Only 2.7 seconds remained on the clock when Georgia State junior guard R.J. Hunter nailed a three-pointer to upset the third-seeded Baylor Bears in the 2015 NCAA tournament. In the midst of the ensuing madness, all eyes fell on R.J.'s father, coach Ron Hunter. He had literally fallen out of his seat.
Ron sat on a rolling stool to coach the 14th-seeded Panthers against Baylor, wheeling up and down the sideline because he had torn his Achilles tendon four days earlier — while celebrating the conference tournament title that sent Georgia State to the Big Dance for the first time since 2001.
His son's 30-footer against Baylor opened the book on one of the best Cinderella stories of the tournament, and it was the perfect culmination of a relationship 21 years in the making. After learning to balance basketball and family, the Hunters had combined to produce one of the biggest wins in Georgia State history. It was a father-son moment to cherish.
A HEAD FOR HOOPS
Ron Hunter made an early bid for his son to play hoops: When R.J. arrived home from the hospital, dad placed a Nerf basketball in his newborn's crib. But Ron, who had begun his career as a college coaching assistant six years before R.J. was born, never coached any of his son's teams and tried to refrain from being pushy.
"I never wanted to pressure my son into playing, so I was always just dad," Ron says. "I let him enjoy it. That was hard, but I thought he would love the game more if other people coached him."
It didn't take long for R.J. to develop a passion for the game. By his fourth birthday, not only was he watching basketball constantly, but it was also quickly becoming apparent that he was talented. Even as a kindergartener barely strong enough to get the ball to the rim, he found ways to sink jump shots.
During his son's AAU career, Ron, who had become the head coach at IUPUI in Indianapolis, remained willing to help in any way possible. And as R.J. grew into his 6'6" frame, he trusted his father's guidance. R.J. listened to the advice his dad gave him when the duo spent time together, often trying to mimic Reggie Miller's late-game heroics — the hometown Pacers' star was a favorite of R.J.'s — or watching film.
"We always watched with a coach's perspective," says Ron. "I would ask why a coach took a player out or why a team was in a certain defense. We spent more time with stuff like that than we did on his skills because I wanted him to be cerebral."
By the time R.J. was a junior at Pike High School in Indianapolis, he was a three-star basketball recruit with a developed skill set and high basketball IQ. But Ron, who left IUPUI for Georgia State that March, never recruited his son. One of his assistants, however, did.
"The first time I came on a visit [to Georgia State], the team accepted me and took me in, so I thought it was the right place for me to be," says R.J., who committed that May. "The fact that my dad was the coach was the main part [of my decision], but I liked the kids here. If I had been at a different school where people were jealous about me being the coach's kid, then it would have been different."
At first the Hunters struggled to navigate the newest development in their relationship. "People think it's easier when he's your best player, but it's definitely not," says Hunter of R.J., who led the team in scoring for three straight years. "It's harder. The standards go up, and he had to set an example. There were times I'm pretty sure he wanted to give up, and it was harder for me as a dad."
But in a short time they figured out the balancing act, with Ron realizing how he could watch R.J. as a dad and a coach. "When we got it down pat, it came pretty easy," says R.J. "We've definitely gotten closer."
APART, BUT STILL TOGETHER
After Georgia State's Cinderella run ended — the Panthers lost to Xavier in the next round — R.J. decided to declare for the NBA draft. (He's projected to go in the late first round.) Though the decision means that he will no longer be playing for his dad, it means the Hunters will be able to go back to just being father and son, supporting each other's every move on and off the basketball court, no matter how practice goes each day.
"The postseason was unbelievable. It was so cool to see him coach in that environment," says R.J. "The momentum going forward is my favorite part, though. Our experience is something that will catapult this school for years to come."
Photos: Pouya Dianat for Sports Illustrated (portrait), Tommy Gilligan/USA Today Sports (RJ), Bill Frakes for Sports Illustrated (Ron)
Ron and R.J. Hunter: All in the Family
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