SALT LAKE CITY — The story of Hot Rod Hundley is so good it should be a movie — and now, three years after his death, it is.
On April 8, a fine documentary called “Hot Rod” will debut on AT&T SportsNet following the game between the Lakers and Jazz, his former teams. It will re-air 24 times during the year and will also appear in other regions of the country.
The movie, nearly three years in the making, actually made its premiere March 28 in his hometown of Charleston, West Virginia, in front of 700 people. “Having been so close to the project, I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be,” says director Dan Lohmann, “so to hear people laugh, clap and cry throughout was really something.”
The film succeeds in telling the deeper (and sadder) story of Hundley. West Virginia fans knew him as a wildly gifted and entertaining basketball player; Utah fans knew him as the rapid-fire play-by-play announcer for the Jazz. What most didn’t know was that he was profoundly shaped and haunted by a traumatic childhood.
The story of Hot Rod Hundley could have been lifted right out of a Dickens novel. The young, abandoned mother going door to door in the night looking for someone to take her child and searching smoky pool halls for her husband; Rod’s physical abuse at the hands of various caretakers; the elderly couple finally giving him a home and a bed in a closet under the stairs; the teen years living alone in a hotel. Finally, there was his rise to fame.
Hot Rod bet the house on basketball for a better life, and if there’s a defining moment in the documentary, it is when Bob Smith, Hundley’s friend and former college and pro teammate, recalls an incident during their senior year.
They had just lost the third of three straight games, to Duke, Utah and Iowa, and Hot Rod had played poorly (he made only 17 of 69 shots). They returned to Hundley’s hotel room-home and, as Smith recounts, “For the first time, Rod opened up to me. Rod knew time was running out. He said to me, ‘I’m not going to graduate. The way I’m playing basketball, if I’m not drafted I don’t know what I’ll be able to do.’ We stayed up half the night. He cried like a baby. So did I.”
Smith continues, “For the first time he was like a normal person and I’ve never seen him anytime in that mood, and that’s over 60 years, and he could shake off anything. You never saw that side and that’s what made him so fun to be around. There was never a sad moment around Rod.
"That’s who he wanted to be. And he portrayed that because he did not want his true feelings to come out. He did not want anyone to know the hurt that he had. Don’t ask him about his dad. Don’t ask him about anything that was personal. Everything was a joke. You would think Rod never cared about anything. He did. But he wouldn’t let people know it.”
In basketball, he found not just employment and a means to escape poverty, but ultimately love, which affected the way he played the game. In the documentary, Hot Rod discusses the time he juked a defender so badly that the defender fell to the court. Rod was so amused that he helped the player up and then flipped a pass to a teammate for the score. The crowd went nuts.
“A bell rang in my mind,” says Hot Rod. “What do I have here?”
From then on, he was a court jester. In the documentary we see a no-look, over-the-head pass to a teammate who was behind him under the basket; we see a left-handed baseline shot from one knee, a hook shot free throw and other Globetrotter-like antics.
Instead of joining his teammates for a huddle near the bench during a timeout, he might be found sitting in the stands eating popcorn with the fans or sitting on top of the rim. After each showboat move, he bathed in the wash of affection from the crowd, which of course is what he craved and needed.
Smith sums up the essence of Hundley when he says, “When you go back, to think you weren’t loved by a parent — I can’t imagine, but I would have to assume that would stick with you forever. How could you not be affected?”
I saw this deeper side of Hot Rod when I interviewed him for several hours in his home for a lengthy story that ran in September 2003. It was one of those rare times when he opened up, and on this afternoon it came pouring out. The lost childhood. The abuse. The regrets. Recalling the loneliness, he said there were nights when he returned to his hotel room after high school games and cried himself to sleep.
He loved the nightlife because he could be around people; he couldn’t abide being alone. As we talked it became clear that he also suffered from deep guilt. Ironically, abandoned by his father, he became his father. As I wrote in 2003, “He's got a wife he hasn't lived with for 29 years who is still waiting for him to come home, and three beautiful daughters who grew up without him. Worn down by all the women in Rod's life and the long absences, his wife told him, "You go on and do your thing. I'm not going anywhere."
“And that’s what I’ve been doing,” Flo Hundley told me.
Hot Rod never did go home to Flo. She died in 2006.
Jennifer Hundley — Hot Rod's daughter — tells Lohmann, “He wasn’t around when we were kids, and he wasn’t the greatest husband — he was a horrible husband — but when I look back and I would see where his life was — he came from being this boy who had no family and lived under a staircase and just had no guidance whatsoever. And thank goodness for basketball.”
Ultimately, Hot Rod’s partying cost him what he loved most. The first pick of the 1957 draft, he squandered his pro career with his lifestyle and by 1963 he was finished. Eventually, basketball threw him another lifeline: broadcasting.
For Lohmann, the film was a labor of love. He grew up in West Virginia and studied at West Virginia University, which has erected a statue of Hot Rod in his honor.
“As a kid, I was ingrained with it,” says Lohmann. “I heard all about him.” As a grad student, he interviewed Hot Rod. Later, he moved to Salt Lake City to work for the Olympics and “got a flavor of what Hot Rod meant to this community.”
Lohmann began to consider doing a documentary when he read the Deseret News profile at the funeral.
“Someone circulated the story at the funeral and I read it for the first time, 12 years after it was published,” says Lohmann. “The Deseret News story shed light on areas I wasn’t aware of because he didn’t open up to many about the darker things in his life. I’ve said this publicly on the radio — the story opened the door and gave me insight; it told me there’s something there Hot Rod just had a sad life and there were a lot of things that people just didn’t know.”
Lohmann and producer Tony Caridi benefitted greatly from a cast of terrific interviewees, especially Smith and Hot Rod’s daughters — Kimberly, Jacquie and Jennifer, who were candid and articulate.
In all, Lohmann and Caridi interviewed 35 people, 22 of whom made the film’s final cut. The interviews are augmented with 60-year-old film clips of Hot Rod’s college playing days. Lohmann first discovered canisters of these films during his undergrad days 20 years ago.
“We started opening them and watched these games,” he recalls. “A lot of times there was nothing there, but then you’d come across this shot by Hot Rod and you’d say, 'Oh my goodness.' I’d always heard the stories and then to see it He was doing things no one had ever done and no one will do them again.”
Despite the sad undertone of Hot Rod’s story, Lohmann believes it actually had a happy ending, or at least the happiest it could under the circumstances. The daughters, bitter from years of neglect by their father, experienced a measure of catharsis in their father’s final years as he waged a battle with Alzheimer’s.
Lohmann believes it began when they traveled to Morgantown for a ceremony to retire Hot Rod’s jersey. “The daughters saw how much he meant to this town,” says Lohmann. “They understood more about their father. Things connected for them on that trip. They reached a point of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
As Jacquie says in the film, “These people (West Virginia fans) told me, before your father, we never really had the same sense of pride, and all of a sudden, we’re somebody!”
It was that love and appreciation that Hot Rod desperately needed and ultimately found in basketball.