Coquitlam hoopster answers Rebels' yell

Sammy Hunter might just be the best local basketball player you haven’t heard of.

Yet. 

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Hunter, 17, took a giant leap to shedding his cloak of anonymity on Wednesday when the 6’9” small forward signed to play at Ole Miss (a.k.a. the University of Mississippi) next season, a top Division 1 school in the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference.

For the past three years, Hunter has been running the hardwood for tiny BC Christian Academy in Coquitlam. 

In fact, the school is so small, most of its 160 students were able to fit into the room to witness Hunter commit his signature to his future athletic and academic home on National Signing Day, the first occasion when top college recruits across North America are allowed to officially declare their post-secondary intentions.

BC Christian Academy is based in the old Coquitlam RCMP headquarters on Christmas Way. The school doesn’t even have a gym of its own, so the basketball team works out at Fortius Centre in Burnaby and barnstorms its games apart from the B.C. High School Basketball Association, at tournaments and exhibitions against independent teams across North America like the top-ranked prep school in the United States, Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut.

That formula has attracted international players from countries like Nigeria, Turkey, Serbia and Croatia, said the Panthers’ head coach Doug Dowell.

It’s what lured Hunter from his home in Nassau, Bahamas to experience snow for the first time in his life and hone his basketball skills with an eye to landing a scholarship at a bigtime U.S. college program.

Actually, Hunter was having trouble securing a student visa to attend a prep school in America when a childhood friend, Dettario Thompson, who played for Bahamas’ U17 national team, told him about BC Christian.

Hunter liked what he heard, and relished the opportunity to reconnect with Thompson, whom he played with since grade school in Nassau. So he sent some video clips to Dowell and started buying jackets. Lots of jackets.

Dowell was impressed.

“He’s a good kid, with a solid foundation,” Dowell said, adding Hunter also works hard.

Hunter said adapting to life in Canada was more difficult than adjusting to playing basketball at a higher level.

“It was cold,” he said. “But basketball is all about making adjustments.”

With 220 pounds wrapped around his 6’9” frame, Hunter is a formidable presence on the basketball court, but Dowell said it’s his agility and versatility that set him apart.

“He can play outside, he can play inside, he shoots well and he’s got the footwork,” he said.

Hunter’s ability also earned him a spot on the Bahamas U17 national team. And in 2017 he was invited to attend the prestigious Basketball Without Borders Americas camp that was put on by the National Basketball Association to expose 66 top male and female basketball players from 16 countries to a high level of competition, mentorship by NBA players like J.J. Barea of the Dallas Mavericks and coaching from NBA assistant coaches like David Vanderpool of the Portland Trail Blazers.

At the end of the camp that was held in Hunter’s hometown of Nassau, he was named to one of the boys’ all-star teams.

Last summer Hunter played with the Bahamas Select national team that hosted powerful U.S. college teams like the University of Kentucky, North Carolina and Notre Dame in the Bahamas Basketball Federation’s Summer of Thunder tournament. 

Hunter scored 19 points and pulled down eight rebounds against the Fighting Irish and he had 18 points and five rebounds against the Tar Heels.

College recruiters took notice.

Hunter was soon fielding pitches from Div. 1 schools like Auburn, Arkansas, Kansas State, Western Kentucky and Colorado State as well as Ole Miss. 

“It was fun,” he said about talking to coaches and hearing their offers.

But it was a late call from perennial basketball powerhouse Oklahoma that Hunter said made him realize this was serious business.

“It was a wake-up call,” he said. “It was like an alarm in my head.”

Hunter said Ole Miss was pretty much his first choice all along. It was the only campus he visited, along with his parents who traveled from Nassau to Oxford, Mississippi. He liked what he heard from the Rebels’ new coach, Kermit Davis, who told him he would be a good fit in the team’s up-tempo, mobile offence. And it was much closer to home than cold Coquitlam.

“Ole Miss checked all the boxes,” Hunter said.

Dowling, who boarded Hunter in his home the past two years, said sending off his star player next year is an affirmation of success for his small school’s ambitious program to develop elite basketball players.

“The trend in basketball is for top-level players to gravitate together,” he said. “Iron sharpens iron.”

And with the Hunter’s spotlight reflecting brightly on BC Christian, he’s hoping more top players being forged locally will take notice.

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