When LeBron James comes calling, you answer the phone. Philip Knowlton ’03, visual arts, knows this better than most.
The NBA legend doesn’t have the UMBC alum in his contacts because Knowlton is great at one-on-one (probably). Instead, Knowlton has collaborated with James’ media company Uninterrupted on several documentaries as a director, editor, producer, and director of photography. Uninterrupted was founded to empower athletes to tell their stories in their own words. This time, Knowlton was called upon to direct and co-executive produce Redefined: J.R. Smith, a four-part Prime Video documentary series released in April 2023 that follows J.R. Smith, a retired two-time NBA champion, as he navigates a new challenge—college.
“This is the story of him post-NBA as he decides to go to college at North Carolina A&T [State University] to pursue a degree but also to try out for the Aggies golf team,” explains Knowlton.
Student-athlete turned filmmaker
“It was just a really inspiring project to be a part of,” says Knowlton, who made his first sports documentary about UMBC track and field when he was a student-athlete on the team. Having played (and won championships) with James on both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers, Smith became good friends with James. So, when Smith made the decision to pack his book bag, head to college, and try out for the golf team, his team connected with Uninterrupted to see about interest in a possible film project.Knowlton filming J.R. playing golf.
“Of course they were on board,” says Knowlton, who received the call from Uninterrupted soon after. “They asked me if I’d be interested in flying to Greensboro to film a sizzle.” In the film world, a sizzle is like a demo—a short trailer used to pitch the story to networks.
Knowlton jumped at the opportunity to once again work with Uninterrupted.
“I think what they really like about me is that I’m able to direct and shoot,” says Knowlton. “It keeps the team smaller and more intimate. So, you’re able to be in places that a big crew may not be able to get into. Or athletes may not want a whole big team following them around.”
Knowlton worked with the team at Uninterrupted to put together a treatment and map out the story they wanted to tell. Then, he hopped on a plane to Greensboro and filmed the sizzle.
“Next, we took meetings with everyone like HBO Max, ESPN+, Amazon—all of them,” explains Knowlton. “There was interest from quite a few networks, but it ultimately landed on Prime Video.”
By this point, Smith was just about two or three weeks out from starting school. So, Knowlton had to move quickly. “This production, specifically, was really dictated by Smith’s golf season and his school year,” says Knowlton. The team made it in time to film the first couple days of school and practice. Then, they returned every month or two for different milestones throughout Smith’s first year, like his first tournament and A&T’s homecoming celebration.
“It was amazing to see J.R., who could have retired and moved to Miami to hang out by the pool, want to go to college for the first time and push himself,” says Knowlton.
Find a place that let’s you do both
Of course, this story starts way before Smith decided to trade basketballs for golf balls. This story starts at a still-burgeoning university in Baltimore County, Maryland.
“I was looking for a school where I could run cross country that also had a good video or digital art program,” explains Knowlton, who now owns and operates Opposit, a creative studio he founded in 2018 specializing in original documentary film content. “A lot of schools have one or the other but not both.” UMBC gave Knowlton the opportunity to explore both.Knowlton filming in North Carolina.
“It was kind of a no-brainer,” admits Knowlton, who received an athletic scholarship to run on the cross country and track and field teams while pursuing his B.A. in imaging and digital arts. “That program was perfect in that it let me experiment in a lot of different art forms.”
Throughout college, Knowlton was still trying to find his passion. He knew he loved visual arts but was unsure where to focus his energy. He enjoyed photography, graphic design, and film. It wasn’t until Vin Grabill’s video art class that it all started to click.
“I taught students that video could be seen as a kind of ‘painting in time.’ Utilizing video edits as brushstrokes, students created short rhythmic works that brought impact to their source material,” explains Grabill, associate professor emeritus in UMBC’s Department of Visual Arts. “Phil’s exercises exemplified these goals, eventually leading to final projects where narrative content was successfully built around a solid rhythmic structure. I’m very happy to see Phil pushing his work forward 20 years later!”
“Today, when I do Q&As about my films, I like to quote [basketball coach] Jim Valvano, who said, ‘Every single day, in every walk of life, ordinary people do extraordinary things,’” says Knowlton. “When I work on documentaries, a lot of the time I am filming everyday people doing amazing things. But J.R.’s story almost feels like the reverse. He’s this extraordinary person doing something more ordinary—going to college. To have been a part of J.R.’s journey and help share with the world has been a great experience.”