From ACC players to high school coaches and teachers: New film explores life after hoops

Three former North Carolina basketball stars who thrilled ACC fans with their hoop skills are now hoping to share how they’ve become Triangle high school coaches and teachers.

Former UNC-Chapel Hill stars David Noel and Donald Williams and former Clemson University star Shawan Robinson are the subjects of a new documentary called “Beyond Tobacco Road.” The film looks at how all three men transitioned from being college and professional athletes to educators who are mentoring the next generation of students and athletes, particularly African-American students.

“A lot of former athletes are really trying to help the youth of today and steer them in the right direction,” said Williams, 45, now the head women’s basketball coach at Wakefield High School in Raleigh. “They really need it. They really need positive roles models in their lives, because they’re not getting it at home.”

The film’s production team recently launched a fundraising campaign, https://kck.st/2OuWYG3, to raise $59,000 to make the documentary.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s David Noel, left, and Clemson University’s Shawan Robinson, right, go for a loose ball in this 2005 file photo. Corey Lowenstein Corey Lowenstein

“Beyond Tobacco Road” is a passion project for Rob Phillips, the film’s director and producer and an English teacher at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh. His first film, “Teacher of the Year,” chronicled a year in the life of activist and fellow Leesville teacher Angie Scioli.

As a former basketball player at UNC-Pembroke, Phillips, 44, said he wanted to explore what life is like when athletes move on after their playing days end. Through his contacts from his basketball days, Phillips was able to get Noel, Robinson and Williams to agree to be in the film.

Noel, 34, was a star at Southern High School in Durham before being a member of UNC-Chapel Hill’s 2005 national championship basketball team. After playing in the NBA and overseas, he returned to Southern High to become a history teacher and head men’s basketball coach.

“They get a chance to see someone who sat in the same classes they’re sitting in, walked the same halls they’re walking in and played in the same gym,” Noel said. “They can see you can have a a bigger vision than Southern.

“There are multiple ways you can do it. You do it in athletics, but you can do it principally in education.”

Clemson to Panther Creek

Robinson, 35, was a standout at Leesville before becoming an Academic All-American at Clemson. After playing overseas, he returned to the U.S. and is now a health teacher and head men’s basketball coach at Panther Creek High School in Cary.

“High school seems perfect,” Robinson said. “I’m able to balance life, spend time with my family and spend time in the game and be part of it.”

Williams played at Garner High School before being named the 1993 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Most Outstanding Player for the championship-winning UNC-Chapel Hill team. After playing overseas, he decided that the next chapter of his life would be coaching basketball and working with students who are facing discipline issues.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Donald Williams slips by Wake Forest University’s Randolph Childress in this 1995 file photo from the ACC Tournament Championship Game. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

One of the things the three former players want to explore in the film is how they as African-American educators can serve as role models. A study of 100,000 North Carolina black elementary school students found that having access to just one black teacher increased their chances of not dropping out of high school.

Most teachers are white women

The overwhelming majority of teachers in North Carolina and nationally are white women, even as the percentage of minority students continues to grow.

“You really don’t have many black American males working in the school system,” Williams said. “We need more. The presence of having an African American teacher on campus is really huge.”

African-American students account for the majority of school suspensions. Williams said that students who are having discipline issues often just need attention and someone they can talk to about what they’re experiencing.

“A bad decision as a youth can really destroy your life,” Williams said. “I try to be there for guidance, and let them know I was in their shoes growing up and through hard work you can succeed to.”

‘Hoop Dreams’ help

Assuming the funding is found, Phillips, the director, said he wants to have the film shown by 2020. He’s getting help from Peter Gilbert, one of the filmmakers behind “Hoop Dreams,” the groundbreaking 1994 documentary that followed two African-American high school athletes from Chicago.

Gilbert agreed to be Phillips’ executive producer.

“It’s more than just about basketball and education,” Phillips said of his new film. “It’s a story of who we are as a culture, what we value and what we support and don’t support.

“These guys are doing important work. What are we doing to attract more people like them?”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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