R.J. Hunter makes transition from coach's son to courted NBA prospect
The world’s oldest multi-purpose athletic building hides near the intersection of Boston’s Fenway, Back Bay and South End neighborhoods, tucked in between Huntington and Massachusetts Avenues. Currently home to Northeastern University’s hockey teams and men’s basketball squad, Matthews Arena originally opened as Boston Arena in 1910. It’s where, in 1924, the Boston Bruins played their first NHL contest. In 1946, the arena played host to the Boston Celtics’ first NBA game.
In 2013, an unproven freshman sharpshooter named R.J. Hunter led the visiting Georgia State Panthers into Matthews and handed Northeastern, previously 8-0 in Colonial Athletic Association conference play, their first loss.
Hunter struggled at the onset. An endless sea of black tarp covers the upper bowl of the cavernous hockey arena and can pour through the glass backboards, playing mind games with opposing shooters. The Indianapolis product shot just 1-for-4 with a turnover throughout the first 15 minutes of play. With the Panthers trailing by 11 shortly after the media timeout, R.J.’s father, Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter, beckoned for his youngest child to hustle over to the sidelines.
“I told him if he didn’t start hitting shots I was going to put his ass up for adoption,” Hunter joked after the game.
R.J. responded with a three-pointer with 3:43 remaining in the half. He drained another 30 seconds later. Then two free throws. And a jumper on the baseline. R.J. would hit three more triples in the second half, finishing with a game-high 27 points and adding five assists and four rebounds.
“He was getting after me and that pissed me off,” R.J. recently told SI.com. “He did that a lot my freshman year. I would try and come out and try to feel the game out. He wasn’t having that. He’d piss me off and I’d go out and score 10 straight. He knew that was the button to press.”
R.J.’s freshman season wasn’t the first time his father made him fume. When R.J. was 11, Ron took a night off from his head coaching post at IUPUI, which he held for 17 seasons before venturing south to Georgia State, to attend R.J.’s coach-pitch Little League Baseball game. Ron lobbed underhand moon balls to the other kids. He fired fastballs as hard as he could at R.J.
As the game progressed, the youngsters were allowed to take the mound. As R.J. stepped to the hill, Ron assumed position behind the plate. “I felt like I was throwing all strikes, I was giving them everything and he was calling all balls,” R.J. said. “I’m watching them go right down the middle and he’s like, ‘Nope. Ball!’ I started crying.”
They sat in agonizing silence in the car ride home. “I didn’t enjoy that feeling,” Ron said. R.J. never played organized baseball again. “You’re thinking you’re doing something out of love, but what you’re really doing is destroying your relationship.”
Ron flashed back to the night when R.J. called him to commit to Georgia State. Just days earlier, a fellow college coach had told Ron the traumatic story of coaching his son, how the tenuous relationship on the court spilled into the household and tore his family apart.
Hunter dialed R.J.’s godfather, Ray McCallum Sr., a close friend who coached his own son at Detroit Mercy. The two coaches first met when McCallum played at Ball State in the early 1980’s as Hunter attended Miami (Ohio). The relationship grew when McCallum returned to Ball State as head coach while Hunter was just over 60 miles down I-69 at IUPUI.
At the time, McCallum was preparing for his son, Ray Jr.’s, junior season at Detroit. How had the father-son duo managed to coexist, win the Horizon League title and earn an NCAA Tournament berth that previous season?
“You’ve got the family and the love,” McCallum told Hunter. “I just talked to him about how special it would be.” There were other calls, to Greg McDermott at Creighton among others.
Now preparing for the NBA Draft, it’s no coincidence R.J. jumps on the phone to call as many of the league’s players as he can to get advice. McCallum Jr. has been a close friend since they grew up together in Indiana. R.J. has dialed Indiana Pacers point guard George Hill, who was a star under Ron at IUPUI. Doug McDermott, who’s trying to overcome a rocky rookie season at the end of the Chicago Bulls’ bench, has worked out with Hunter and other Priority Sports rookie prospects in Chicago, providing nuggets of wisdom in between sessions.
For McCallum Jr., now with the Sacramento Kings, it feels like just yesterday he visited the Hunter household in Atlanta after a game against the Hawks on March 9, like R.J.’s rise up draft boards has come in the blink of an eye.
The height of R.J.'s rise came when his 35-foot bomb vanquished Baylor in the NCAA Tournament, a shot that erased GSU’s postseason woes—which started with being banned from the CAA Tournament during R.J’s freshman season due to an impending move to the Sun Belt and collapsing at the hands of Louisiana-Lafayette and Elfrid Payton in the Sun Belt title game a year ago.
“Part of me still wonders if we had played in [the CAA] Tournament, and had that experience…” Ron said, his voice trailing off as he remembers Georgia State squandering a nine-point lead over the Ragin’ Cajuns with 3:02 remaining.
The Hunters have come a long way from Ron yelling at R.J. to get off the floor during his first college practice and R.J. seriously consider transferring.
R.J. has shifted his focus towards following the footsteps of Payton, defying skeptics and making an instant NBA impact out of the Sun Belt. To follow suit, Hunter will have to prove last season’s shooting slump was a mirage and show he can develop into a playmaker as well.
“He went from my archrival to my best friend by doing that,” Hunter said. “You just have to keep your head down and focus on the bigger picture.”