face. But I don’t think he was doing it to try to get people to write about him. He was doing it to entertain. He said once that he made a trick shot and heard the crowd roar and he felt it go right up his spine. That was it for him. It was like a drug for him.
“You could say he was one of a kind and its not even close,” Lohmann offered. “He did things that no one had ever done, and no one is ever going to do them again. He was the king of the hill. When he went to Madison Square Garden, everyone was writing about him. The New York Daily News devoted an entire back section to him on its Sunday edition. Who does that?”
Included in a crowd of dignitaries at the premiere was Bob Smith, a member of the WVU Sports Hall of Fame who played with both Hundley and Jerry West, then later returned as an assistant coach under Gale Catlett at his alma mater. Smith, whose insights are featured prominently in the film, shared the connections that he had with Hundley and his thoughts on how his childhood affected him throughout his life.
“We were as close as you could be the two years we were together at West Virginia,” Smith said. “I went to West Virginia because Rod was there. I wanted to play with him. We were inseparable. The film showed the sensitivity of Rod. He would never let his guard down. There’s no question the way he was brought up affected his life. Everything we saw here was true. Because he was abandoned, that affected him. Anytime you asked him anything personal, he would turn the subject.”
Smith, like Lohmann, was unflinchingly honest in his assessment of Hundley, who passed away three years ago.That’s to the credit of both, and is one of the many pillars of strength that support the film.
“He wanted to be a rock star, not only in college but for the rest of his life,” Smith said. “He was a drinker, a smoker and a womanizer. He stayed up all night, almost every night. When he was in high school he could have played for most college teams, but it all caught up with him. By the time he was 25, he was playing like he was 35.”
Those memories and reflection, filled with speculations on what might have been had Hundley chosen a different personal path, were painful to hear and see. Smith, however, thinks that Hundley, given his background, probably couldn’t have turned out any differently, and that Lohmann and his team did an outstanding job of conveying the story.
“It was such a great film. I thought it was so well done,” he said moments after the premiere concluded. “There was only one Hot Rod Hundley, and I loved him.”
Hot Rod will be shown in Morgantown on Friday, Mar. 31, and then begin a broadcast television run on Apr. 3 at AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh and on Apr 16 on West Virginia Public Television.