Hot Rod Hundley was a great basketball player, a legendary sportscaster — and an unbelievably bad husband and father.
That’s the complicated portrayal of the late Rod Hundley in “Hot Rod,” a new documentary about the longtime broadcast voice of the Utah Jazz who was one of the most recognizable people in Utah, and arguably, one of the most popular.
“Hot Rod,” which airs Sunday at 7 p.m. and midnight on ATTSN, profiles a life filled with contrasts.
• A legendary player in West Virginia; a legendary broadcaster in Utah. A happy-go-lucky guy whose upbringing was like something out of a Dickens novel.
• A much-loved figure to the Jazz faithful whose drinking and womanizing destroyed his family.
“His life is almost hard to comprehend,” says CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz, who partnered with Hundley on Jazz broadcasts in the early 1980s.
“He was so real,” Dan Lohmann, the director/producer/editor of “Hot Rod,” told The Salt Lake Tribune. “That was just the way he was. And there was no facade about the guy.
“But behind the scenes, there was this complex character who struggled with his family life and had a lot of things going on — a lot of stuff people didn’t know about.”
The revelations include that Hundley lived apart from his wife and daughters from 1976 on. His daughters — Kimberly, Jacquie and Jennifer — are interviewed in the documentary, and Lohmann admitted he was surprised at how frank they were.
“We didn’t know where it was going to go,” Lohmann said. “A lot of those stories that came out — we had no idea about them.”
It’s clear that Kimberly, Jacquie and Jennifer Hundley loved their father — they reconciled with him as adults — but they don’t hold back about him. And Hot Rod himself admits, “I was a terrible father.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. Kimberly Hundley recalls riding the school bus in Phoenix when she was 9 and, “all the kids were chanting the last name of the woman that he was having an affair with.”
The other woman had daughters in classes with two of Hundley’s daughters, and she told them to spread the word that she was “dating” Hot Rod.
“And I just had to sit there, like, trying not to cry till I could get off the bus,” Kimberly Hundley said. When she told her father what happened, “He said, ‘You’re a liar,’ and he slapped me.”
“It sounds stupid, but I think that’s when I actually let it all go,” she said.
That’s not the only startling story in “Hot Rod.” Hundley’s childhood was unimaginably harsh. His father abandoned him; his mother was forced to leave him with virtual strangers; Rod was beaten and abused as a toddler. He grew up without much in the way of guidance or love.
There’s a heartbreaking segment in “Hot Rod” — a well-done animated re-creation of the struggles his mother went through in her own words (taken from Bill Libby’s biography of Hundley, “Clown”).
“Instead of just saying, ‘Hot Rod was brought up on the hard-scrabble streets of Charleston, W.Va., and was passed around as a kid’ — you get a much better appreciation for why he was like he was,” Lohmann said.
Viewers in Utah will be amazed by the clips of Hundley as a player. In high school and college, he was a phenom — an incredible ball-handler and scorer who lived to entertain the fans in the stands.
“He could have been a Globetrotter,” says Craig Bolerjack, the Jazz’s current TV play-by-play announcer.
Hundley was the No. 1 pick in the 1957 NBA draft, and, after a disappointing pro career, he transitioned into broadcasting. He landed a job doing play-by-play for the New Orleans Jazz in 1974 and remained with the team when it moved to Utah in 1979. He was behind the mic until his retirement in 2010 — 3,051 games later.
The West Virginia parts of the documentary will be a revelation to many Utahns; the Utah parts of the program are a revelation to many West Virginians.
“Hot Rod was so much bigger in Utah than we knew here in West Virginia,” Lohmann said. “And we didn’t know if people out there had enough of an appreciation of how big he was back here in West Virginia. We wanted to connect those two sides so we could give an appreciation to both fanbases.”
(Lohmann is a West Virginia University grad who is based in Morgantown; producer Tony Caridi is the broadcast voice of the WVU Mountaineers.)
“Hot Rod” is filled with old clips, home movies and dozens of interviews with national sportscasters; ex-Jazz coaches Frank Layden and Jerry Sloan; Utah sportscasters Bolerjack and Ron Boone; NBA legend Jerry West; former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo; and former Tribune Jazz beat writer Steve Luhm — just to name a few.
Lohmann said it wasn’t difficult to get them all on board. “Everybody was willing to talk about Hot Rod. I think that says a lot about him, because he meant a lot to people.”
“Everybody liked him,” Musburger says — even though Hundley never picked up a check, a matter of much amusement to his friends.
“Hot Rod” doesn’t hold back much, although there’s no mention of Hundley’s 2002 drunk-driving arrest. But the focus is not on his faults — they were just part of who he was.
There’s a lot to laugh about in the documentary. There are surprises. And there are parts that will choke you up, from that terrible childhood to the Alzheimer’s that robbed Hundley of who he was before he died in 2015 at age 80.
“Hot Rod” is the story of a larger-than-life figure who became part of the fabric of Utah.
“It always amazed me that he should end his career in Mormon country,” Enberg says. “I can’t think of anyone farther from the Mormon concepts and religion than Hot Rod Hundley.”
Hundley loved basketball, West Virginia, the Jazz and his family — in his own peculiar way. “Hot Rod” shows us a guy who was far more interesting than the one we thought we knew from radio and TV.