When Chris Hunter was growing up, he couldn’t avoid playing the game he loved even if he tried.
Whether it was the Nerf basketball rim that hung from his bedroom door or the milk carton with the bottom cut-out that dangled from a tree in the front yard, Chris and his father, Edmond Hunter, “were always shooting something.”
“Chris and my husband would always have one of those little nerf basketball things that hung over the door,” said Brenda Hunter, Chris’ mother. “He went through about five or six of them. He would get on the bed and jump off and dunk.”
Chris didn’t even have a real basketball hoop until a storm hit his Gary, Ind. neighborhood and wiped out the tree, which had served as his backboard for years.
“A storm came through and knocked the tree down,” Edmond said. “So we had to get something else.”
With a bark-less backboard at his disposal, Chris developed into one of Indiana’s top big men and will bring his 6-foot-11, 210-pound frame to Crisler Arena this fall. Hunter averaged 22.7 points and 11 rebounds per game during his senior season at Gary West Side High School and led his team to its first-ever Indiana Class 4A State Championship.
“It was a great run for us,” Hunter said. “It showed me how to be a winner and how to succeed as a team. It takes a total team effort. In the past we had more talent, but we were more of a team and that’s why we won.”
Hunter’s high school coach John Boyd said that his squad was not having success until he told Chris that he had to be more aggressive and that they could not win without big performances from him down the stretch.
“We had to make sure he understood, ‘You’re our number one option, and if you’re not ready to play, we’re going to lose,’ ” Boyd said.
“He answered the call. When he sees things have gotten out of hand, he has no problem saying, ‘Give me the ball.’ He’s very aggressive and when he gets that mean streak in him, he’s going to be a dominant force.”
Hunter’s success and growth during his senior season made his stock increase dramatically. HoopScoop analyst Clark Francis said that Hunter had a tough summer after his junior season, which dropped him out of HoopScoop’s top 100 prospects.
“The whole chemistry of his AAU team was terrible, and he was just really bad,” Francis said. “They didn’t play very well. I don’t know if it was just chemistry of the team, jealousy of the players, too many stars, but it was an ugly team.”
Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said that Hunter wasn’t healthy last summer and that most people saw him at a time when he wasn’t full strength. Seeing his recruit lead his team to a championship was all he needed.
“We love the fact that he comes from a high school that won the state championship and comes from a winning environment,” Amaker said. “All those things are a huge plus for a team like ours at the stage that we’re at. He can have a tremendous impact.”
Hunter’s parents saw their son mature and change during last season’s title run. When referees would make calls against him because of his size – something that characterized his high school career – he wouldn’t lose his focus.
“I saw him get control,” Edmond said. “You could tell when things would go wrong, he would stop and pull everyone to the center of the court and conduct a discussion right there. In the sectionals (of the state tournament), they were behind, but he told the team, ‘We’re going to be cutting these nets down.’ He was determined and it rubbed off on the other guys.”
“(Coach Boyd) told me to be more active and take a leadership role on the team,” Chris said. “I tried to help everyone out and show them what they were doing wrong. It helped that they could count on me in any situation.”
A tragedy rocked Chris’ life in 1999 when his sister, Kimberly, passed away with Hodgkin’s disease while she was attending Ball State. They discovered the disease when she was 16 and thought that it was under control, but it resurfaced and there was nothing they could do to stop it.
“(Chris and Kimberly) were really close, and although he kept a lot of it in, (her death made him) rededicate himself to trying to do something with himself,” Edmond said. “He dedicated himself to doing well for her and himself.”
“It was hard for me and something that I had to deal with,” Chris said. “It was something that was very unexpected. Basketball helped me take my mind away from it.”
Not only did Hunter rededicate himself to basketball, but Kimberly’s death also made him pursue success in the classroom. He received the Arthur L. Trester Mental Attitude Award for class 4A which is presented annually to the senior in each classification who best displays mental attitude, scholarship, leadership and athletic ability.
“Chris is an extremely gifted person, athletically as well as academically,” Boyd said. “He’s a thinker, a guy that understands the game.”
With Georgia Tech, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Seton Hall all interested in Hunter’s services, Michigan needed an edge, and it was Amaker who sealed the deal for the Wolverines.
“(Amaker) came in and just killed the home visit,” Boyd said. “Right now, his home visit ranks No. 1. He’s so down to earth and so sincere. I can look through a guy who is selling the car salesman bit. He put Chris in his first recruiting class and made him a marquee player.”
Hunter joins blue-chip recruits point guard Daniel Horton and forward Lester Abram to form what should be a dynamite nucleus of Amaker’s first recruiting class at Michigan. But while Horton and Abram have received more accolades, Francis sees Hunter as the most prepared for next season.
“He’s got a chance to be an impact player from day one,” Francis said. “He’s the one guy who I think can step in and start and be good enough to help him go to the next level.
“He’s very athletic, he can block shots, he’s explosive inside and he can rebound. He can score away from the basket some, too.”
The graduation of center Chris Young has left the Wolverines with a gaping hole in the post and no proven performers to fill it. Hunter will have every opportunity to earn the starting spot at center, as he will be the only Wolverine taller than 6-foot-9.
“I would be less than honest if I said we weren’t counting on a level of contribution from Chris,” Amaker said. “It’s one of the reasons he wanted to be here. He wanted to provide that. We aren’t very deep or experienced on the front line, and he recognizes the opportunity that’s in front of him.”
Boyd praised Hunter’s decision-making and defensive ability but said that he can be more aggressive and physical on the defensive end of the floor. Offensively, Boyd considers it crucial that Hunter touches the ball once during each possession.
“I think he’s going to be someone who is going to be very hard to stop,” Boyd said. “I don’t think a big guy can guard him one-on-one. No one could in high school. He’s got to do what he wanted to do.”
What does Hunter want to do now that he’s a Wolverine? “I just hope to bring this program back to first class,” Hunter said.
Now that’s music to Amaker’s ears.