Half a century after the underdog Hendersonville High School boys basketball team won the 3A state championship, their accomplishments are being immortalized in cinematic form.
Directed by Keith Dunnavant, the documentary short The Tin Can Man chronicles the bold moves by Bearcats head coach Jim Pardue in the fateful 1971-72 season, which included voluntarily playing against larger schools and, more significantly, starting four Black student-athletes.
The 30-minute film has its world premiere on Friday, Aug. 5, at Hendersonville High School. Additional festivities include light refreshments at a pre-film reception and a post-screening Q&A moderated by Dunnavant and featuring members of the championship team. Proceeds benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Henderson County.
“This is a story about opportunity, tenacity and resilience that mirrors so many stories of the youth served by our organization,” says Julia Hockenberry, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club. “It will be a great night in an amazing venue, celebrating the heart of our community, across generations.”
In the midst of putting the finishing touches on the film, Dunnavant spoke with Xpress from his suburban Atlanta home about making The Tin Can Man and capturing what he calls “the connective tissue between a team and its town.”
What was your path to becoming a filmmaker?
I started my media career as a teenage sportswriter in North Alabama, and eventually covered college football and other sports for major newspapers and magazines in Birmingham, Los Angeles and New York. Later, I transitioned into magazine management and ownership and started writing history books. My bookshelf includes biographies of Paul “Bear” Bryant, Joe Montana and Francis Gary Powers.
Making documentary films was a natural extension of my print journalism career because I want to keep stretching as a storyteller. Producing documentaries is tremendously challenging on several different levels, especially as an independent filmmaker. Our team is dedicated to telling compelling stories with style and heart. Three Days at Foster, our film about the pioneering African American athletes who shattered the color barrier at the University of Alabama, aired on statewide television in Alabama.
Over the last two decades, I have also worked as a featured historian and consultant on a long list of network documentaries on ESPN, HBO, Showtime and SEC Network.
Do you have much prior history with Western North Carolina?
During my sportswriting days, I spent a good bit of time covering college basketball and football in the state.
How did you first hear about Hendersonville High’s ’71-’72 championship season?
I was intrigued by the history in Hendersonville, and through one particular friend, I started investigating what turned out to be a special team. I heard about this underdog, overachieving team that happened to coincide with what turned out to be a milestone in the community’s cultural integration.
Did you experience any epiphanies throughout the filmmaking process?
Whether you are writing a book or producing a documentary, the most important step is deciding what story you want to tell. Early on in the process of the film that became The Tin Can Man, it became clear to me that this was a story about an underdog team that also reflected a cultural milestone for the community. Despite having a 2A-sized enrollment, the school’s leadership decided to voluntarily move up to 3A in 1971, which meant that the Bearcats would be playing over their heads against larger schools.
At the same time, their lineup was much smaller than usual, which added another level of underdog tension, especially when they reached the state tournament. Ultimately, The Tin Can Man is about the connective tissue between a team and its town. When coach Pardue put four African American starters on the floor that year, it represented a breakthrough that reflected the cultural integration that was sweeping across the South at that time. I don’t have any evidence that he experienced resistance from the community, but some of the players believe he felt heat at the time — heat which he ignored in order to do the right thing.
Whom were you able to interview for the film?
Seven players from the 1972 team appear in the film, including Harold Albany, Tippy Creswell, Brian Tallent, Johnny Landrum, Dennis Braswell, Robert Fain and Jeff Gould, plus several others connected to the program and the school.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way, and how did you maneuver around them?
Fortunately, we were blessed with great cooperation from the key figures and the community of Hendersonville. The obstacles were minimal. Documentary filmmaking is a visual medium, so there are always the challenges of how to illustrate a historic story where only limited footage and photos are available. You learn to be creative.
What moments and encounters from this project do you think will stick with you most?
Probably what sticks with you the most in a project like this is the people you meet. I’ve made some new friends in a great little town. I have a deep appreciation for what a high school team can mean to a community, and my experience in Hendersonville has confirmed this. All these years later, people are still talking about that 1971-72 team and how it touched the town.
I’ve been interviewing people for a living for 43 years. Being prepared is superimportant in my kind of journalism, and yet sometimes you get an answer that surprises you. That happened during one of my interviews on the Hendersonville project, and the answer became central to the story. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. You’ll have to see the movie.
What do you hope viewers take away from watching The Tin Can Man?
Pride. The premiere at Hendersonville High School on Aug. 5 is a celebration for the town. It is an opportunity for the attendees to take a trip back in time and soak up how all those ambitious, talented, competitive young men loved playing basketball — and how that passion for the game united the town. They created a defining moment in the history of Hendersonville — unifying the community around a shared purpose.
Lastly, what’s the significance of the film’s title?
[That] will be revealed at the premiere.
WHAT: The Tin Can Man
WHERE: Hendersonville High School Auditorium, 1 Bearcat Blvd., avl.mx/bsq
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 5, 6:30 p.m. $50