Georgia State's tourney run turns into one heck of a father-son trip
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — You’d have never had a clue based on the way an inconsolable R.J. Hunter bear-hugged his dad as he walked off the court with 19 seconds left in Georgia State’s 75-67 loss to Xavier on Saturday, but there was a time not too long ago when the Panthers junior wasn’t even positive he’d made the right decision when he followed his father from Indianapolis to Atlanta to embark on his college career.
In fact, Ron Hunter left his job at IUPUI to take the Georgia State coaching position in March of 2011 in part because he suspected his son wasn’t exactly sold on the idea of playing for his old man — and he was positive R.J. wasn’t going to do it in his own hometown.
“I knew he would never play for me there,” the elder Hunter said in a quiet, almost serene Georgia State locker room long after the 14th-seeded Panthers’ Cinderella story ended in the Round of 32 against the No. 6 seed Musketeers.
“I knew I had to make some type of move at that time to have a chance to coach him, because he wanted to leave home and do those kinds of things so he could kind of spread his wings. I thought it was more 60-40 that he was going to go somewhere else, but hey, it worked out.”
Even with R.J.’s commitment solidified, however, the concept of playing for pops took a bit of getting used to after the 6-foot-5 shooting guard arrived on campus in 2012. And despite posting a double-double against Duke in his first college game and leading the Panthers in scoring as a freshman, R.J. still sometimes found that he couldn’t help but wonder: Would I have been better off at Iowa or Virginia Tech or Wake Forest than here?
“Early in college I had those doubts, but I was dead wrong,” R.J. said during a moment of reflection in the Panthers locker room after in the season-ending loss. “I was dead wrong about all of it. Fortunately, I had older teammates when I was a freshman, and when you’re going through that, you need those kind of guys to take care of you. They’re like your brothers, and they really helped me get through it.”
There was also a learning curve for Ron Hunter that came with coaching his son. It’s one thing to play coach in the backyard and then be dad at the dinner table 10 minutes later, but another thing altogether to try to be both at the same time at college basketball’s highest level.
“It was later in his freshman year when I realized, ‘Hey, he’s a pretty good player,’” Hunter said. “But like everything, it’s a process. It’s a process for your team to get better and it’s a process to coach your kid.”
Fortunately, everything came together perfectly this week in Jacksonville, where father and son got to take the ride of a lifetime together, even if it only lasted three days.
It started on Thursday, when R.J. scored 12 points, including a game-winning 3 that knocked Dad off his stool, during a 13-0 run over the final three minutes of Georgia State’s stunning upset of No. 3 seed Baylor, and it ended with Hunter pouring in 20 more points Saturday against a Xavier team that virtually had to do everything right to win.
The Musketeers shot 67.6 percent from the floor to advance to Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup in Los Angeles against Arizona. That included a 13-of-16 mark in the second half that prompted R.J. Hunter to remark to teammates in the locker room that he “doesn’t even shoot like that in 2K.”
Georgia State never relented, though, and shot 63.6 percent in the second half and 56.5 percent for the game, itself — and continued to press until Hunter called off his defense with eight seconds to go and the team down by eight.
As he left the court, a visibly shaken Hunter offered a wave of appreciation to the Georgia State fans as a despondent R.J. walked alongside him, and after retreating to the locker room for a few moments to collect his thoughts, Hunter did his best to verbalize what the experience meant to him and his team — and most importantly, his family — before his emotions ended up saying far more than his words ever could have.
“I'll be honest with you, (this has been) the greatest week of my life — the greatest time I've ever had to be a father,” Hunter said after wheeling up to the podium one last time.
As he continued to praise his team and reflect on what the gutsy Sun Belt champs had accomplished, Hunter’s eyes began to well up again, and the words simply stopped coming out.
“I told them not to be sad,” he continued. “We helped Georgia State out. Georgia State people know about Georgia State. We'll be back. We're going to get some young guys, but it's not even about that right now. I just -- as a coach, (it’s been) the best time of my life, but as a father…”
Next came full-on tears, as R.J. — predictably red-eyed, himself — removed the white towel that was draped around his neck and handed it to a father completely overcome with the emotion of the moment.
“I love this kid, man,” Hunter eventually said, turning to R.J. “I love you.”
After R.J. left the podium, Ron continued to praise his son. It was obvious he couldn’t put his mind anywhere else, and frankly, it was tough to blame him. It’s part of the reason he’s become so beloved by basketball fans across the country so fast.
“I said it yesterday, man, if you're a dad, just go home and hug your kid,” Hunter said. “This is a special thing. The one thing that I got from this is that you don't take these things for granted. I don't know if we'll ever get a chance to do that again. The next day isn't promised to you.
“I've said it before, he's a really, really good player, but guys, he is a much better son, and that's the fun part,” Hunter continued. “I just want to enjoy it, and I did. I wanted to win games here, and we were able to win one and not the second one. But the second goal was — and I attained it — I wanted to be (Dad) this week.
“I wanted to coach my kid and be a dad, and I was a dad. I accomplished that.”
Now the only question that remains to be answered is whether R.J., a potential first-round pick in this year’s draft, will return for one last season under his dad or forgo his senior year for a shot at the NBA.
“I have no idea (what I’m going to do), but I just can't wait to sit down and talk about this with my family and just talk about the season,” R.J. said. “Nothing else is on my mind, man. This is history, and like I said, I can't wait to just go to sleep and wake up without any texts about being here, being there. I’m excited to just reflect on this.”
And regardless of whether Hunter tries his hand in the pros or signs up for one more go-around with Coach Dad, it’ll be the right decision — just like the one that brought him to Georgia State in the first place.
“It turned out to be a dream,” R.J. Hunter said of the choice to play for his father. “It’s been a fairy tale and if I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing. I have no regrets about this, and it’s been the best three years of my life so far.”