Tony Grier had two childhood dreams.
He wanted to play in the NBA and make movies.
He fell short of his basketball goal.
After graduating from the University of South Florida in 1982 as the men’s basketball team’s all-time leading scorer, Grier was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs but never signed to a contract.
Now, at 61, the Windermere resident is fulfilling that second dream.
Grier directed and produced the documentary “The Last Teardrop,” which will premiere as the opening movie for the Orlando International Film Festival 11 a.m. July 10 at the Orange County Convention Center.
“Basketball, in part, was entertainment for me,” said Grier. “I loved the magic that came from performing. It’s not much different than making movies. It’s all entertainment.”
“The Last Teardrop” follows Bobby Brooks Wilson, a foster child then named Bobby Brooks who became a professional musician. His shows included tributes to Jackie Wilson, the late singer best known for “Higher and Higher” and “Lonely Teardrops.”
His portrayal of the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer was so spot on that it landed him a meeting with members of the Four Tops. “Who are your biological parents?” they asked. He shared his mother’s name but had yet to learn his father’s identity. They knew his mother, the band told him, and his father, during the short period that they dated before parting ways forever.
“His dad is Jackie Wilson,” Grier said. “It is a truly fascinating and unbelievable story on its own, but I like to have a social cause behind anything I do.”
The documentary also delves into how foster children can struggle to find an identity.
That theme, Grier said, is why Brooks Wilson, who was in foster care until he was 18, agreed to tell his story. “Bobby had been approached many times by Hollywood folks, but they would come from the wrong spirit. He felt my passion for the story of foster care. This will help a lot of people to understand what these kids are going through.”
Next up for Grier is a documentary on Joey Dee and the Starliters, which is the pop group behind the “Peppermint Twist,” and then a documentary on Robiconti’s, the club known as Tampa’s version of Studio 54 in the 1970s and ’80s.
“Joey Dee was a real trendsetter and people need to know his story,” Grier said. “Robiconti’s is my labor of love. Where do you think we all went after our games at the Sun Dome? Robiconti’s of course.”
Grier came to USF as one of three brothers raised by a single mom in a New York City housing project. While scoring 1,475 career points, which still ranks 8th all time, he led the team to its first-ever postseason appearance, first-ever victory over the University of Florida and first-ever win over a ranked opponent, the University of South Alabama.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
With his NBA dream over, Grier became general manager of the Tampa Bay Flash, which was part of the now-defunct semi-pro United States Basketball League, and founded the Tampa Bay Youth Foundation, a nonprofit that raised money to send low-income children to summer camp.
It was through the nonprofit that Grier rediscovered his childhood dream of becoming a filmmaker.
“‘Hoop Dreams’ changed everything,” he said.
“Hoop Dreams” is a 1994 Academy Award-nominated documentary about two Chicago high school basketball phenoms chasing their NBA dream.
Grier screened the film at the Tampa Theatre in 1995 as a fundraiser for his foundation and promised himself to one day make movies of his own.
“But first I wanted to have a family and focus on being a father,” said Grier, now a father of three.
So, he worked in the travel industry, wrote the book “A Raging Bull: Chasing the Big Time” about his time as a USF basketball player, became a motivational speaker and facilitated the Miami Heat’s summer camps for kids.
Then, in January 2020, Grier and his daughter watched a YouTube clip of Michael Jackson paying homage to Jackie Wilson at the Grammys in 1984, the year the musician died.
“My daughter asked who Jackie Wilson was,” Grier said. “I showed her old videos and, as I researched Jackie more, I learned of Bobby, reached out to him and said, ‘I think your story needs to be told’ and here we are.”
Grier said he has no regrets about his basketball career, but would have regretted not attempting filmmaking.
“To be some skinny kid from New York who gets to come through Tampa and experience all I did at the Sun Dome still seems unbelievable. I felt I was good enough to play in the NBA, but it didn’t pan out for whatever reason. So I focused on my other goal.”
If you go
Premiere of “The Last Teardrop”
When: 11 a.m. July 10, as part of the Orlando International Film Festival
Where: Orange County Convention Center, 9400 Universal Blvd., Orlando
For tickets: Visit orlandointernationalfilmfestival.org.