Hunter embraces senior role with Maccabi Tel Aviv

American center opens up about his basketball journey from Ohio State to NBA to Europe

OTHELLO HUNTER is optimistic about how far Maccabi Tel Aviv can go this year in the Euroleague after last season was cut short due to coronavirus. (photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)
OTHELLO HUNTER is optimistic about how far Maccabi Tel Aviv can go this year in the Euroleague after last season was cut short due to coronavirus.
(photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)
Maccabi Tel Aviv kicked off the 2020/21 Euroleague season last week with a victory over Alba Berlin and one of the yellow-and-blue’s most important players both on the court and in the locker-room is big man Othello Hunter, who began his second season with the club.

The Winston-Salem, North Carolina, native put up impressive numbers for Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad last year, averaging 10.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in 27 Euroleague games while recording similar numbers in the Israeli league with 10.6 points and 6.6 rebounds.

To celebrate the opening of a new season, Hunter sat down with The Jerusalem Post for an extended conversation about his career, his role models, playing in the NBA and what he’ll always cherish from his time in Israel.

The now-34-year old arrived in Tel Aviv after capturing the Euroleague title with CSKA Moscow in 2018 and is looking to turn the same trick with Maccabi, especially after seeing the team’s playoff run cut short in April due to the coronavirus.

“I feel like I never left and we’re ready to start a new season and I hope that we can finish it off,” Hunter told the Post. “It was really frustrating, but with the coronavirus our health was more important than basketball. For it to stop the way it did, I can deal with that. “

Many teams upgraded their rosters heading into the new season while Maccabi made some cosmetic changes to its squad. However, this didn’t seem to bother Hunter.

“I never really are about the other teams. I always care about the team I am on and focus on how we can be successful throughout the whole year. I think we have a good group of guys and I think we can definitely make a splash the way we did last year. Everybody kind of doubted us out last year and that was good. They are doing the same thing now and it’s totally fine. We don’t care. You play us, it’s not going to be easy.”

One of the reasons Hunter decided on signing with Maccabi was due to his relationship with Sfairopoulos.

“We just understand each other. He brings another side to me with the confidence level and respect outside of basketball and that’s the main thing – I respect him as a person. I respect all of the coaches I’ve had. But it’s different with him. I got to the Final Four for the first time with him and while things didn’t go as well the second time, we’re trying to build something here."

There are certainly challenges coming up this season, including the lack of fans being allowed in Yad Eliyahu.

“Getting into the rhythm and getting used to not having fans which is new for everybody. Getting to know how the new guys fit with us, but other than that it’s just basketball.”

Basketball was a game changer for the 6-foot-8 center whose parents moved to the United States in order to provide a better life to his family.

“My role models were definitely my parents. I respect their struggle and what they did for me and my family coming from Liberia to America to make a better life.

“I didn’t know I was going to play basketball and I played football when I was a kid. Mostly my friends who were on the basketball team in high school convinced me to play. I was a guy who just did what I needed to get by and I was thinking about sports. The coach came up to me in school one day and said ‘you need to get this grade up’ and I was like ‘why are you looking at my grades?’ and he said ‘I want you to play basketball.’ I said that basketball wasn’t going to do anything for me and it’s not going to help me and my family. But it kind of changed my whole life from there.”

Following high school, Hunter ended up heading to Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, where he stayed for two years. From there he then moved on to one of the nation’s best college programs, Ohio State, where he went to the NCAA Tournament final before falling to the Florida Gators in the title game.

“When I was being recruited by Ohio State and I had a couple of interviews, I said that I believed that we had a team that could win it all. I knew the guys we had coming in and at that time I just started hearing about Greg Oden so I started researching him and I was like we can do this. We got there but it just wasn’t our time, but it was a fun year.”

The NBA was next up for Hunter as he signed with the Atlanta Hawks after not being selected in the 2008 Draft.

“I always had confidence in myself and I always dreamed of being in the NBA when I started to take it seriously because I worked hard and I felt that it was up to me and no one else. I enjoyed it, but something deep down inside of me when we had a meeting about finances and all these things I had a feeling God was trying to tell me that I wasn’t going to be here long and that I was destined to have a life overseas.

“I think that was the best thing that has happened to me because I never dreamed of going to all of these countries and experience all that I have. I take that as a blessing, it’s something different and special.

Hunter played in numerous countries in Europe including Italy, Greece, Spain and Russia. The best part about the journey, he explained, was building relationships with those he crossed paths with over the past decade.

“In my Siena days I played with Daniel Hackett and MarQuez Haynes. Then it was off to Olympiakos to play with Vassilis Spanoulis, Georgios Printezis and all those guys. That’s why Greece is one of my favorite countries, because I have such good relationships with those guys. At Real Madrid it was coach Pablo Laso, Sergio Llull, Luka Doncic, Felipe Reyes and Rudy Fernandez, it’s just amazing.

“Then at CSKA I played with Kyle Hines, Will Clyburn and others. It’s not about basketball, but about relationships. At the end of the day, it’s the relationships that I built with these guys and the coaches that will last forever.”

Under coach Dimitrios Itoudis at CSKA, Hunter finally took home the Euroleague championship after having played in the Final Four a quartet of times.

“That was huge. I always felt that wherever I go, I have to play for one of the best teams because I know that I can win and be one of the top guys. To go to the Final Four four times and to lift the trophy with CSKA was like a weight lifted off of my shoulders.”

Of course, Hunter hopes that the success he had in Moscow can be duplicated with Maccabi Tel Aviv.

“Now here it’s like, let’s have fun. I’m not saying that I am going to relax, but let’s have fun and build something. This team hasn’t been to the playoffs or the Final Four in a number of years. Go get it, go bring a new memory to this team. That is what was important to me, win the trophy and come here and see the challenge of trying to get the team to the playoffs. We were the team to beat last year. The only team to really beat us I felt was Madrid, which beat us twice. Other than that, I felt that we could beat any team. Our team could beat anybody and that’s how I feel now.”

In January 2020, the yellow-and-blue pulled off a coup and signed six-time NBA All Star Amar’e Stoudemire, who had played with Hapoel Jerusalem in two of the previous three seasons. For Hunter, this was almost like a dream come true.

“When I got to Ohio State and really took basketball seriously my coach told me to look at Amar’e and Kevin Garnett. I modeled my game after the two of them. I told that to Amar’e and that I went to his camp in Phoenix when I was in college. I was able to see how at his age he still works and doesn’t take off. He’s a true professional and I try to use that today and do the same thing. Don’t be relaxed and don’t be content; still work hard. He was the MVP in the Israeli league final and that was great to see.”

One of Maccabi’s off-season signings was center Ante Zizic, who had been playing with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Zizic comes in to replace Tarik Black and Hunter was thrilled with the move.

“I played against him before and he has definitely gotten a lot better. He knows the game better and I would say this, that he is going to be tough to guard, he knows how to use his body and is a finisher around the rim. He has a nice touch and is confident enough to shoot midrange. Defensively, he’s going to be a problem too. Once we get used to our defensive scheme together I think it’s going to be tough to be us.”

Hunter’s greatest attribute may be that he always plays to win and just never takes off.

“I always want to win and I don’t care about anything else. I want to win and I want to be a champion. I don’t want to feel that if I could have played two minutes harder we could have won a game. If the oldest guy is playing hard then the youngest will dive on the floor. I just try to bring that leadership and play hard. I want everybody to do the same.”

Finally, living in Tel Aviv has been a life-altering experience for Hunter and his family, one that will have a positive impact for years to come.

“My wife loves the beach being from Florida. The best part here [in Tel Aviv] is the people. I feel that everyone is very helpful and we’ve made friends with people from outside of the basketball community, which is great.

“The culture even during this corona time is that people aren’t just thinking just about themselves. They think about everybody as a whole and that is what makes it great to me. I like the fact that everybody is trying to worry about the next person. I like how it’s more family-oriented and on Shabbat the family gets together and that’s huge. When I go home, back to the United States I want to make weekends family time, I just love it.”

Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at [email protected].