As Tony Caridi and Dan Lohmann began the journey that ultimately led to their documentary “Hot Rod,” the story of “Hot Rod” Hundley’s life through childhood and his legendary careers as both basketball player and broadcaster, they knew they had a great story.
It was in the middle of that journey that they realized just how poignant this story was.
The result is a 92-minute journey through highs and lows, the bright times and dark times of a West Virginia legend, the most complete and compelling study of “Hot Rod’s” life.
The seeds of the project were planted days after Hundley’s death in 2015. Lohmann, the documentary’s director and director of photography, and Caridi, a producer of the documentary along with Lohmann, started talking about the legend’s life. Lohmann had lived in Salt Lake City for nine months working on the broadcast of the 2002 Winter Olympics. There, he realized how beloved Hundley had become as the Utah Jazz play-by-play broadcaster, a job he held for 35 years and earned him a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I always thought that, to me, the story was the people in West Virginia knew him as a great player and never knew how great a broadcaster he had become,” Caridi said. “People in Utah knew him as a broadcaster but never knew how great of a player he was.”
So the two began talking to seminal names in basketball and broadcasting to craft that report. In that regard, the documentary sports an all-star team — legendary broadcasters like Jim Nantz and Dick Enberg, legendary players and executives like Jerry West, former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, former Jazz coach/executive Frank Layden and former Phoenix Suns executive Jerry Colangelo.
They discussed Hundley’s wizardry on the court and the antics that made him Bunyanesque in Morgantown, then his transition from player to play-by-play, a rare move that Hundley made with exceptional results.
They talked about his ebullient personality and his wide smile. They joked about the 6-foot-4 former guard’s alligator arms when it came to picking up the check and his status as “America’s Guest.” They discussed his decline and death from Alzheimer’s disease.
Yet, as often happens in investigations of this depth, a handful of interviews led that story to evolve into something so much more. The voices that drove the documentary down a new path came from Hundley’s daughters — Kimberly, Jacquie and Jennifer.
They talked about his absence as a father in their childhood, his unfaithfulness as a husband to their mother. And that allowed the documentary to delve into Hundley’s own upbringing — how his parents split when he was young, his father didn’t see him until a month after his birth and how he was passed from family to family in Charleston as a child.
“When we sat down with the daughters, we had an idea about what they were going to talk about, but we really didn’t know,” Lohmann said. “In spending that time with them, the morning after his statue was unveiled [at the WVU Coliseum], that was the time we found out that Hot Rod had so much more of a texture to him than so many people knew about.”
It was then that Lohmann and Caridi realized what they had — everything. The complete story. A story no one else really had, how Hundley used that beaming smile and his hilarious antics his entire life to hide the pain he could never completely escape. And they knew it was their responsibility to properly tell it.
They accomplished that mission, as they learned while watching the audience watch the documentary at its Wednesday premiere at the Clay Center.
“You heard sobs,” Caridi said. “You heard laughter. You heard applause. It was great. I think people really liked it. And that’s why you do it.”
The documentary debuts on AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and that station will show the project at least two dozen times over the next 12 months. It also will be shown on other AT&T SportsNet properties around the country. It debuts on West Virginia Public Broadcasting at 8 p.m. April 16, and will show the documentary at least 48 times over the next 12 months.
That makes Caridi and Lohmann happy, too. They’ve created a documentary that tells the real story of a legend, one that is distinctly West Virginian.
“He’s the great American story, but he’s the great West Virginia story,” Lohmann said. “West Virginians by nature are a proud bunch. We’re real. And that’s something that he was. He did things that no one had ever done and will ever do again. How many people can say that in sports? And he’s one of our own.”