Former Duke men's basketball star Grant Hill has always been attracted to inspirational sports stories.
So when director Mary Mazzio approached Hill about getting involved in her newest project, his eyes lit up.
The documentary, “A Most Beautiful Thing,” chronicles the first all-Black high school rowing team in the nation, made up of various young men from the West Side of Chicago, many of whom were part of rival gangs throughout the area.
As Hill describes, it’s a story of connectivity, belonging and a great example of the ability sports has to change young lives, and hearing that story is all he needed to join the project as an executive producer.
“[Mazzio] told me the story, and I love sports stories. Sports is a microcosm of life,” Hill told The Chronicle in a phone interview last week. “There are so many examples and so many inspiring stories that haven’t been told. Trusting [Mazzio] and her ability to tell the authentic story along with the story itself...I was hooked right away.”
Becoming a team
The story begins in the late 1990s, with local coaches looking to expose young high schoolers from Chicago to the typically “Northeastern elite” sport of rowing, as Hill characterizes it.
With hopes of these kids later attaining college scholarships, it seemed like a natural escape from the gang-infested neighborhoods. But it proved to be far more than just an escape.
“These young men were ostracized in the rowing community and also within their own community for partaking in a sport that wasn’t understood or embraced,” Hill said. “That experience really transformed them in a lot of ways.
“They didn’t necessarily go on and have the success that maybe these coaches initially desired. But as young men, developing character and value and all the principles that team sports are about, these young men were certainly a true success.”
One of the more memorable moments of the film occurs in the summer of 2018, 20 years after the team initially formed, when the death of a former assistant coach caused the men to decide to come together for one more race.
It was then that Arshay Cooper, whose memoir inspired the film, invited members of the Chicago Police Department to join their reunion team.
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“That was a beautiful moment, and even more relevant and powerful now in lieu of what’s happened in recent months,” Hill said. “Understanding and having the maturity and the big picture perspective to reach out and extend an olive branch to law enforcement, and you can see the apprehension with some of [Cooper’s] teammates when he suggested this. But I think he understood the power of getting in that boat together and how it can really change people’s opinions and build that trust and find that common ground.”
Hill illustrated that there was some initial uneasiness from both sides, the rowers and law enforcement, when they all joined each other in the boat. But eventually, through teaching the officers how to row and working together to become a team, the tension started to subside.
“I think what it is is taking the time to get to understand each other,” Hill said. “We come in with our opinions, our biases, things that maybe we’ve been conditioned to believe or think. And when we take the time to get to know, we take the time to listen to one another and we take the time to understand one another, we find in some cases that we share a lot of similarities.”
‘It forms a brotherhood’
There are a lot of lessons one can take away from this film. One of the biggest, according to Hill, is the ability sports has to bring people together.
“It also speaks to sports, the real beauty and value that team sports provides,” Hill said. “Sports is a unifier. It brings people together…. Going back to the ancient civilizations, the Olympics—they would [pause] wars in the years of the Olympics because the ancient Greeks understood and valued sports.
“But also internally within a team, I think it forces you to work as one. It forces you to learn to trust and to sacrifice, discipline in handling responsibility and managing success and failure, all those core values. We get caught sometimes in the wins and losses, and in measuring success by achievement. But really the success comes from the experience.”
Hill recalls countless examples from his own life of sports’ ability to unify, including his time as co-owner and vice chairman of the Atlanta Hawks.
He notes that the city of Atlanta is an extremely diverse community, a reality that is reflected well in the Hawks’ fan base. When it’s time to root on their favorite team, though, all those differences are set aside—just like when Cooper and his teammates ignored their previous affiliations when they first started rowing in high school and just like they did 20 years later by extending that invite to the Chicago police.
“Through sports—whether with these young men in the boat, coming from different neighborhoods and not really knowing each other that well, or coming into an arena and watching your favorite team—it brings commonality,” Hill said. “It creates something that we all sort of have in common…. And then once you find common ground, then you can start to peel back the onion, and you can start to get through some of the preconceived judgments and so on and so forth. Then you get down to the core and you find more similarity than difference.”
These examples don’t just stem from Hill’s time with the Hawks, or even just his 19-year NBA career. They were also prevalent during his time at Duke.
“I just think in terms of the repetition of work every day and training, preparing, practicing—all of that forms a bond, it forms a brotherhood,” Hill said. “Obviously a great deal of our success is attributed to Coach K and can also be attributed to the talent that we had as well. But I think becoming close and building those core values as a result of our time together—it forces you to become one, and it forces you to to work together in unison.
“I think what made those teams so special, you had some great players who had great college success. But I think a part that gets missed sometimes is just how connected and how close we were, and how much we enjoyed and respected and loved each other. I think really sort of embodying what a team is. [We're] all from different walks of life and different regions of the country, but to be able to come together as one...you throw in Coach K and his tutelage and the talent we had—there's a reason why we were a special group.”
The story itself and the lessons that can be learned aren’t the only special parts of this film and those involved with it.
Cooper now spends much of his time traveling the country and exposing students from under-resourced neighborhoods to rowing, trying to get the sport to change their lives just as much as it changed his.
“He’s like a force of nature,” Hill said. “Just a gentle soul, but certainly someone who has vision, someone who has a purpose and sort of a meaning to his life. And someone who I think really understands the impact that this experience had and is trying to help create this type of experience for countless others who can sort of use sport to really help build their character and give them a foundation for success in life.”
That’s not the only real-world impact this story and documentary will have, though.
Despite COVID-19 expectedly causing some complications regarding its original release plan, the film was first available to stream this past Thursday for Xfinity customers, and will be released on NBCUniversal’s new Peacock streaming platform starting September 1.
According to the film’s website, half of the film's profits will be donated to support Cooper's inclusion efforts within the sport of rowing in addition to trauma research and social justice initiatives with the NAACP.
To Hill, that just speaks to who Mazzio is.
“She’s really substantive. She’s purposeful,” Hill said. “I think the combination of the ability to tell stories along with the desire to make a difference is incredible.”