Grant Hill signs on as exec. producer for Duke documentary

April 22, 2010

By Charlie McSpadden

Duke basketball legend, African-American art collector and current NBA star Grant Hill can now add another title to his already impressive resume: documentary film producer.

Hill, Trinity ’94, officially signed on as an executive producer for Starting at the Finish Line: The Coach Buehler Story, a sports documentary about former Duke University track coach Al Buehler that Amy Unell, Trinity ’03, has been working on since October. Hill’s engagement with the documentary began when Unell interviewed Hill this past January. Hill, a former student of Buehler’s, immediately noted Unell’s passion and the necessity to present Buehler’s life to a wider audience.

“This story is so close to home,” Hill said. “We’ve had this unbelievable individual, teacher, leader and coach in our backyard and family, and I don’t know if a lot of us know the true story behind his enormity of experience.”

Buehler has been at the University for 55 years. He’s won ACC championships, coached Olympians, served as the chair of a department and was elected into the Duke Sports Hall of Fame. In addition to all of his accolades, Buehler now lives with a benign brain tumor that was diagnosed this past fall.

“His story is a story that needs to be told, to be shared, to be learned from,” Hill said. “If we can give the story justice in how we present it, we’re doing the right thing.”

Unell, also a former student of Buehler’s, is thrilled at Hill’s executive producer status, especially at the possibility of connecting to a much broader audience.

“In terms of reaching our goals and having a really successful film that honors Coach and his legacy, Grant coming on board takes the documentary to this whole other level,” Unell said. “He opens so many doors, [allowing] more people to see it and be a part of the process and the celebration.”

Helping to bring the story to life is an undergraduate class that Unell has overseen this past semester. The students have helped build a website, utilize social networks and prepare for the documentary’s rough cut screening Sept. 24, this Fall’s Homecoming Weekend. Sophomore Molly Himmelstein, a member of Unell’s Arts of the Moving Image course, echoes her professor’s excitement about Grant’s involvement.

“Grant makes our message more universal,” Himmelstein said. “He’s so dedicated to the project, he’s an invaluable connection.”

The commitment of the Phoenix Suns forward could be a testament to the lasting bonds between student and professor. The summer after his sophomore year and 1992 NCAA National Championship, Hill took “History and Issues of Sport” with Buehler, a class that is still offered to undergraduates. While studying history at Duke, he found the course beneficial because of the relationship he formed with Buehler in addition to the course material.

“Getting to take the course with him and being able to spend time with him really was a treasure on my part,” Hill said. “I took away a great deal from understanding those that paved the way before me, the sacrifices [of] the athletes.”

Knowledge gained in Buehler’s class extended beyond important dates, names and facts.

“I learned that you can lead without being a rah-rah kind of guy—that you can do it in a kinder way, a more intelligent way and a more productive way,” Hill said. “I got that from [Buehler] and apply it in my own life.”

When asked about Hill, Buehler, ever the history professor, traces the basketball star’s family geneology to his grandfather, who worked at a steel mill in order to pay for his son Calvin to be formally educated, eventually at Yale. Buehler fondly remembers when Hill brought his father, a former NFL running back, into class for a presentation.

“That was the best lecture about why education is worth something,” Buehler said. “That’s why Grant Hill was where he was.”

Equipped with an astounding mental Rolodex of information, Buehler also notes Hill’s mother roomed with Hillary Clinton while at Wellesley. This racially progressive pairing is in line with Buehler’s own quiet racial victories involving the all-black North Carolina Central University track team in the 1950s. Buehler sees sports as an essential component on breaking down racial barriers in both American and global history, a belief that has become an important storyline of the documentary.

“[In terms of race] sports have led the way in most cases, not all,” Buehler said. “We may not have been number one, but we had the biggest clout.”

In the same way that sports can promote social progress, they can also benefit the world of culture. Hill has utilized his fame and success to bring art into the public eye.

“Grant Hill went beyond being an NBA player,” Buehler said. “He’s got the foremost Afro-American art collection of anybody around, he plays the piano... he’s got some culture, other than just shooting a basketball.”

The documentary has become yet another venture of Hill’s, one he’s been interested in for some time.

“I wanted to get involved in telling stories; I love documentaries in general,” Hill said. “There are so many life lessons... as a result of experiences, and a documentary is the perfect opportunity through which to explore [them].”

With Starting at the Finish Line, Hill has entered into the documentary realm from the business side but has expressed interest in eventually flexing his creative muscles, including a “really big idea” that he “couldn’t let out right now.”

Hill’s experience with making the documentary, especially his interactions with Unell, has provided a wealth of production knowledge.

“Amy has allowed me not only to participate but to really learn a great deal from her,” Hill said. “She’s been tremendous, very patient and persistent.”

The feeling is beyond mutual.

“It has been a serendipitous collaboration,” Unell said.