University at Buffalo assistant basketball coach Lindsey Hunter remembers playing for the Chicago Bulls late in his career and showing up for a home game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I came to the game super early, and I heard the ball bouncing in the arena,” Hunter says. “All of the lights weren’t even on in the building. So instead of walking through the back, I walked through the front entrance to see, and Kobe Bryant was there shooting three hours before, before everybody.”
“We weren’t really good,” Hunter says of his Bulls. “We were a .500 team. In the locker room when all our guys showed up I said, ‘Man, we’re in trouble today.’ I said, ‘Kobe’s been here for four hours.’ He had like 20 in the first quarter. Playing with him and against him and seeing him put hours upon hours in on his days off, those are things that stick with you.”
Lessons like that are part of the unique perspective Hunter brings to the UB basketball program.
Hunter played 17 years in the NBA, from 1994 to 2010. He scored 7,956 points. He won two NBA championship rings, with the Lakers in 2002 and the Detroit Pistons in 2004. What’s more, he served as interim head coach of the Phoenix Suns for half a season. And he was an assistant coach for Golden State in 2013-14, the year before Steph Curry led the Warriors to the NBA championship.
“Lindsey has seen so much,” UB coach Nate Oats said. “He tells me about Steph Curry and Klay Thompson’s shooting contests. He won a championship with Kobe. He’s going to give our guys a viewpoint they couldn’t get otherwise.
“And Lindsey is sharp. He’s really good at X’s and O’s. He’s been a head coach in the NBA. That’s hard to find.”
It’s uncommon for a college basketball program to get a longtime NBA veteran as an assistant, and now Oats has had two of them back-to-back. Hunter replaces Donyell Marshall, a 17-year NBA star who left in April after one year at UB to become head coach at Central Connecticut State.
How did Oats lure Hunter to UB?
When Hunter was playing for the Pistons, he got to know Oats, who was building a prep basketball powerhouse at Romulus High School, just outside of Detroit.
“My kids play at Southfield Christian, and one of Nate’s assistants became the head coach at Southfield Christian,” Hunter said. “They’d play in the Romulus summer league and all the Romulus tournaments. Romulus always had good players. So I’ve known him a long time.”
“I actually talked to Lindsey when I first got the job about coming to UB,” Oats said. “It just didn’t work out on either end. But I stayed in touch with him, and when Donyell left I thought it would be good to get him.”
Hunter has been out of basketball since Golden State fired head coach Mark Jackson and his staff after the 2014 season. Hunter was living the past two years with his wife and three children in the Detroit area.
“I felt like coming to college and working with a lot of young guys,” Hunter said. “This is more my calling. I like helping mold young guys to become not just good basketball players but good men. And what better time to get ’em.”
Hunter’s oldest son just moved on to college. He has a son and a daughter still in high school. But he decided his hiatus had lasted long enough.
“The biggest thing was getting my wife’s blessing,” he said. “She was like, you can stay at home. Your son’s still in high school. You can watch him play. That was the toughest thing. She understood that I’ve sat out for two years. I really want to get back into coaching. She could see I was always in the gym. Even at home I was always working somebody out. She agreed that as long as it wasn’t far away from home, it was time.”
The fact UB’s program is succeeding made the move more attractive. The Bulls are on a run of two straight Mid-American Conference titles and NCAA Tournament appearances.
“When Bobby Hurley took over and did what he did and seeing what Nate has done, it made the decision easy,” Hunter said.
Hunter came out of Jackson State and was picked 10th overall in the 1993 NBA Draft by Detroit. He was a starter his first seven seasons, averaging 11.3 points and 3.4 assists a game. He ranked third in the league in three-pointers in 2000. Then he lasted another 10 years, mostly as a backup, playing with the Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Pistons (again) and Bulls. Along the way he played for three Hall-of-Fame coaches − Phil Jackson (Lakers), Lenny Wilkens (Raptors) and Larry Brown (Pistons).
How did he last so long?
“I always prided myself in outworking everybody,” Hunter said. “Even to the last day when I finished, I was on the first bus to the arena, the first guy at practice working out.”
Hunter thinks the fact he filled every role on the team − he was a scoring starter, distributor, key reserve and bench-warmer − helps him as a coach relate to all the players on the squad.
“Exactly − it really helps to be able to talk to guys about what they can do to help the team,” Hunter said. “If it’s the guy who doesn’t play a minute, I’ve experienced how important it is to be ready at all times because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“Or working with the best in the world, giving them small pointers,” Hunter said. “Maybe it’s telling them, instead of shooting 200 shots before the game, let’s try 100 and see how you feel during the game. There’s a lot of small things that every player does differently to get himself ready.”
Oats thinks Hunter’s small-school background will resonate with the Bulls, too.
“All these guys want to play for money when it’s said and done, whether it’s in the NBA or overseas,” Oats said. “This is a guy who went to a lower level than Buffalo and played 17 years in the league. For him to tell a kid they have a chance to make it actually means something.”
“Going to the tournament two years in a row and trying to do it a third time, I’m trying to get the guys to understand how hard that’s going to be,” Hunter says. “Your preparation is everything now. We have to push ourselves to the point where we’re uncomfortable.”
Hunter calls Bryant the greatest preparation pro he ever saw.
“Preparation is everything,” he said. “I’m big on being ready. The night before a game, come in the gym and get some shots. Be sharp. Those are things that I did that I know work for me and I’ve seen some of the best do.”
And he says coaching Golden State’s stars was a dream, even if it lasted only one year.
“Guys like Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, that’s a job you covet for the simple reason that as great as they are, they’re so coachable. You never have a problem from those guys,” he said.
“A lot of young guys don’t have a clue how hard Steph Curry works, and I’m quick to point it out,” Hunter said. “The great players, Steph Curry included, are gym junkies. Very few are living off their gift.”