It was a big night for Georgia State basketball, a program that hasn’t known many big nights. The coach went shoeless. His team wore orange. There was a grass-roots attempt to pack the GSU Sports Arena, which even the showman Lefty Driesell couldn’t do on a regular basis, and the result, if not quite a full house, was the fullest GSU had known since December 2008, when Florida State was the guest.
And halfway through, athletic director Cheryl Levick was ready to pull the plug — at least on the orange shirts. “There were so many distractions,” she said. “I wanted to say, ‘Get rid of those orange jerseys and get back in your white.’ ”
At halftime, see, Georgia State was tied with North Carolina Wilmington. With 10:14 left, the game was still even. Three minutes later, it wasn’t. The Panthers had surged ahead by 10 points and would win by 14, their 12th victory in the past 13 games. All this because of one woman’s faith in one coach.
“I believe in Ron Hunter,” Levick said. “I believe in that man. He’s a great fit for Georgia State.”
The crowd of 2,698 — capacity is 3,400 — shocked the team folks came to see. “The whole atmosphere in the gym was totally different,” said senior guard James Fields, who’s Georgia State’s captain and whom Hunter considers his most important player. “We’re used to it on the road; we’re not used to it at home … It gave me chills.”
For 30 minutes, it was possible to wonder if the boisterous gathering was going to undo the home side. Said Hunter: “These kids have never played before that big a crowd before.”
At halftime the coach had what he called “a come-to-Jesus moment” with his captain — “Though I think Jesus got in him more than me,” Hunter said — and Fields responded with 16 second-half points. At the end the throng was roaring for the Panthers, one of those clip-and-save moments in Georgia State athletic annals.
“This is a new culture for them,” Levick said, meaning the 1,611 students in attendance. “To get here and stand the whole game and scream and support the team. This is exactly what I wanted for them.”
Even those among us who believed Hunter was a good hire couldn’t have known something so good would happen so fast. “As new as it is for Georgia State,” Hunter said, “it’s new for me also. It’s humbling. I was walking across campus today, and the energy was unbelievable … We’ve given the institution an electric shock.”
Driving on Decatur Street before noon Thursday, a jaded correspondent saw something new: A handful of tents pitched outside the Sports Arena, temporary housing for folks who wanted prime position to watch the Panthers play. (A handmade sign read, “Welcome to Hunterville.”) For more than 50 years it has been possible to live in Atlanta and pay no attention to GSU basketball. Ten months on the job, Hunter has taken this city by the lapels and is shaking us for all he’s worth.
Afterward the man himself seemed almost shaken. He went without footwear and his team wore orange to promote the charity Samaritan’s Feet, for which Hunter has become a primary spokesman. “This game was a little more emotional to me because I know what it means,” he said. “I did a terrible job coaching, probably the worst job I’ve done since I’ve been here.”
But it all worked out. His team’s defensive pressure — the Panthers scored 26 points off 18 Wilmington turnovers — kept the game close and then rendered it not close at all. Remember that Hunter is working mostly with players inherited from Rod Barnes, but you wouldn’t know it to watch them now.
Said Buzz Peterson, Wilmington’s coach: “Ron’s got these guys playing with a lot more confidence.”
Said Hunter: “I believed it could happen. I might not have been the first choice, but I believe I was the right choice.”
Levick was standing nearby. Someone asked if Hunter had indeed been her first choice. “Yes,” she said, and how can you not be swayed by a guy big enough to make a shocking admission?
“I’m a man’s man,” Hunter said of his preparation for this shoeless night, “but I got a pedicure. And it felt good.”