NEW ALBANY — Julien Hunter just can’t seem to catch a break — unless, it seems, it is one.
First, the New Albany rising senior boys’ basketball standout had his junior season prematurely ended by a broken leg. Then, the jumping-jack forward was sidelined most of last month with a stress reaction in his right foot.
“It’s been very tough,” the 6-foot-4 1/2 Hunter said last week. “I’m one of those guys, I don’t care if I play in summer league, I just want to go out and be healthy and play basketball. I just want to have fun playing the sport I love. So it’s been very tough.”
Hunter, one of three returning starters for New Albany last season after the graduation of stars Romeo Langford and Sean East, was having a very good junior campaign (averaging 12.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game) when his season came to an early end after he suffered a broken fibula in his left leg during the Bulldogs’ 58-56 overtime victory against Providence on Feb. 8.
He missed New Albany’s final five games of the season, including its season-ending loss to Jeffersonville in the Class 4A Seymour Sectional final.
“That was very tough. That was very, very tough, because I know I can help my team in a certain way and I know they were looking up to me because I’ve started varsity since my freshman year,” Hunter said. “The first two years of my basketball career here they needed me, but of course they had Romeo and they had Sean to do a lot of the heavy lifting. As soon as they were gone, I was like, ‘Man, it’s my time to step up.’ And then for me to get hurt, it was very tough, especially to miss the state tournament. My role changed from being a player to being the biggest cheerleader that didn’t have pom-poms. I had fun on the bench, but I would’ve rather been out there playing and helping the team.”
In addition to missing the Bulldogs’ final three regular-season games — wins over Bedford North Lawrence, Evansville Central and Bloomington North — Hunter also watched from the bench as teammate Derrick Stevenson hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give New Albany a 39-36 upset of Floyd Central in the sectional semifinals, as well as its 60-42 loss to Jeffersonville in the sectional final.
“When Derrick hit the shot I wanted to run out, but of course I couldn’t because I was on crutches. It was very tough,” Hunter said. “And then the game against Jeff I kind of feel like we ran out of gas. I feel like if I was out there I would’ve made sure that we had the right mindset, we would’ve been confident enough and we would’ve had the right energy to go out and get the win. But it’s all preparing us for next year.”
Coming off his broken leg, things seemed to be going well for Hunter as he began preparing for next season.
“He wore his boot and did his therapy and got back to the point where he was playing in the middle and into late May and into June,” New Albany coach Jim Shannon said. “Then, not even a week into June he starts hobbling around again.”
“I was in practice and I was running — it was one of my first practices coming back from my fibula injury — I was running and my foot popped,” Hunter said. “I didn’t think nothing of it at the time, but it progressively got worse, so I went to the doctor and they said I had a stress injury.”
“I was very eager to get back and then for me to come back and in one of my first practices I get hurt again, it was tough."
Once again, Hunter was forced to sit and watch, this time it was the Kentuckiana Summer League at New Albany.
“I was talking to this one kid while I was working a game here and he was like, ‘I always see you in a boot,’” Hunter said. “The kid was like 9 or 10 years old, so that didn’t mean much to him, but I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to be known as the dude that’s always hurt.’ It’s been very hard, but I know I can work through it with help from family and, of course, Coach Shannon staying in my ear and always giving me positive things.”
Still, it’s been a faith-tester for Hunter, who’s father Chad, a former New Albany standout, is a minister.
“The Bible says that God won’t put more on you than you can bear, so I keep that in mind when I’m going through stuff,” Hunter said. “If God knew that I couldn’t get past it, then he wouldn’t put it on me.”
Through it all, Shannon has faith in Hunter.
“It’s a terrible situation in terms of injuries,” the New Albany coach said. “Other people have had to deal with them, and he’ll deal with it. He’s a very positive person, just a joy to be around and to coach. And so you just hate it for the kid because he works hard, he wants to do well, he’s always giving his best effort, he’s a great teammate. And then he’s had these two setbacks that have been tough on him. But he’s kept a great, positive attitude about it and I expect him to bounce back better than ever.”
Hunter’s most recent injury has forced him to miss several opportunities, including last month’s IBCA/IHSAA Underclass Showcase, to exhibit his skills to college coaches.
“We can only control the things we can control,” Shannon said. “He can’t control that, it happened, now he can only control his attitude on how he’s going to handle it, and he’s done brilliant in my opinion. We’re just going to take it slow and not hurry him back. We’ve got plenty of time before the season, but certainly want to get him back as soon as possible, so he can get back in shape and get his confidence back.”
Hunter finally received some good news, in regard to his health, Tuesday, when his doctor officially cleared him to get back to basketball workouts.
“It made me feel good, of course, to finally [know I can] get back on the court and get back to doing what I love to do,” Hunter said. “I’m ecstatic to finally get back to playing the game of basketball. I’m looking forward to playing in a couple AAU tourneys I've got coming up and showing the coaches what I can do.”