By Blood and Basketball
The father-son, player-coach relationship between Ron and R.J. Hunter
You keep Ron Hunter quiet by either stripping tape across his mouth, or scaring the heck out of him. Hunter can chat up a mime, but on a car ride back to Atlanta with top assistant coach Darryl LaBarrie in summer 2011, the Georgia State basketball coach didn’t make a peep. They had just watched a recruit in a 6 a.m. workout, and LaBarrie was thinking the boss is ticked off because the kid wasn’t worth a 4 a.m. wake-up call.
That wasn’t it. Hunter was seriously scared, which did the work of a strip of tape. He had a conversation at the gym that morning with another college coach and the man’s words froze Hunter. The coach told the Georgia State basketball coach of the grave mistake he made by letting his son play basketball for him in college.
Hunter was numb with fright. He was thinking he might have a chance to coach his own son, R.J., at Georgia State and then this load of angst is dropped on his head. The coach told Hunter that coaching his son in college tore apart his family and cost him his marriage. The coach-dad and the player-son collided on the basketball floor, then at home, and it was a messy mix.
“He did all the talking and I listened and it didn’t scare me a little bit, it scared me a lot,” Hunter says of his conversation with the coach. “I can’t even remember the name of the recruit we had gone to see, but I do remember [the coach’s] tone of voice and the look in his eyes.”
R.J. Hunter was a star high school player in Indianapolis. He had offers from Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference schools and was considering Georgia State and playing for his father. It would be a good get for the program. R.J. is a slick 6-foot-5 guard, a centerpiece player, somebody so smoking good the Panthers could ride him to the NCAA tournament, maybe a couple of times.
But after talking to the coach whose life was turned upside down by father-son drama, being hoop daddy didn’t seem like such a keen idea. Hunter flashed back to the warnings from his own mother and father a few years earlier not to coach R.J. in college and allow him to find his own way.
Would it end in calamity like it did between Ron and R.J. in youth baseball?
Ron coached Ronald Jordan in baseball when he was nine years old and R.J. stormed off the field after one practice. He declared he would never play baseball again — and didn’t — because of how his father purposely pitched out of the strike zone to him to teach him to be a patient hitter. Ron is a micro-manager, a high-strung detail guy, a coach looking for an edge, and a worrier. His nine-year-old son wanted none of it.
And now, to hear another coach ring alarm bells, well, Hunter imagined the worst. He was already 0-1 with his kid on his team and now the stakes were higher. On the ride home with LaBarrie, Ron Hunter considered all that could go wrong and he fast-forwarded in his mind’s eye to a sideline collision.
Ron the Coach would bark at R.J. the Player about not getting over a screen. The kid would see it another way. He would see his loving father grinding on him. Maybe R.J. would say, “This isn’t my dad, this is some jerk.”
That was scary to Ron, who wants to be R.J.’s dad way worse than he wants to be R.J.’s coach.
“I thought to myself right then this idea of R.J. playing for me was not going to tear our family apart,” Ron Hunter says. “I have been married 26 years and that conversation made me pause. I started thinking about all the negatives and what could go wrong. I started thinking about R.J. The decision we had to make was always about R.J.
“I struggled with it.”
Hunter kept talking to coaches whose sons played for them. University of Detroit Mercy Coach Ray McCallum is one of Ron’s closest friends. His son, Ray McCallum Jr., played at Detroit and was a second round pick in the 2013 NBA draft. Creighton All-American Doug McDermott and his father, Greg, and Valparaiso’s Homer Drew (father/coach) and Bryce Drew have been used as oracles by the Hunters. R.J. talked to George Hill, the Indiana Pacers star, who played for Ron Hunter at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, which was Ron’s previous coaching stop. R.J. asked Hill what exactly it was like playing for a coach so vibrant he broke his shin stomping on the sideline. Both Hunters were gatherers of information.
“There are road maps out there and we use them,” Ron Hunter says. “I have probably talked to more father-son combinations than people can imagine. I want to hear everything. I probably haven’t researched anything as much as I have this the last couple years.”
Ron Hunter didn’t worry if he was over-equipped. He was taking nothing for granted.
The worrywart was sick some days trying to get what he wanted, which was for his son to play for him, while wondering if his selfishness would hurt R.J. His wife, Amy Hunter, had the same worry with what she called “the experiment.”
And so R.J. came to Georgia State and…. It didn’t start well, but it got better.
R.J. was one of the top freshmen in the country in 2012-13, averaging 17 points a game. His teammates respect him because he is not a daddy’s boy. There were no father-son confrontations that got out of control. There were no serious husband-wife confrontations with a teenager caught in the middle.
There were moments when Ron the Coach got in R.J.’s face on the practice floor and R.J. still saw Ron the Dad scolding him. There was no leftover resentment. Ron Hunter could be 24 hours removed from beating Duke, but nothing can make him more euphoric than how this “experiment” is working.
But, no, it didn’t start well.
The first practice of the 2012-13 season, Ron Hunter walked out on the Sports Arena floor and out of the corner of his eye he saw his son standing among his players. He started to say something really absurd.
“Hey R.J. get off the floor. Practice is starting.”
Hunter was so used to his kid being around his practices, and being underfoot, that his natural reaction was to get him to sideline safety.
“I caught myself just in time,” the coach says. “I said ‘Wait a minute, he’s part of this now.’”
And then they practiced together at the start of Ron’s second season as head basketball coach.
Two hours later, R.J. wasn’t so sure he wanted to be a part of it. He had a miserable practice that first day and his father was not happy with the high school habits his son hauled to Atlanta from Indianapolis. It was R.J.’s turn to be scared. He went home and called George Hill of the Pacers.
Relax, Hill told him. Take it in. Your old man knows the game. He will make you better.
It did get better for R.J. He would understand his dad as a coach. R.J. would also grow another layer of thick skin to deal with all the game planning against him. Devonte White, the junior guard, a good player who would have been the team’s go-to guy, shared the ball and spotlight with Hunter. That made it easier, too.
R.J. would still have some miserable practices, but instead of calling Hill after one of those, R.J. would call his mother.
“Burn his dinner,” R.J. would tell her.
Actually, there would be no dinner if there was a father-son dust-up at practice. Ron Hunter would come home from practice and feel the vibe. He knew R.J. had called home. Amy Hunter would say, “Did you yell at my son today?” Hunter might get leftovers that night or a simple declaration from his wife that she was not cooking.
“Oh, the two of them are being a little dramatic telling you that,” she says. And then she smiled and it was clear whose side she was on in most of these father-son skirmishes.
But Amy Hunter does not let R.J. get away with the negative body language, the head hanging, the throwing back of shoulders, the disgust over a bad call or missed shot. Trained as a child psychologist, she finds moments to tell her son what’s acceptable on the basketball court as far as attitude goes.
Along with helping Ron manage R.J., Amy has had to manage her attitude, too.
“I’m a sitting duck in the stands,” she says. “People look at you for a reaction when something happens to your son, and then your husband.”
Ron was the head coach, but it was not all his decision to offer R.J. a scholarship to Georgia State. Amy had a voice and she made sure she was heard. There would no extremes on either end of the continuum. Her husband was not going to treat R.J. better than other players, but he was also not going to hound R.J. just to show the other players he could be tough on his son.
“Seldom does it happen that the coach treats the son like a teacher’s pet,” Amy Hunter says. “It is the opposite way and I didn’t want Ron to treat him any differently, and that’s both ways, too hard, too soft.
“R.J. is handling it very well. He doesn’t have a problem separating dad and coach. He tells me, ‘Mom, one is business and one is personal. I know the difference.’”
R.J. and his mother are close, but so are father and son. Yet, there is a line not to be crossed when the uniform is on that reveals dad and son’s closeness.
“I can’t call him dad because it’s weird for everybody else, and if I call him coach it’s weird for me,” R.J. says. “It’s something in between, it’s ‘hey’ or ‘yo’ when I need to ask a question at practice.”
The son, after all, is a teammate, too, and there were times following grueling practices that R.J.’s “guys” would grumble about the head coach. Bryce Drew used to stay out on the basketball floor and take extra shots and wait for his teammates to shower and complain about Homer before going in for his shower.
R.J. thought about that strategy and said, “Sometimes I might join in and complain about the coach, too.”
LaBarrie said after R.J. committed the staff would have discussions about how it would handle another Hunter in its midst. Not only was this Ron’s son, this was going to be the best player on the team. They game planned and one of the vital decisions was to have assistant coach Everick Sullivan be R.J.’s savant. R.J. was prone to outbursts on the floor as a freshman and his body language could chafe the head coach. It was Sullivan who would intercept the teenager before his father got to him.
One day in a practice last July, however, R.J. lost his poise and the dad marched in first. R.J. tried to throw a sloppy no-look pass through two defenders and it was a turnover. R.J. hurled an F-bomb and the whites of Ron Hunter’s eyes became as wide as a satellite dish. R.J. was ordered off the floor.
A few minutes later, Hunter stood in front of his son and glared. R.J. hung his head. His mother wasn’t going to help him out of this one. The coach even said, “I’m going to tell his mother.”
“I’m not playing for myself anymore. I’m playing for my team, my dad and my school. I need to put that emotion aside,” R.J. says. “I have to watch myself. I don’t want my emotion to reflect negatively on my dad and my family. That’s a scary spotlight to have. I can’t do things like that.”
It is not as if R.J. is this fragile thing that requires a vest of bubble wrap. He’s a bi-racial child and in a public school all kinds of barbs can get lobbed your way from both sides of the aisle, white and black.
Hey dude, what’s with that hair?
R.J. is also a string bean. Skin and bones and a jump shot. He is an extraordinary shooter, so naturally there were bumps from defenders to upset his rhythm. He had to learn to be cold-blooded and shoot the ball and not fear the after-bump. You can’t be a puddin’ and deal with that.
R.J. is no puddin.’ He showed that his first college game. It was at Duke and, predictably, the chants were hurled out of the stands down on him.
“Daddy’s boy, Daddy’s boy.”
Ron Hunter was a mess right up until the first minute of that game. Ron the Dad overwhelmed Ron the Coach. He prepared his team, but couldn’t prepare himself if R.J. had a bad game in his debut.
R.J. looked terrific in an exhibition game so Hunter knew the Hall of Fame coach on the Duke sideline was going to game plan for R.J. Hunter flew his mother in for the game for emotional backup. His wife was there with 200 Georgia State fans. Ron Hunter was braced for a rough take-off.
And then, on the game’s first possession, in Georgia State’s 55 defense, there was a deflected Duke pass. R.J. had the ball and sailed in for a layup and his first college points.
“I was fine after that play,” Ron Hunter says, “for the rest of the season.”
R.J. had 14 points and 10 rebounds at Duke, his only double-double of the season. From that game on, Hunter and Hunter no longer seemed like an experiment or a risk. A scared coach became a proud dad.
Ray Glier is a former sports editor and now reports for The New York Times, USA TODAY, The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald and CNN, among others