Georgia State guard R.J. Hunter watched the NBA Draft with about 60 friends and family members at an upscale sports bar in downtown Atlanta Thursday. Soon after the Celtics selected Hunter with the 28th pick, his father Ron, who is also Georgia State’s head coach, received a text message from Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
“It didn’t say congrats or welcome to Boston,” Ron Hunter said in a telephone interview Friday. “It said, ‘I told you I was gonna get your son one way or another.’ ”
The relationship between Stevens and the Hunters dates to when Stevens was an assistant coach at Butler and Ron was the head coach at nearby IUPUI. And as R.J. matured into a talented high school player, Stevens pursued him.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Wow, I’d better start really recruiting my son,’ ” Ron Hunter said.
When Ron Hunter used to nag R.J. about household tasks such as cleaning his room or taking out the trash, R.J. would sometimes joke that if he didn’t leave him alone, he would go play for Stevens. And Stevens, for his part, used to tell Amy Hunter that if the couple’s son ever got tired of the father, he was welcome on the Butler campus.
“I knew, like anybody else, that he was going to go play for his dad,” Stevens said.
In 2011, Ron Hunter was hired to coach Georgia State, and a year later R.J. enrolled there as a freshman. The skinny guard needed just three seasons to become the school’s all-time leading scorer.
The father and son crafted the most indelible memory of last season’s NCAA Tournament. With 2.6 seconds left in the 14th-seeded Panthers’ opening-round game against No. 3 Baylor, R.J. drained an impossibly deep 3-pointer to send his team to a 57-56 win.
Ron Hunter had torn his Achilles’ tendon celebrating the team’s victory in the Sun Belt Conference title game a week earlier, and he coached against Baylor while sitting on a stool with his leg in a cast. When R.J.’s shot fell, so did Ron. He leaped to celebrate and tumbled to the ground in a lovably clumsy moment of euphoria.
“Our lives have not been the same since he hit that shot,” Ron Hunter said. “It’s been unbelievable, and it changed the perception of this university. It’s been a blessing.”
Unlike many other lower-seeded stars who have their one shining moment, it was obvious that R.J. Hunter’s time in the spotlight would not be fleeting. He was widely considered a first-round pick, and he attacked the predraft process with great urgency.
Ron Hunter, meanwhile, found himself in a slightly uncomfortable situation. When teams are gathering intelligence about prospects, they almost always call the player’s college coach. But the player’s college coach is usually not his father.
“When a guy’s asking you about your son, I mean, what do you think I’m going to say?” Ron Hunter said with a chuckle. “It was kind of weird.”
Ron was careful to give R.J. space during the process. He did not attend the predraft combine in Chicago or travel to other cities where R.J. was working out. As the process unfolded, Ron identified three teams that he viewed as a perfect fit for his son — and one was the Celtics.
R.J. never came to Boston for a workout, but Ron said that given Stevens’s familiarity with him, he probably didn’t need to.
“As a father and a coach, I couldn’t be more proud to have him go play for Brad,” Ron Hunter said. “How many guys have their son drafted to go play for a friend?”
Added R.J.: “It’s crazy how life goes full circle sometimes and I’m about to be playing for [Stevens].”
Although Thursday was an exciting and memorable night for the family, Ron Hunter said R.J. was somewhat agitated that several teams passed on him in the first round. He is already using the perceived slight as motivation.
On Friday morning he told his father, “Dad, mark my words. I’m going to be on the all-rookie team.”
Then on Friday afternoon, Ron Hunter sent his son a text message to see if he wanted to go out for a celebratory lunch. But R.J. said he couldn’t because he was back in the gym, back taking jump shots.
“That’s R.J.,” Ron Hunter said. “That’s all he knows.”