RJ Hunter’s horrific knee injury, which should have ended his career in basketball, instead given him a newfound appreciation for everything in his life, both on and off the court. Hunter’s career was suddenly ended down in Australia about two years ago, but he is again healed, playing again, and most importantly, functioning with a clear and present perspective.
“It’s going great,” said Hunter, a 6-5, 185-pound shooting guard who officially signed with the Hornets on Sept. 29. “The guys have welcomed me in ever since pre-training camp workouts began. Super-solid down-to-earth vibe in the locker room. Guys are just coming to work. That’s all you can real ask for from an NBA team.”
The former 28th overall pick’s journey to Charlotte has not been simple or routine. Back in 2010, Terry Rozier, a Boston Celtics first-round selection, and former Georgia State Panther Hunter are set to make their respective professional debuts. In his 36 NBA games as a rookie, Hunter averaged 2.7 points. He also made a few visits to the Maine Red Claws of the G League.
The Celtics’ roster was squeezed by a huge influx of players acquired at the 2016 NBA Draft, which forced the team to unexpectedly dismiss Hunter on the last day of training camp that season. Hunter, who was forced to pursue a different career route, spent a few years bouncing around the NBA and G League until signing a two-way contract with the Celtics in January 2019. After that, he played basketball for two clubs in Turkey, Türk Telekom and Galatasaray, followed by a 10-game run with the College Park Skyhawks of the G League in early 2020.
Most recently, he has agreed to play for the Sydney Kings, one of Australia’s top NBL teams. On January 13, 2022, Hunter ruptured his left patellar tendon, the ligament that connects the bottom of the kneecap to the top of the tibia, only minutes into an away game against the Illawarra Hawks. A patellar tendon rupture is a somewhat unusual injury in basketball (Andre Roberson, Jeremy Lin, and Victor Oladipo have all suffered from it), and the healing process is often drawn out and difficult.
“I split my knee in half,” Hunter recalled. “It was my first basketball injury. That was difficult for me, but just so needed. Just the space away from the game, the things I needed to appreciate, the things I was taking for granted. I needed the whole perspective. I don’t take any of these days for granted. I had to dig deep and find out what I play this game for, my why and then just go from there. I used to come into these early practices like, ‘Ahhh, let’s get this over with.’ Now, I realize this can be taken from you in any moment.”
The Kings won their first NBL Championship since 2005 without Hunter, who immediately left for the United States and watched from afar as the Kings accomplished this feat. The unplanned break was a gift in disguise for Hunter, whose life had been so focused to basketball for as long as he could remember. It allowed Hunter to see the world outside sports.
“Not even just me, but a lot of athletes, we pour a lot into this – physically, emotionally, spiritually, however you look at it,” he explained. “We don’t have a lot of time left over for other things. Giving myself other things and room to have other interests – I started my own clothing brand called Cosmic. Learning a lot, going to different places, traveling, learning about different cultures, just living life for a year without having to be somewhere, be on schedule, putting pressure on myself. I would hate for an athlete to have to go through an injury, but I think the time of reflection and space away from the craft is necessary.”
It may take Hunter some time to get back into the groove given the severity of his injuries and the length of time since his last game. The soon-to-be 30-year-old averaged 12.0 points on 43.7% shooting (169-of-387) and 37.4% from 3-point range (99-of-265) during 48 games in the Turkish Basketball Super League between 2019 and 21. He has marks of 3.0 points over 45 career NBA appearances and 18.0 points in 136 G League outings.
Hunter and Rozier were reunited when Hunter signed with the Hornets. These two guys were thrown into a similar predicament in Boston together, but their professional paths have diverged. When questioned about his connection with Rozier, Hunter’s pleasure and joy were immediately palpable.
“I love Terry as a friend,” he said with a gleaming smile. “I love being around him. I love who he is as a person, what he’s fought through to get here. I told him the other day, ‘Bro, your growth and development is mind-blowing as a person, as a player, as a leader.’ I love seeing Terry succeed. He’s a genuine dude, genuine person, one of my good friends. Being around him gives me a good vibe.”
Added Rozier, “RJ’s my guy. I’ve been supporting him through all these years. I got with him this summer and it was right around when we heard the news that he was going to be with the Charlotte Hornets. I was excited. It’s good to see a friend keep working and have that bounce-back. No matter what he went through, he can still play and do what he loves.”
For those who are curious, Hunter says he is often reminded of the infamous last-second 3-pointer he made in the Round of 64 of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, which helped the No. 14 seed Panthers shock No. 3 seed Baylor 57-56. The response of Ron Hunter, the head coach of Georgia State, and RJ’s father, added to the emotion of the occasion. Ron was watching the ball fly through the hoop when he immediately slid off his seat and into the floor. He had to coach from a stool after injuring his Achilles while celebrating the team’s victory in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
“We knew it was a big moment, but we didn’t think it’d stick around,” said Hunter. “It comes back every year during the Tournament. I remember how depressed my dad was when he tore his Achilles. I told him how that was a wild setup for that moment. It’s kind of crazy when I go up to pretty much anybody in the league, start talking and they’re like, ‘Your dad, you hit the shot, so on and so forth.’ For that to still be a thing, it’s just crazy. My dad’s a long-time college coach, so all that One Shining Moment stuff, I was obsessed with it growing up.”
In his basketball career, Hunter has faced a number of difficult situations, including the Celtics cutting him go soon, moving around a lot, and suffering a patellar tendon injury. But there isn’t any animosity, hatred, or questioning of any kind. Instead, the difficulties and obstacles have helped RJ Hunter learn important life skills that he will use wherever the game leads him next.
“I was looking at the [Boston] situation like I had been done wrong and had a victim mentality rather than it’s just a business,” he said. “Wrong place, wrong time, so where can I move from here? I think that hurt me for a couple years. It was hard for me to get over that, but once I did, it was pretty much downhill. This journey has been crazy, but I think it’s been like that, so I can appreciate every step without knowing how this is going to go in any way.”