As a basketball coach he defied the passage of time. He never quite understood why people spoke about gaps between generations. What exactly did “old school” mean?

He let others describe his career as legendary. He preferred to shake their hands and treat them as equals.

Gene Hunter passed away early Sunday morning, some 88 years after he was born. He leaves a legacy that isn’t confined to the three state championships won in Maine and New Hampshire. He stopped coaching high school basketball in 1974, a long, long time ago.

But he never really quit coaching. At age 84 he was walking the sideline in the front of the Scarborough Middle School team bench at a holiday basketball tournament. The former history teacher and athletic director returned to coaching to share his passion with 12-year-old boys and girls for parts of another three decades.

That day at the holiday tournament, Hunter’s son, Allen, watched from the bleachers with Hunter’s 5-year-old great-grandson. “It was amazing to watch him,” Allen Hunter said on Sunday night. “Speaking for my brothers and sisters, I can say it was our privilege to have him as our father.”

My colleague, Tom Chard, once asked Hunter how he could relate to players who were 70 years younger. “My wife and I have 20 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren,” he said. “I’ve heard and seen it all.

“Coaching keeps me alive. What am I going to do, sit in a chair, watching TV and die? I was destined to be a coach. I still enjoy it.”

Frank Bean’s son, Zach, played for Hunter five years ago at Scarborough. A teacher, Bean would sometimes step into the gym and watch practice. “(Hunter) had such a passion for the game. He had a passion for values.

“There wasn’t a moment he wasn’t teaching. There was no wasting time. He taught his players how to box out, how to throw the outlet pass correctly, things kids today don’t learn.”

Bean saw something else. “(Hunter) still had the gleam in his eye.”

Allen Hunter can explain why. His father grew up in Presque Isle during the Great Depression, when children especially were no strangers to hardship and deprivation. Gene Hunter’s father worked for the railroad. Money came into the Hunter house, but not much.

Gene Hunter was a good student and basketball player at Presque Isle High. He didn’t expect to have money for college. The community helped, sending Hunter to Aroostook Normal School, now the University of Maine-Presque Isle. Led by the high school principal, more money was raised to help Hunter raise his sights and attend Colby College.

“At a time when often kids quit in the eighth grade to work on the farm, going to Colby was a dream come true,” said Allen Hunter. “My father never forgot. It was his appreciation for the opportunities extended to him that made him want to give back.”

At South Portland High in the 1960s, Gene Hunter encouraged a junior point guard to use the two-handed set shot. Al Livingston never did master it.

“He was a great fundamentalist,” said Livingston, who became a high school baseball coach in the Portland area and a basketball referee.

“He was a great communicator and he kept the game simple. He started Hunter’s Basketball Camp in his backyard one summer. It got so big, he had to move it to the South Portland Armory.”

Hunter, says Livingston, got things done. Beal Gym at the high school once had a tile parquet floor. “It was shin-splint city. “One of the first things he did when he became basketball coach was to get the school to put in a wood floor. He helped get a basketball program started at the grammar school. But more than anything, he was a real gentleman.”

Last winter about 20 of Hunter’s former players at South Portland returned to applaud Hunter before a game against Bonny Eagle. Phil Conley, the current South Portland coach whose father was an assistant under Hunter, organized the night.

“I wanted to show our appreciation,” said Conley. “I know that night meant a lot to him.” The men who came forward to grasp his hand were living testaments to his teaching and coaching.

Connor Hasson, a South Portland co-captain last winter, shook Hunter’s hand. “My dad and grandfather played for South Portland and here was the man who helped shape that tradition. Coach Conley is always talking about the past and the present.

“I know what Coach Hunter represents.”

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]