“I don’t usually get nostalgic about a lot of things, but I’ll be honest, I’m excited coming to Dayton to play Wright State and see my family and friends.”
Hunter grew up on Becker Drive in West Dayton, attended Resurrection Elementary, starred on the Chaminade Julienne basketball team and then headed to Miami University, where he played in three NCAA Tournaments and became lifelong pals with teammate and fellow Daytonian Ron Harper.
He said 90 percent of his family still lives here. His wife Amy — they met in college — is from Urbana. And their son R.J., now a rookie with the Boston Celtics, was born in Oxford when Hunter was an assistant coach at Miami.
The area stirs so many memories and Hunter was hoping to share a few of them with his players last evening when — as soon as they got off the flight from Atlanta — he brought them to the CJ gym for a short practice and a long look back.
“I want to show the guys where I played and let them know: ‘Once upon a time Coach had some game,’ ” he said, laughing.
In truth, Hunter feels a special kinship to the school and a few years ago he returned to give a rousing commencement speech to the CJ grads at the Schuster Center.
After Thursday evening’s practice, he planned to return to the team hotel, where his mom, Janice Cunningham, who raised him and his brother Rodney while working two jobs, would join him for dinner. He said she’ll be at the game, as will his dad and scores of others from his past.
“Dayton’s a special place to me,” he said. “It’s where I grew up and went to school. It’s where I got the values I have. Who I am and how I coach has a lot to do with coming from back here.”
In 22 years as a head coach at IUPUI and Georgia State, Hunter’s teams have gone 364-267, but in addition to being one of the more successful coaches in the college game, he’s also one of the more colorful, quotable and likable.
And certainly one of the more socially conscious.
While many around here have long known what Run Hunter is about, the rest of the nation learned it during the NCAA Tournament last March when he and his son orchestrated some indelible moments.
When Georgia State edged Georgia Southern by two points to win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, Hunter celebrated on the court so much with R.J. — who had made the decisive two free throws for the Panthers with 21 seconds left — that he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon and had to be helped off the court.
Coaching from a rolling office stool on the sidelines of the Panthers’ NCAA Tournament opener, Hunter became so animated when R.J. drained a deep, deep three at the buzzer to upset third-seeded Baylor that he tipped over and flew belly-first onto the court.
The video, soon set to a James Brown remix, became a YouTube sensation.
And then two days later, after his team was finally knocked out of the tournament by Xavier, he provided one of the more touching moments you’ll see on a postgame dais.
Sitting next to R.J., who had played his last game for his dad and would now jump to the NBA, Hunter reached over and patted his son’s head and began to weep.
“I love this kid, man,” he said quietly through his tears. “I love him.”
Good role models
He said it was during his sophomore season at Miami — following a game against Bowling Green — that he had a conversation that forever changed his life’s path.
“Jerry Pierson was my coach and after the game we had a long talk,” Hunter recalled. “He said I might want to consider coaching as a career. I had never thought about it before, but after that I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
“I had never known African-Americans could be head coaches, but then I saw two guys:
“Charlie Coles was the head coach at Central Michigan at the time and he had played at Miami and I thought that was really cool. I really watched him and then there was John Thompson at Georgetown, and a lot of the stuff he did, we do now.
“Seeing those two guys, I said to myself: ‘Hey, I can do this, too.’ ”
After being an assistant at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Miami, Hunter spent 17 years at IUPUI and is now in his fifth at Georgia State. Not only has he done it, but he’s president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC).
Along the way he guided IUPUI from NAIA status to an NCAA Division I program that made the tournament in 2003. He has been named coach of the year by both the Mid-Continent Conference during his IUPUI days and the Sunbelt Conference now with Georgia State.
When it came time for R.J., who went to high school in Indianapolis, to choose a college, he and his dad debated what he should do. He was a big-time recruit and had always wanted to play in the Big Ten, but he also had the chance to play for his dad at Georgia State.
“I really researched it,” Hunter said. “I talked to guys like Ray McCallum, Homer Drew and a lot of times to the Creighton coach, Greg McDermott. They all had coached their sons and it had been good. But I also talked to coaches like Tubby Smith (who coached two of his sons) who said, ‘Don’t do it!’
“We finally made the decision as a whole family.”
Although his 6-foot-5 son was the star of the team and the two-time Sun Belt Conference player of the year, Hunter said “the path wasn’t always easy. It’s extremely hard to coach your kid when he’s a great player. The expectations are so high and during that time you can never just be Dad.
“That’s why I think there was so much emotion — so many tears — in the NCAA Tournament. That was the only time I coached him that I really felt like I was a father.
“And now I could go on to the Final Four or even win the national championship, but nothing will ever surpass that because I did it with my child. It’s something neither of us will ever forget.”
Shoe project a success
Since the NCAA Tournament, Harper said his plate has been “full in a good way.”
R.J. — whose godfather, by the way, is Ron Harper — was taken in the first round, the 28th pick overall, by the Celtics.
“Not only did he go to a storied franchise, but he’s playing for my friend,” Hunter said of Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who shared the Indianapolis college stage with Hunter when he was at Butler.
Then a couple of months ago, daughter Jasmine, who is finishing up her PhD in clinical psychology in Chicago, got married.
There are also his duties as NABC president and the task of sculpting his new talented but young team (the Panthers are 3-2 with close road losses to Ole Miss and Alabama-Birmingham, both NCAA Tournament teams last year) and his continuing rehab from the Achilles rupture. He said he’s back to 65 percent of his old self.
Because of all that, he said this was the first summer in the past eight he did not travel around the world giving out shoes to the needy as part of the Samaritan’s Feet charity.
Back in 2008 he coached a game in his bare feet to draw attention to the over 300 million children around the world who have no shoes. His grassroots effort that year collected 230,000 pairs of shoes, which he distributed in Nigeria and Cameroon.
Since then the project has taken off and he said he’s made several trips to Africa, South America and the Caribbean delivering shoes. Next July he’s taking his basketball team to Rio de Janeiro just before the Olympics to deliver 50,000 pairs of shoes.
“We’ve now given out 8 1/2 million pairs of shoes,” he said. “Now we have a company that makes our own shoes. You can buy them on line for $10 (samaritansfeet.org) rather than out and paying $150 for (name brand athletic shoes) and we’ll deliver them.
“When I’m done coaching I’ll probably do this full time. It’s a real passion of mine.
“I just believe no child should wake up each morning without a pair of shoes to wear.”
As Dayton sportsmen go, few are ambassadors for their fellow man like Ron Hunter.
No wonder so many folks wanted to go out tonight and welcome him back home.