Chris Hunter had just arrived in Poland, the next step in his career as a professional basketball player. He had taken the last flight of the night from Switzerland. He collected his bags and got out just before the airport doors were locked and the lights went out. The general manager of his new team was to come and pick him up. He didn’t show up.
Hunter couldn’t find anyone who spoke English, so he slipped into a cab to the nearest town. He found himself in a youth hostel, afraid to fall asleep because he had recently seen the horror movie “Hostel”. He went out, stumbled upon a wedding reception, ran over it, and found someone who spoke English who helped him connect with some of his new teammates. The general manager finally came to pick him up the next day.
It was the kind of logistical nightmare that would never happen with the Michigan men’s basketball program under Hunter’s watch.
Hunter, 36, is the program’s director of basketball operations. He is in his seventh season at his alma mater and fourth in his current role, with the goal of becoming a coach. He takes care of the program budget, planning, travel, meals, etc., all the external operations of a team with championship aspirations.
Another Michigan basketball member Jay Smith has coached at six different colleges over the past 34 years. He said of Hunter as director of basketball operations: “He’s the best I’ve been with.”
Hunter – from Gary, Indiana – played four years under Tommy Amaker in Michigan, playing 105 games with 27 starts. The 6-foot-11 center could block shots and shoot from the outside. Michigan reached two NIT Championships during Hunter’s career, winning one, but never made it to the NCAA tournament.
“We had talent, but we could never get over the bump,” Hunter said.
Undrafted, Hunter went abroad for a few years before joining the NBA’s G League (known at the time as the D League). He was an All Star in 2008-09, which earned him a spot with the Golden State Warriors the following season.
Hunter played in 60 games that year, including nine starts. The Warriors finished 30 games under .500 but had a promising rookie goaltender named Stephen Curry.
“You knew he was going to be good from that first season, but you didn’t know he was going to be this revolutionary type player, once in a generation,” said Hunter.
Hunter played four more seasons, mostly in the G League, never appearing in another NBA game. He wanted to become a coach, and then Michigan head coach John Beilein hired Hunter as director of player personnel in 2014, promoting him to his current role in 2017.
Beilein loved that Hunter graduated from Michigan Business School. “I knew he wouldn’t have problems with our budgets,” Beilein said. “No. 2, he was a former player and I thought he would relate to our players. He made the NBA without being drafted – he was a hard working guy. I imagined that with the time, when the right opportunity arose, he could also help us coach. ”
Juwan Howard, who replaced Beilein before last season, called Hunter “most important to our staff” because he is a brilliant basketball spirit who connects with players and other staff.
“He’s a great man,” said senior forward Isaiah Livers. “He has a wonderful wife, a wonderful family. They are all positive energy. Every time I see Chris there is no negative energy. I think that’s why I like to come back here every day, because we have a lot of guys like that, but especially Chris.
Hunter explains his job as “taking care of the field operations and allowing the coaches to mentor and recruit.” (Under NCAA rules, he’s not allowed to do that either.)
This means coordinating Wolverines bus and plane travel, training table meals, and shooting sessions, to name a few.
“All of these things our players might take for granted, but it’s essential for the wheels of this program to move effectively,” said assistant coach Saddi Washington.
“You don’t stand out in my job unless something goes wrong,” Hunter said.
Hunter deals with outside people interested in marketing opportunities and makes sure opposing teams have what they need when they visit the Crisler Center. In normal years, he would have a hand in the ticket office. And then there’s the assembly of Michigan’s non-conference schedule, a particularly difficult task this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michigan had to abandon their original schedule, especially after the NCAA delayed the start of the season by two weeks. The medical advice changed every week.
“Our administration wanted us to be as safe and conservative as possible,” Hunter said. Howard agreed with this thought. Michigan pulled out of a tournament in Connecticut and ultimately played its full non-conference schedule at home, with four of five opponents within a 3.5-hour drive of Ann Arbor.
“We gave up some good, exciting games to stay more local,” said Hunter. “We tried to secure these games from the start knowing that these teams are local and that we could probably coordinate all of the testing protocols that were ultimately put in place.”
Michigan ended up testing six days a week and asked their opponents to do the same before their visit to Crisler. (Under the contracts, any costs associated with the increased testing would be deducted from the amount Michigan was already paying the opponent for the game.)
When the state of North Carolina had to cancel its visit last week due to COVID concerns, Hunter found a replacement opponent, Toledo, on 48 hours’ notice. Michigan won that game, and against Penn State on Sunday in the Big Ten’s opener, to go 6-0.
Planning, and everything mentioned above, is what Hunter gets paid for. But he wants to be a coach, so he watches training and game films and participates in daily coaching meetings.
“Chris always has a voice in our meetings, and he can be the voice of reason, seeing things from a different perspective,” Howard said. “It’s not a ‘yes’. He will give his opinion. I love to hear his voice.
During matches, Hunter sits behind the coaches, follows fouls and timeouts, and shares his observations from time to time.
There were opportunities to access that first row of seats. In 2016, Beilein had to replace two assistant coaches. He walked out of the program and hired Washington and Billy Donlon. When Donlon and Jeff Meyer left the following season, Beilein caught Luke Yaklich and DeAndre Haynes from the state of Illinois. And last year Howard came over and made some changes.
Hunter was a candidate for some of these openings.
“These are hard to go through. But you want to stay the course. You have to make career and family decisions – a lot of things come into play, ”said Hunter, married with three children aged 8 and under.
“There were opportunities that I turned down and didn’t pursue just because I wanted to be here in Michigan and understand the value of being surrounded by good coaches and good people.”
Beilein said he hired with specific characteristics in mind. Donlon, for example, was Michigan’s de facto defensive coordinator and also worked with the guards. When he left, Beilein went with Yaklich for defense and Haynes to train the guards.
“Asking someone who has never trained before to take over your defense, and at 6’11 to take charge of your guards, is probably not the right idea,” Beilein said. “If Saddi had left, who worked mostly with our big men, I probably would have hired Chris.”
This can be a trap for someone in Hunter’s position: Coaches want to hire someone who has experience, but they can only gain the experience if they are hired. Fortunately for Hunter, he gained some coaching experience in Michigan. For the stretches during the aforementioned transitions, Hunter served as an interim assistant coach, going on the road to recruit and heading out to the field to coach.
This year, because many programs have limited the number of student managers in practice due to COVID-19 issues, the NCAA passed a rule allowing two non-coaching staff to be in the field to attend drills. . In Michigan, Hunter and video analyst Jaaron Simmons intervened.
Starting center Hunter Dickinson recently noted that it helps to have another great NBA athletic player on the court.
Beilein observed Hunter closely during his acting period and when Hunter worked in the Michigan camps.
“I saw he had the presence and the command to be a really good coach,” Beilein said. “Michigan really took advantage of his presence. Very soon he will be a full-time coach and a head coach as well. It is going in the right direction.
Howard said: “I see Chris at one point being a great coach, whenever his time comes.”
Washington, in his fifth season as Michigan assistant, agrees. “I can walk down the hall and poke my head in his office and get some thoughts and perspectives from him,” he said. “He is fair in his analysis.
If Washington got a head coach job, would he see Hunter as an assistant? “Absolutely. There is a certain level of comfort that I have with him. I trust him as a person, I trust his ability to develop players, I trust his ability to see the game.”
For now, Hunter will continue to fight, just like he did to get into the NBA, just like he did throughout his time in Michigan.
“I hope that this opportunity arises where I can be an assistant coach here and coach at the University of Michigan,” he said. “But it was great to be with these people and to learn.”
Hunter said working for Howard – another great man from a similar corner (Chicago) who had a long career in the NBA – has been “a dream come true.”
“Being at your alma mater is a special thing,” he said. “I appreciate the community of Ann Arbor. It’s a great place to raise my kids. I’m not lowering my nose at all on this.
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