House of hoops

Ron and R.J. Hunter transformed GSU’s basketball program, but it wasn’t easy.

By Helena Oliviero | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Before Ron Hunter cried on national TV.

Before he injured his leg.

Before his son R.J. Hunter hit that impossibly long shot that caused his father to tumble off the now-famous blue, rolling office chair, there was a hoop in a backyard surrounded by walnut and sycamore trees.

It was there in the quiet suburbs of Indianapolis behind a two-story brick house that father and son played boisterous, ridiculously competitive games of H-O-R-S-E.

Dad would shoot a short-range jump shot.

Your dad is never going to lose! Swish.

Five-year-old R.J. would go long.

How we got the story

Last January, AJC reporter Helena Oliviero attended a GSU basketball game and was struck by the dynamic between head coach Ron Hunter and his son, R.J. Hunter. She was curious about being a father-son duo in a high-stakes college sport. At the time, the Hunters weren’t particularly well known, not even in Atlanta. That would change after she began working on this story. She spent several hours interviewing father and son, as well as mom Amy and sister Jasmine. She also interviewed R.J.’s teammates, assistant coach Everick Sullivan and R.J.’s high school coach in Indiana. She’s especially grateful to AJC sports reporter Doug Roberson, who was an incredible resource and source of support.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor,
personaljourneys@ajc.com

Oh yes, you are! The ball would fall short and R.J. would wipe away tears as he hurried into the house.

And so it went. Seasons passed. Walnut trees turned bright yellow in the fall, dripped with icicles in the winter and returned to a verdant green in summer. With every season, waves of laughter and mild trash talking would fill the outdoor court. R.J. grew taller, stronger.

One early evening in summer 2008, R.J., a rising high school freshman, challenged his dad, a coach at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), to a game. Bone thin and standing 5 feet, 11 inches tall, R.J. didn’t look like a basketball phenom. But he was shooting like one. Stepping backward off the concrete court onto soft grass, he went deep and nailed it.

Play after play, his dad racked up letters: H...O...R...S...E. For the first time, R.J. won. They never played HORSE again.

“It gave me confidence,” said R.J., reflecting on that day. “I guess I felt if I could beat my dad, I could beat anyone. I could do anything.”

R.J was no longer just any kid playing hoops like countless boys in every corner of Indiana, a bastion of fervent basketball passion. Ron saw promise in his only son.

They would go on to basketball prominence at the unlikeliest of places — Georgia State University, a school with a dismal basketball history and embarrassingly low turnouts for home games.

With a game-winning shot heard around the globe in March, the Hunters would share one of the most thrilling, heartwarming moments in NCAA history.

To fans (now everywhere), Ron and R.J. made being a father-son team in a high-stakes competition look fun and easy. In reality, the Hunters were not immune to the pressures and challenges of balancing the roles of father and coach, player and son.

2

Born to play

Ron’s career in basketball started as a fluke.

Raised by divorced parents in Dayton, Ohio, he moved often as a child. He started playing basketball in the fourth grade as a way to make friends and fit in at his new school. But his real love was baseball. In high school, he pursued basketball only because the court was on the public bus route and he couldn’t figure out a way to get home from the baseball field.

He went on to play basketball at Miami University (Ohio) where he was a standout in the mid-1980s. During his sophomore year, he met Amy, an education major, in an art therapy class. Running late for class, Ron took the last open seat on a wooden bench, and the two were paired up in an edible art project. She was studious, calm and pretty, with long blonde hair. He was loud, effusive.

“Opposites attract,” says Amy with a smile.

They got married shortly after college and eventually settled down outside Indianapolis, where Ron was head coach for IUPUI, a university with a low-profile basketball program. They had a daughter, Jasmine. Five year later R.J. was born, named after his father: Ron Jordan.

They were a playful, highly competitive family. R.J. and Jasmine would race each other to the car for family outings or battle to get in the last word. On Saturday nights, the whole family competed to see who could stay up the latest.

R.J. often fell asleep to the sound of his father’s basketball videos. Sometimes he couldn’t resist the sound of a game drifting into his bedroom — the ball pounding on the court, the squeaking of shoes on shiny hardwoods, the roar of the crowd. He would join his father watching videos of IUPUI practices and games on his Apple laptop at an island in the kitchen.

Ron would quiz his son: Why did he sub out that guy? Why did he go with a zone defense? Why did he call that play?

R.J. attended Pike High School, chosen by his parents because of its racially diverse student body. It was also a basketball powerhouse. But R.J. didn’t make the varsity team his freshman year, at least not at first.

R.J. was livid, but Ron and Amy were more circumspect. They weren’t the types to call the coach and question his decision.

“We didn’t necessarily see it as a bad thing,” said Amy. “We know life is full of challenges and things don’t always go your way.”

You have your say with how you play, Ron told his son.

A few weeks later, R.J. was asked to join the team.

Clad in a red jersey that hung off his slender frame, R.J. looked up into the stands for his dad at every game and after every shot. It was a habit that started when R.J. was a preschooler playing on his first team. By the time the shooting guard reached high school, glancing toward his father was automatic. For Ron’s part, he found it impossible to sit still in the bleachers. His hands were constantly in motion with coaching signals; an upswing of the fist meant take it to the hole. His animated face conveyed silent messages.

“It was like they had some sort of secret communication only they could understand,” Jasmine said.

In truth, Ron didn’t want to simply instruct his son from the bleachers. He wanted to be R.J.’s coach, so he took a gamble and left IUPUI for the head coaching job at Georgia State in 2011.

Ron wasn’t sure R.J. was sold on the idea of playing for his dad. But he knew his son wouldn’t play at a small basketball program like the one in their hometown, and he thought the big city of Atlanta would appeal to his son, who was seeking a different environment for his college experience.

So Ron went to Atlanta while Amy and R.J. stayed behind to finish his senior year in Indiana.

That year apart was a difficult one for the family. R.J. felt the void at every game without his dad’s presence.

“He got a taste of playing without Dad being there,” said Jasmine, “and I think he felt a little lost.”


The road to glory

  • R.J., Amy and Ron Hunter in Costa Rica. Hunter said, "I have a daughter about to get her Phd and get married and a son heading to the NBA. People asked me what did I do? I said, 'I married the right person. . . she is 98 percent the reason, She is extremely intelligent and takes an intelligent thoughtful approach to everything.”
  • Players watch Hunter coach one game barefoot every season to help the charity Samaritan’s Feet to raise awareness of the millions of children around the world that don’t have footwear. Last summer, he took the team to Costa Rica where they washed children’s feet and placed more than 600 shoes on children in need.
  • R.J’s parents learned their son’s affinity for basketball proved to be a good discipline tool. As a youngster, he would go to bed 15 minutes early if he whined. If he didn’t stop, he would have to miss a basketball practice. Once he was older, every missed school assignment would result in a missed practice.
  • A recent family photo, including Jasmine Hunter’s fiancé Nick Winbush (from left), Amy Hunter, Ron, R.J., and Jasmine.
  • Ron never pushed R.J., 12 in this photo, to play basketball. He didn’t have to. Even as a kid, R.J. liked to take long shots.
  • Instead of the usual lone AJC reporter, most of the city’s media outlets turned out to interview R.J. and Ron after GSU won the Sun Belt Championship in March. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
  • "Instead of helping the coach up, the 50 year old coach who falls down, they're all laughing and thinking it's one of the funniest things. I told them, 'it's OK, as soon as I get healthy and conditioning starts, we'll see how funny this thing is.'" Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
  • Hunter reacts to winning the Sunbelt Men's Basketball Regular Season Championship charging the fans after beating Georgia Southern 72-55 in a basketball game on Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
  • R.J. and his laughing as he jokes with the media during a press conference after defeating Georgia Southern to win the Sunbelt Men't Basketball Regular Season Championship. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
  • A master motivator, Ron turned negatives into positive motivation. The history of losing at Georgia State? The past is the past, he told the team. They were creating a new history, he said. The 917 fans trickling into home games, not even filling half of the seats in a tiny gym? You win and they will show up in droves. Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com
  • Hunter talks with R.J. during a game against Old Dominion at GSU Sports Arena in February 2013. Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com
  • Like others, R.J's teammate Ryann Green (left) is happy to see R.J. go from a scrawny little kid to a top NBA prospect. “He has worked for everything,” he said. “I am so happy for him. His drive is so strong. His mentality to get stronger and his overall commitment to weight room and other parts of his game were incredible.” Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
  • Hunter at the Georgia State vs. Baylor game on the famous rolling blue chair. “The chair has been locked and covered right now. That chair has more protection than the President of the United States.” Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images
  • A highly animated coach, Ron once stomped his right foot so many times during a season at IUPUI that he wound up with a stress fracture. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

3

Playing hardball

Ron is an emotional, high-energy coach who commands attention when he enters a room or steps onto the playing court. He is a master motivator, fast-talking, smart and funny as all get-out. After barely beating Georgia Southern for the Sun Belt championship in March, he said: “I’ll take ugly wins all day. My wife married an ugly man and she still loves me.”

R.J. has a quiet demeanor. He is calmer, more reserved. On the court, he wins over teammates with his incredible work ethic. Like his father, he stares at opponents who he thinks have slighted him. Like his mother, he maintains an enormous level of composure during games. He is also nice, maybe too nice. He often dips into his pockets and gives money to homeless people when walking around the Georgia State campus in Atlanta.

The first time Ron coached his son, it ended terribly. R.J. was 9 years old, and the sport was coach-pitch baseball. Ron wasn’t able to make it to any of his son’s practices, but he was there at the first game one warm summer day.

Ron pitched that day and he tossed nice and easy pitches to all of the players — until his son got to the mound. With R.J., he threw 90 mph fastballs.

R.J. stormed off the field, quit the team and never picked up a baseball glove again. The bitter experience was enough to give the family pause. As R.J. approached high school graduation, there were other worries: Would R.J. be better off at a bigger program? He had offers from Big Ten and ACC schools.

But the bigger question remained: Could they combine coaching and parenting without spoiling the family dynamic?

They sought advice from other coach-fathers, including University of Detroit Mercy Coach Ray McCallum, whose son Ray McCallum Jr. played for his father and now plays for the Sacramento Kings.

Ultimately, they made the decision together as a family.

“Who am I to play basketball over family?” said R.J., reflecting on their decision. “What it really came down to for me was about being with my family, for us all to be together.”

By joining his father at Georgia State, they would be together at every game, every practice.

It would mark a fundamental shift in their dynamic.


R.J. and Ron Hunter


4

Uneasy transition

Take care of the ball! You must take care of the ball!

R.J. — standing 6 feet, 6 inches tall, from his Nike sneakers to the flop of brown hair crowning his head — whipped around.

It was summer 2012, and he had just stepped on the court in the creaky old gym at Georgia State for his first practice when he heard his father scolding a player. He eyed his father waving his right arm in disapproval and pacing the court.

R.J. knew his father had two volumes when it came to coaching: loud and louder.

Who was his father mad at, R.J. wondered as he glanced around.

Then it dawned on him — his dad was yelling at him.

It didn’t matter that R.J. had just flown in from Indiana hours earlier, dropped off his bags at his dorm room and raced over to the gym for practice. It didn’t matter that R.J. had just competed (and played well) in a high school all-star game over the weekend.

He was being called out in front of his new teammates — by his dad.

It was hard for R.J. not to take it personally; hard not to question whether following his dad to Georgia State was a good idea.

After practice, he returned to his dorm room and called Jasmine and his mom to express his frustration.

Ron, driving home alone in his car that night, wondered if he’d been too harsh on his son.

“That’s when I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” he recalled. “I could coach. But coaching my son — it was going to be one of the hardest things I would ever do.”

By the time he got home, his wife was waiting for him. They needed to talk.

A longtime school guidance counselor, Amy knew her husband was a talented motivator of young players. She knew he had a big heart. But being harder on R.J. than the other players was just as bad as giving their son preferential treatment, she told him.

There will be no extremes on either end of the continuum, she said.

At the same time, Amy encouraged her son to trust his father’s instincts. He knows you better than anyone else, she said.

Meanwhile, Amy often prepared homemade dinners for herself and her husband, but on days her husband crossed the line coaching their son, he was on his own.


“I could coach. But coaching my son — it was going to be one of the hardest things I would ever do.”

Ron Hunter


5

Into the groove

Inside the famously hostile Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke fans synchronized their chant: Daddy’s boy! Daddy’s boy!

Overwhelmed by nerves, R.J. was in a daze. He managed to relax at opening tip, and on the game’s first possession, there was a deflected Duke pass. R.J got the ball and sailed in for a layup for his first college points.

Ron felt a rush of emotions but had to contain them.

“I couldn’t thump my chest and say ‘Hey, that’s my son,’” he said.

But after every game, Ron would review the game tapes — twice. First, as the coach of the team, and then as father to R.J. so he could focus on his son the entire game.

Ron is all emotion on the sidelines. He throws his arms in the air, shouts instruction between plays. He’s been accused by more than one coach of being the sixth defender because he gets so close to the court. Woe be the player who messes up a defensive assignment. Mistakes are met first with a scowl, then a quick spin of frustration. When a player is pulled out of the game, Ron lets him have it — with words or a prolonged stare that lasts minutes, or in some cases, entire games.

Assistant coach Everick Sullivan is usually by his side, helping translate Ron’s quick-fire instructions. Even-keeled and soft-spoken, Sullivan is the perfect complement to Ron, and R.J. was immediately drawn to him. He became a welcome buffer between father and son, explaining Ron’s instructions to R.J. and encouraging him not to take his father’s outbursts personally.

“I would tell him not to worry about it, to focus on the next play,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes, I told him to take a moment to regroup.”

Over time, R.J. grew more comfortable with his dad’s highly emotional coaching style.

Sometimes, he just tuned him out and concentrated on the game.

R.J. demonstrated an impressive work ethic. He was always first to arrive at practice, and he spent most nights alone, shooting baskets at the Georgia State gym with Drake blasting from the sound system. He only counted swishes, whether it was a 3-point shot or mid-range jumper. He wouldn’t leave until he got at least 10, but some nights he’d stay until he hit 150.

“R.J. didn’t want people to think he felt entitled,” said teammate Ryann Green. “People respected him because of his work ethic. Everybody was intense; he had a different kind of intensity.”

But he has a lighter side, too, occasionally drawing laughs from his teammates by impersonating his dad, waving his arms and stomping his feet for comedic effect.

GSU finished the 2012-2013 season 15-16. R.J. led the team in scoring, averaging 17 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. He was named a Freshman All-American.

By the spring of 2014, the Georgia State Panthers looked strong. The team was winning and drawing big crowds — fervid fans were painting their faces royal blue and shaking pom poms. And a new tradition was born. A handful of tents cropped up outside the Sports Arena, temporary housing for folks waiting in line for prime positions to watch the Panthers play. Handmade signs appeared that read, “Welcome to Hunterville.”

The team seemed on its way to clinching a spot in the all-important NCAA tournament.


Ron and R.J. share a celebratory moment after beating Georgia Southern for the Sun Belt Championship in New Orleans in March. Sean Gardner / Getty Images


6

Heartbreaking loss

Ron paced the locker room, walking around in circles. The coach who always had something to say was at a loss.

How could they have let a 10-point lead slip away in the final minutes? The Panthers had won 22 of their last 23 games before the title contest in the 2014 Sun Belt Conference tournament. How could Georgia State’s historic winning season sputter and collapse? The 82-81 overtime loss to Louisiana-Lafayette had crushed their hopes of playing in the NCAA tournament.

R.J. buried his head into his jersey and sobbed, wiping sweat and tears from his face.

Taking a philosophical approach, Ron finally spoke:

Life isn’t necessarily fair but you deal with the consequences. This is one game and will not be a reflection of what we’ve accomplished this year. I am proud of you. As much as it hurts, we want it to hurt because that’s part of the maturation process.

The team quietly headed back to Atlanta and learned they would play Clemson in the National Invitation Tournament, a consolation prize for deserving teams that don’t secure a spot in the coveted NCAA tournament.

Hunter turned his attention to preparing for that game, but R.J. couldn’t sleep for weeks. In the wee hours of the night, he would lie in bed reliving one moment in that stunning loss that tormented him: GSU was up 9 points with 3:02 left in the game. Elfrid Payton, a 6-feet, 3-inch point guard for Louisiana-Lafayette took a hard shot: a 3-pointer. R.J. lets him take it. Over and over, R.J. sees the ball roll down the court, not whittling any time off the clock.Why did I let him take that shot? Why didn’t I contest it?

Slowly over time, he quit beating himself up and began to take comfort in something his dad told him after the crushing loss:

To have great things happen, some bad things are going to happen.

“I realized I had to let it go. I didn’t want to let it destroy me,” says R.J.

He downloaded an app on his phone and started meditating several times a week.


R.J. is well known for his strong work ethic and composure on the court. His father is typically the effusive one. But R.J. couldn’t contain his joy when GSU won the Sun Belt Tournament in New Orleans in March. That’s when he knew they were going to the NCAA tournament, the first time in 14 years for GSU. Sean Gardner / Getty Images


7

Low-scoring victory

The 2014-15 season got off to a rocky start. Georgia State didn’t settle into a nice groove until the final weeks of the season. They were 21-9 going into the last home game. Georgia State cruised to a victory over its cross-state rival, Georgia Southern, 72-55, then headed into the Sun Belt Tournament to try again for a shot at a berth in the NCAA tournament.

At breakfast before the Sun Belt Championship game in New Orleans against Georgia Southern, R.J. slowly and neatly placed eggs, pancakes and bacon on his plate, but he was too anxious to eat. He put in a call to the team psychologist who convinced him he had to eat, so he settled on a couple granola bars and an orange.

Normally, he could shake the pre-game butterflies, but the jitters didn’t go away this time. He wasn’t having a good game and was fouled late in the game before he felt the tension soften.

Standing at the free throw line, he blocked out the sound of the roaring crowd, imagining the sea of fans (those in blue, and those hoisting “Daddy’s Princess” signs) was a forest of walnut and sycamore trees.

“It was the most relaxed I was the entire game,” he said, looking back at that moment. “I just imagined the hoop in my backyard.”

The game was tied at 36 with 21.6 seconds left in the game. R.J. sank two free throws to win the game.

Overcome with exuberance, Hunter leaped in the air and landed on his left foot with such force, he felt a sharp pain run up his leg as though someone had shot him. He would later learn he’d ruptured his Achilles tendon. But the pain didn’t stop him. He limped his way toward R.J., and they fell to the floor in jubilation, locked in embrace.

The day before GSU’s first NCAA tournament game, Hunter told reporters the usual things coaches tell the press: The players had a solid practice; they were enjoying the moment; they were focused on winning.

And then he added: “But I am going to make sure I spend more time to enjoy this as Dad. That is one thing I haven’t done, and I’ve been disappointed in myself... I haven’t been able to enjoy my son and some of the great things that have happened with him because it’s very difficult to do. But I told myself and I actually told him yesterday, that as Dad I am going to enjoy this a little bit more tomorrow.”

About the reporter

Helena Oliviero joined the AJC in 2002 as a features writer. Previously she worked for the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Knight Ridder as a correspondent in Mexico. The leader of the pack in Personal Journeys, she’s written five to date. She was educated at the University of San Francisco.

8

Explosive win

The third-seeded Baylor Bears seemed like a lock to beat 14th-seeded GSU and move on to the next round of the NCAA tournament.

Georgia State trailed 56-44 with just a few minutes left in the game. R.J had only scored four points in 37 minutes.

Be patient. Great things will happen, Ron told R.J.

His leg encased in a hard cast, Ron was coaching from a rolling office chair and struggling to maneuver on the sidelines. Pumped up on adrenaline, he didn’t feel the pain.

With less than three minutes left in the game, two free throws from R.J. cut the lead to 10, and then R.J. went on a rally. Meanwhile, Baylor started milking the clock too soon, and over the final 2:39 minutes of the game, they had four turnovers, committed a shot-clock violation, missed a dunk and bricked a free throw.

With 1:34 minutes remaining, R.J. sank a 3-pointer from beyond the key.

R.J. scored off an inbound pass and then after a steal, he looked at the scoreboard and the thought struck him: This could happen.

With 14.1 seconds left and Baylor leading by two points, the Bears missed a critical free throw. R.J. got the rebound and passed the ball to his teammate and roommate, T.J. Shipes, who passed it back to R.J.

Standing 30 feet from the hoop, with 2.8 seconds remaining in the game, R.J. let the ball whirl off his fingertips, and he knew.

That’s money he thought to himself.

Ron never saw the ball whoosh through the hoop, but he didn’t need to. He heard the roar of the crowd. He raised his arms to signify the 3-point shot was good and fell off his chair, cracking his cast.

Georgia State upset Baylor 57-56 by outscoring the Bears 13-0 in the final 2:40 of the game. Of those 13 points, 12 were scored by R.J.

As a news reporter approached him for a comment, Ron placed his hand on his head and began to weep.

He was not the carefully worded coach this time. He was an emotional dad.

“I love this kid, man,” he said, arm around his son. “I love him.”

The Hunters made headlines and highlights across the country and beyond. Scores of online memes mocking Ron’s fall went viral. R.J. did a hilarious re-enactment of his dad falling off the chair for ESPN. But it was the Hunters’ candid, funny, off-the-cuff interviews that turned them into NCAA tournament darlings.

Georgia State’s season ended two days later with a 75-67 loss to Xavier, but it couldn’t dampen the team’s joy.

“If you’re crying,” R.J. told his teammates after the game, “they should be tears of joy. We changed the culture of Georgia State.”

About the photographer

Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.

9

NBA bound

When Ron Hunter arrived in Atlanta, the 48-year-old GSU basketball program had only 10 winning seasons and two NCAA tournament appearances. He figured out a way to win like no other coach at Georgia State, ending his fourth season with an 87-47 record and a trip to the NCAA tournament this spring, the first time since 2001.

R.J. figured out a way to win like no other player.

He finished his career as the all-time leading scorer in Georgia State’s history with 1,819 points.

He was also tops in 3-pointers made, free throw percentage and free throws made.

The Hunters figured out a way to usher in a new era at Georgia State — an era of enthusiasm, pride and victory.

In late March, R.J. announced his decision to join the NBA.

Leaving college one year early, he promised his parents he would someday return to complete his degree in human growth and development.

For now, he is in Chicago, working out and preparing for the draft.

R.J. has been projected as a mid-to-late pick in the first round of the NBA draft, set for June 25 in New York.

It would be tempting to say that the magnificent winning shot in the NCAA tournament was the moment when Ron and R.J. knew they made the right decision to be a father-son duo at Georgia State.

But talk to Amy, the woman who knows them best, and she’ll point to the last home game of the regular season against Georgia Southern.

Ron pulled R.J. out of the game before the final buzzer, a common move by coaches who want to give fans a chance to show their appreciation. But seeing R.J. walk off the court, Ron was overwhelmed.

This was before the torn Achilles.

Before Ron fell off his chair.

Before the tournaments and the winning shot.

Ron instinctively threw his arms around R.J., and tears started streaming down his face.

They were no longer coach and player.

This was a moment for father and son.

Presentation by Shane Harrison.