FAYETTEVILLE — Moments before tip-off, the Alltel Arena monitor produced the surprise. Senior forward Charles Thomas wasn't starting for the Razorbacks against Appalachian State back on Dec. 22 in North Little Rock.
A few minutes later, the starter at power forward heard his name announced, bounced off his chair and smiled wide while the crowd roared. As he skipped through his teammates, he used his right thumb and pointer finger to form an ‘L,' for Little Rock.
The whole time, Thomas beamed, just as his teammates and coaches did. He nearly teared up Thursday as he thought back on the gesture he made for fifth-year senior Vincent Hunter, one of his best friends.
"In my mind, I didn't have a choice," Thomas said. "Vince earned that start, being the last time in his hometown. He's the heart and soul of this team. He always has been since I got here."
Thomas' selfless act validated what every Razorback feels about Hunter. Six seniors take the Bud Walton Arena court for the final time today, but the other five won't feel the emotional sting of the moment quite like Hunter. He may have had the least on-court impact of the group — the most minutes Hunter averaged were 15.4 his freshman season.
But off the court, Hunter may have meant more to this basketball program than anyone during the 21st century.
Ask any Razorback: Who is the leader on this team? A few might mention Gary Ervin. A few might include Sonny Weems. But all would bring up Hunter, first-year coach John Pelphrey included.
"I'm so appreciative of his efforts because his value to me is not based on how high his talent level is or how much I'm playing him," Pelphrey said. "His value, his respect toward the basketball team, is not based on him being a starter or how many minutes he gets. He finds his importance in other areas."
Most fans notice this only on game days, when Hunter, his socks pulled high to his knees, constantly encourages teammates. He also waves a white towel fervently with his right hand while he isn't playing, a less frequent occurrence these days since he has started the past two games. His leadership stretches far beyond those actions, though.
He never has an off day, Weems said. Hunter spends more time trying to motivate, trying to inspire, trying to uplift than anyone, by far, Weems said. Every time he sees a coach, Hunter shakes his hand. Every time he sees a player, Hunter hugs him.
And when the collective aura of the Razorbacks is down, which has happened often throughout an up-and-down career of results, Hunter lightens the mood.
"He comes in positive every day, smiling, ready to joke with anyone, but also wanting to make everyone better at basketball," Weems said. "He doesn't get that much playing time, but he's always wanting to just keep everyone up. He keeps everyone down to earth.
"He has the most spirit of anyone on the team."
That stems mostly from Hunter's everlasting joy and passion for all things Arkansas. As a 10-year-old, he watched the entire six-game journey the Razorbacks took to the national championship. He honed his skills playing ‘21' on the streets of Little Rock. And he led J.A. Fair High to a state championship.
Staying upbeat has been a challenge throughout his career. There was the constant losing his freshman season, a shoulder injury, surgery and redshirt the next. Two campaigns of limited playing time followed, but Hunter never gave up on the thought of being a leader.
Now, he simply doesn't know any better.
"We're all brothers around here, and I consider myself the big brother," Hunter said.
Hunter's personality, and persistence through hardship, should translate to future success, Pelphrey said.
"He gets it," Pelphrey said. "He loves the Razorbacks. What a unique kid. If he gets to play past here, somebody's going to be really fortunate. If somebody hires him to be a part of their company or organization someday, they'll never regret that. That young man's got it figured out."
Making An Impact
For one brief period only at Arkansas, Hunter didn't have it all figured out. Even as his junior season progressed, as former coach Stan Heath stopped playing him, Hunter managed to "still have fun."
But when Heath was fired late last March, Hunter looked ready to give up on his days as a Razorback. He publicly criticized Heath — "I deserve more than zero minutes ... I didn't care if he got fired or not," said Hunter, who is set to be the first male in his family to graduate from college.
He also listened to coaches from Division II schools around the state. Turns out the dramatic series of events, including the arrival and departure of Creighton coach Dana Altman, was a blessing. In the aftermath of the Altman fiasco, Hunter felt "99.9 percent sure I was going to Henderson (State)."
Pelphrey entered the picture soon, however. And the two shared an honest conversation that sparked their still-growing relationship.
"When I first got here, Vincent had been pretty outspoken about leaving," Pelphrey said. "I called and was really up front and honest with him, asking about his intentions. We also had a heart-to-heart about some academic things that were going on, and Vincent made it clear to me that he wanted to be here, that he loved the Razorbacks.
"From that point on, he's a guy who has been all in."
Earlier this season, fans wouldn't have known that other than from watching his sideline antics. But now, Hunter is contributing in a real, measurable way. His endless intensity, especially on defense, and his 37.5 percent mark from 3-point range has earned the 6-foot-10 Hunter more minutes lately.
Not that he needs those to provide the kind of leadership that will define Hunter's legacy at Arkansas.
"He's persevered through a lot," Arkansas center Steven Hill said. "And he hasn't complained through any of it. He just wants us to win. He really is the backbone of this team."
AUBURN AT ARKANSAS
WHEN: 5 p.m. TV: ESPN Classic (Cox Ch. 122)
WHERE: Bud Walton Arena
RECORDS: Auburn, 14-14, 4-11 Southeastern Conference; Arkansas, 19-10, 8-7
RADIO: KXIO-FM 106.9; KEZA-FM 107.9; KKEG-FM 92.1; KFPW-AM 1230; KQBK-FM 104.7; KHGG-AM 1580; KHGG-FM 103.1; KDYN-AM 1540; KDYN-FM 96.7; KTTG-FM 96.3
COACHES: Auburn, Jeff Lebo (57-62, 4th season; 172-125, 10 seasons), Arkansas, John Pelphrey (19-10, 1st season; 99-77, 6 seasons)
SERIES: Arkansas 22-13 (14-2 in Fayetteville)
LAST MEETING: Arkansas beat Auburn 76-70 on Jan. 10 in Auburn, Ala.
Hometown: Little Rock
Notables: Has played increased minutes down the stretch this season, posting averages of 4.0 points and 2.5 rebounds in 12.4 minutes over the past seven games. ... Missed the 2004-05 season and redshirted because of a dislocated shoulder and subsequent surgery. ... Averaged 15 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocks per game as a senior at J.A. Fair High in Little Rock. ... Earned most valuable player honors, as well, his senior season at the Class 4A State Tournament.
A Special Senior
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