Michigan walk-on captain plays despite spina bifida

December 15, 1991|By Greg Stoda | Greg Stoda,Knight-Ridder News Service

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Michigan basketball team is ranked No. 18 in the country, features a freshman class for the ages and is coached by a man who took the Wolverines to a national championship during his first six games.

And its captain? Well, its captain is a non-scholarship senior who walked on the team last season and now wears a brace much of the time to relieve back pain caused by spina bifida.

Freddie Hunter -- he of the shaved head and electric smile -- says the job is simply a result of his "being in the right place at the right time." Wrong. That theme is nothing more than a definition of luck, and it ignores Hunter's penchant for labor.

"Freddie is a delight," said coach Steve Fisher. "He does all the things that you don't teach. He's a great listener. He senses moods so well."

Maybe that's because Hunter's mood always seems so optimistic.

A lot of youngsters say they'd play college basketball for nothing; Hunter does it. Michigan handed out five scholarships to its freshman superstars, and there was nothing left for Hunter when Kirk Taylor and Chris Seter decided to return as fifth-year seniors.

"I feel awful about Freddie's situation," said Fisher, who depends greatly on a young man he didn't even know two years ago.

David Balza, a former Michigan basketball manager who was impressed with Hunter's performance in a Gus Macker three-on-three event in Ypsilanti, Mich., told Wolverines assistant coach Jay Smith about him. Subsequently, Smith watched Hunter play in some Crisler Arena pickup games and invited him to join the Wolverines' preseason conditioning program.

Hunter made the team, and became eligible in the earliest stages of last year's Big Ten season. It's almost impossible to complete the question when asking Hunter whether he remembers his debut.

"Six minutes at Iowa," Hunter said.

That was Jan. 10, 1991. Exactly one week later, Hunter came off the bench in Crisler Arena and grabbed a team-high eight rebounds in a victory over Northwestern.

Two days after that, he started as the Wolverines beat Wisconsin on the road. Hunter, a 6-foot-5 forward, was out of the starting lineup only twice the rest of the season.

"I always wanted to play basketball, and probably could have at a lower-division school," said Hunter, who earned seven varsity letters at U-D Jesuit High School. "But to go to Michigan was always first and foremost. Now, I'm doing both."

What he's also doing is fighting the effects of spina bifida, which, in literal translation, means a splitting of the spine. Hunter said he was born with the condition -- a congenital cleft of the spinal column with a protrusion of the membrane surrounding the spinal cord. But he wasn't really bothered by it until last summer.

"That's the first time I noticed the pain," Hunter said. "It's in my lower back. It's hard to describe. Stiffness, I guess. The problem is that the more you work, the more it hurts."

And work is Hunter's lifeline.

He opened the season in the starting lineup with James Voskuil injured, but then came off the bench in limited minutes during easy victories over Cleveland State and Chicago State.

"I'm conscious of the problem," Fisher said. "His back gets stiff when he plays in long stretches, but the truth is that I should probably have played him more than I have.

"But that's what I'm talking about. . . . Freddie is the same guy if you play him 40 minutes or 40 seconds. He'll always have that smile for you."

Naturally, there are no complaints from Hunter. He knows this is a much better team than last season's 14-15 version and realizes the competition for playing time is tougher. He recognizes the benefits of a talented freshman class, and understands his most important function is to lead by example.

"The way he goes about his business is what everybody, not just basketball players or other students, should do," Fisher said.

Also, this is a chance for Hunter to enjoy his celebrity. He hardly seeks the spotlight, but the situation leads to a certain campus fame. He's something more than a guy loaded with 19 credit hours, from statistics to psychology to sociology.

"Maybe the students are more accepting of a walk-on player," Hunter said. "Maybe they identify more closely with me.

"You have to slap yourself in the face sometimes when you find yourself in a situation that's nowhere near what you really expected. There was a time when I was happy to be captain of my intramural team."

Watching him slip into a support collar for his lower back while standing at a locker-room cubicle, it's easy to get the notion that what eases Hunter's pain isn't the brace.

) It's his role as captain.

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