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Just a Kid from Monroe

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Just a Kid from Monroe

Ben Winterrowd

Hunter Tyson grew up in Monroe, N.C., a town with a population of roughly 35,000 people and less than that during his adolescent years. Monroe is seated in Union County, and despite the small-town charm, it remains less than an hour from metropolitan Charlotte. Like most that grow up in the Tar Heel State, Tyson fell in love with basketball. Hard work, determination, drive and grit lifted Tyson from Monroe to the biggest stage in college basketball where he cemented a legacy at one of the ACC’s charter member schools.

The game of basketball has always been big in the Tyson family. His father, Jonathan, played collegiately at Wingate University, so Hunter has always been around the game, falling in love with it at an early age.

“My dad always was really big on hard work,” recalls Hunter. “If basketball is what we wanted to do, that’s awesome, but we needed to give our all to it. From a young age, I started working really hard at the game of basketball.”

By the time Hunter was ready for middle school, his father was the principal of Piedmont Middle/High School in Monroe.

“Every morning I was getting up early and goin’ to the gym because my dad had all the keys. I’d workout before school, go to school all day, and workout after school. It was really a blessing that I was able to do that. I know a lot of guys that want to get into the gym but didn’t have the means to do so.”

Hunter grew up enjoying baseball too. He played baseball in conjunction with basketball until eighth grade, which is when Hunter recalls everything changing.

Basketball became everything for Hunter.

“Eighth grade is when it really clicked for me. I always played baseball growing up and was big into baseball and that conflicted with AAU and spring basketball. It was my eighth-grade year, my last year that I played baseball, and that’s really when I started taking it [basketball] seriously.”

“I told my dad that my dream was to play in the ACC and the NBA. He’s like ‘Alright, we’re gonna do everything we can to try and get you there.’”

Hunter credits his dad with much of his development as a young player and appreciates how much time his dad spent working with him.

“He really helped me. He played in college, and he was also a high school coach, so he was really my trainer. I saw a lot of kids growing up with higher trainers and stuff like that. I didn’t ever have to do that because my dad was always there working with me. Whether it was 6 a.m. or on a Saturday or right after school, he always found the time to invest in me and make me the best basketball player I could be.”

“I’d wake up early in the morning to work out, just try to work on my game all the time, always playing pick-up basketball if I wasn’t working out. Basketball became a really big part of my life.”

By his sophomore year, Hunter was beginning to attract attention from college coaches and universities.

“First scholarship offer was spring of sophomore year of high school,” Tyson said smiling. “I was thrilled. It was Appalachian State and I remember getting the call right after a tournament and I was so happy that someone believed in me enough to offer a free ride to college.”

The next day he received offers from Tennessee and then Charlotte. While the offers and attention were well deserved, the league that Hunter grew up idolizing hadn’t taken notice yet.

Growing up as a kid playing basketball in North Carolina, playing in the ACC with all its undeniable tradition is the goal. And that was always Hunter’s dream.

“Clemson was my first ACC offer,” Tyson remembers, grinning from ear to ear. “I was so happy. Especially because I was always intrigued by Clemson. I thought they had a really good culture and program, and it wasn’t too far from home, about two and a half hours, and so I always had my eyes on Clemson.”

Hunter first met Head Coach Brad Brownell when he was 15 and playing in an AAU tournament in Atlanta. From Monroe to Atlanta on I-85, Clemson sits at nearly the halfway point. Coach invited Hunter and his family to campus, and they spent time talking about basketball.

“From the first time I met him, I just remember thinking he was so knowledgeable about the game of basketball. Some of the things he was saying. As a 15-year-old kid I just want to go out and shoot and dunk, and he really brought out the mental aspect of the game.”

After seeing the campus and meeting Coach and the staff, there wasn’t much more for Hunter to deliberate. Later, following his official visit, Hunter was reassured that Clemson was for him.

“I called Coach Brownell and told him I wanted to come and thanked him for the opportunity. I was thrilled because recruiting can be a little stressful. You’re deciding for the rest of your life. Coach always told me that this isn’t a four-year decision, it’s a 40-year decision. This is where you’ll bring your kids one day, back to where you played.”

“Once I knew Clemson is where I wanted to be, I was thrilled. It was a dream come true.”

This dream wasn’t something that Hunter knew would automatically happen or be given to him. He understood there is a process.

“It’s not an overnight thing. It takes years and years of hard work, sacrifice, and really blood, sweat and tears to get to that point. When you take it one day at a time, it becomes much more realistic.”

The adjustment period for a college freshman stepping foot on an ACC campus can be daunting for anyone, including someone of Hunter’s caliber. But even with all the changes and outside variables that can affect students during their college years, Hunter never wavered.

“It’s completely different [from freshman year to now]. Obviously at my core I’m still who I am. I still have the same values as I had when I walked in, but you change a lot and grow up a lot.”

When Hunter first arrived on campus, he had just broken the Union County scoring record in high school.

“Basketball had come easy to me, but when I came here I was playing against some of the best players in the country. It gets hard quick,” Tyson said laughing. “It wasn’t easy, and I had a growth period.  A lot of hard days and a lot of hard practices that make you question if you are sure this is what you want to do. Deep down I always knew that basketball is something that God had planned for me, and I just stuck with it, kept working hard at it every day and then five years later, had a little bit of success.”

Like any young player the adjustment to the college game can be large, but Hunter worked on his craft and improved year over year, expanding his role on the team. However, in back-to-back years as a junior and senior, his seasons would take big hits due to injuries. Hunter suffered a facial injury and surgery early in the 2020-21 season and then broke his clavicle and had shoulder surgery in the middle of the 2021-22 campaign and missed 13 total games.

“I definitely knew I had a lot left and I think that’s [injuries] one thing that limited my production a little bit. You lose your rhythm in a season. Thank God I was able to stay healthy my final year. God blessed me with this opportunity to have a fifth year.”

With that fifth year came even more leadership responsibility, and it’s a responsibility he took seriously.

“I definitely had to work at it. Last year [2021-22] was my first year being a leader at this level which is a lot different. I learned so much last year that I took all those things and tried to put them into effect this year.”

“There are times to lead by example and times to be vocal. Obviously, all these guys are my best friends and sometimes it’s hard. That can take a lot of courage.”

Hunter led by example in his approach to get better. He doesn’t see just games as opportunities for that, but every single day.

There’s 365 days in a year and there’s guaranteed 31 games every season. What do you do the rest of the days? You need to treat those days you aren’t playing games like game days. They are more important. You’ll have game days to perform and shine, but those other 330 days are just as important or more. You can’t have success if you don’t take those days seriously. Every day is an opportunity to get better.

As much as basketball has been a part of Hunter’s life, that’s not where he finds his identity.

“I find my identity in my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. At the end of the day I know no matter how many points I score, how many wins, it’s not what’s most important. With that being said, I’m extremely competitive. Anybody who knows me knows that, probably to a fault honestly [laughs]. Everything I do, I’m trying to win.”

That competitive drive and work ethic led Hunter to becoming a First Team All-ACC player this past season, the first of his career and just the eighth time at Clemson since well before he was born.

“It might be an individual award, but when I take a step back and look at it, I don’t see it as an individual accomplishment. I look at it like a group of people that helped me get to this point.”

The coaching staff and strength staff invest so much time into the players, and Hunter recognizes that and shows appreciation for their role in his success.

“Without them I wouldn’t be where I am today, and I am very thankful.”

Hunter nearly averaged a double-double last season, leading the Tigers to a third-place regular season finish in the ACC standings. He finished with 16 double-doubles – the most by a Tiger since Sharone Wright (18) in 1993-94.

The Clemson community, fans, students and staff have all enjoyed watching Hunter develop as a player and a human, while being recognized as one of the best in the process.

When tasked with turning his Clemson experience into one sentence, Hunter was quick to answer.

Best time of my life.