On his way to an Oscars watch party, Donnie F. Wilson ('90) got the text. The Queen of Basketball, a film for which he served as one of the executive producers, had won the 2022 Academy Award in the documentary short category. But Wilson didn't want to tell anyone else since the category hadn't yet aired live.
"I was sitting in my car, and I was like, 'Oh my god,'" he says.
Now everyone knows. His inbox has blown up with messages of congratulations from friends and colleagues. For the radio, TV and film alum, the award is the culmination of a longtime pursuit of a dream for a career in filmmaking that began with determination and some bold risks.
Wilson grew up in Dallas and always has been a storyteller -- and a playwright at heart -- and so the radio, TV and film program at UNT seemed like a good fit.
After college, Wilson interned at WFAA and then took a job as a minority recruitment specialist with the National Marrow Donor Program, where he headed recruiting efforts of all minority groups to the national register for several years. But he was determined to go to Hollywood to become a filmmaker. Wilson's plan was to save $2,000 before he made the move. But one event after another kept getting in his way. He would get halfway toward his goal, but a ticket or a flat tire would set him back. Eventually, he realized he was starting to get comfortable with that.
"It dawned on me that I was afraid," he says. "I only had $500, but I no longer wanted to be controlled by fear."
He made the trip to Hollywood, bouncing between friends, before he found a place to stay. He worked at temp agencies for people who wanted to work in the entertainment industry. Mostly, he was filing papers instead of networking with people.
One day, the agency told him he was getting a gig with Rob Reiner. Wilson was thrilled to work with a big-name director, but then learned the agency made a mistake. Wilson, calling from a pay phone on Hollywood Boulevard, was crushed. They offered him another assignment to file papers.
"I'm not doing that," he told them.
Eventually they called back with another assignment that he heard as Big Shack.
"You want to send me to a barbecue restaurant?" he says.
But they meant Big Shaq -- as in basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal. Wilson went to help set up the office and made the connections that turned into a full-fledged job.
He's now a partner with O'Neal with Jersey Legends Productions, which started in 2020. They co-wrote and produced an animated short, Headnoise, about two aspiring basketball players.
And then came The Queen. A few years ago, filmmaker Ben Proudfoot came to Wilson with an idea about Lusia "Lucy" Harris. She played on a college basketball team that won three national championships and was the first woman to score a basket in the Olympics and be drafted by an NBA team. Wilson had no idea who she was, but was excited.
"Oh my god, I'm in to support this," Wilson says. "I felt like I had been cheated of something by not knowing her story. I had no choice but to be a part of it."
The 22-minute movie is filmed with a close-up on Harris' face as she tells her story with clips from her basketball days. The film also had the backing of two NBA legends -- O'Neal and Steph Curry.
Wilson didn't get to meet Harris, who died in January. He gave up his ticket to the Oscars ceremony so more of her family members could attend.
Now his company is considering a feature film on Harris.
He also hopes to one day complete his dream project, turning the play he wrote -- Tearing Down Cabrini Green -- into a screenplay.
While Wilson says his resilience has helped him get to this point in his career, he also credits his family and friends.
"What makes me most excited is the love I'm receiving from my hometown and where I come from. It just feels so good," he says. "I feel like I made my city and school proud."