The best shot of Hunter Mickelson’s life came in a small pit blind in rural Arkansas, two best friends by his side, his father tasked with sending out the duck call. Hunter and his friends were young then, maybe 9 or 10, and they had journeyed out to hunt Green-winged Teal, a small breed of duck with a history of being a nuisance to even the quickest and most accurate marksman.
“They’re the fastest birds that fly,” says Hunter’s father, Darien Mickelson.
Hunter Mickelson was no novice in a duck blind, of course. He had been around the sport most of his life, following his father, a local guide, around the rice fields and local farms outside of Jonesboro, Ark.
These days, Mickelson is a senior forward at Kansas, a former transfer occupying a starting spot among the Jayhawks’ committee of frontcourt bodies. After two seasons at Kansas — one spent sitting out for transfer rules and one spent just sitting — Mickelson has willed his way to a starting spot on the nation’s No. 1 team. Which likely means he is the most skilled duck hunter in all of college basketball, if such a title existed.
There has always been something about the experience that suited him, his father says. The sounds and smells. The calm and quiet before the burst of activity. The long mornings spent in the elements that, even as a young boy, took Hunter’s mind off basketball.
There was also the exhilaration of the perfect shot, which came on that day in the early 2000s. As Darien Mickelson stood watching, spotting a group of ducks flying in, his son popped out of the blind and took aim.
Hunter Mickelson took one shot from his 20 gauge. Three Green-winged Teal ducks hit the ground. Mickelson’s two best friends, Rodney James and Freddy Prince, surveyed the shot and said the same thing at the same moment.
Did three of those just fall?!
“It’s rare to get a double,” Darien Mickelson says. “But hardly ever do you shoot three.”
“That was probably my luckiest,” Mickelson says now.
Luck, of course, is a relative term, in both basketball and hunting. While plenty of college basketball players grew up around the pastime of hunting, few pursued the sport like Mickelson, who grew up in Jonesboro, home to some of the country’s best waterfowl hunting.
“School, basketball and hunting,” Mickelson says. “That has been pretty much what I’ve been doing since the start.”
In fact, this is almost true in a literal sense, for even his first name is not a coincidence. Darien Mickelson grew up in Tyler, Minn., hunting all sorts of game before making a career in the United States Army. When his first son was born in 1992, Darien and his wife Lynne were living in Fort Louis, Wash. They pondered a few names, but Darien kept coming back to one.
“I always liked Hunter,” Darien says.
To confirm that his father is serious, Hunter Mickelson points to his younger brother, born four years later. He got the name Chase.
“If you’re chasing something, you’re hunting it,” Hunter Mickelson says. “And if you’re hunting something, you’re chasing it, so it’s a little like a back-and-forth.”
When Mickelson was young, his family relocated to Jonesboro, Ark. His father retired from the Army and joined the National Guard. He also took a part-time gig as a hunting guide, hosting out-of-state guys from Tennessee or Georgia who journeyed to the area to hunt Mallards, known colloquially as “green heads”. At first, Darien says, little Hunter could only assist. He would handle decoys, tote gear, or just take in the scene. When he was old enough, Darien passed on the family tradition.
“Hunter loves the sounds and watching the birds as much as he does shooting them,” Darien says. “That’s something he’s always enjoyed. He can relax. There’s no pressure on him. He gets away from basketball. He just takes it all in.”
The latter, of course, would be useful as Mickelson grew to 6-foot-10 and became one of the top high school basketball recruits in the state of Arkansas. After a sterling career at Westside High School, Mickelson opted to stay home, signing with Arkansas and head coach John Pelphrey. But two years later, after Mike Anderson and his up-tempo style had replaced Pelphrey, Mickelson went looking for a better fit.
He chose Kansas — a school that had recruited him out of high school — and while the process took time, Mickelson and the Jayhawks appear better for the decision.
“Of course, there were moments where I was frustrated, because I wasn’t playing,” Mickelson says.
“But then again, looking back, I kind of understand why.”
In some ways, the reasons were obvious. As a junior, Mickelson was caught in a roster crunch, falling behind Perry Ellis, Landen Lucas, Jamari Traylor and Cliff Alexander in the rotation. In short, Kansas coach Bill Self says it took time for Mickelson to build the “trust factor” he had developed with Lucas and Traylor, two veterans who had been in the program longer.
“It hadn't happened as soon as what he probably would have hoped,” Self says. “But I think Hunter went through a period of time where he didn't love the game near as much. I think he just fell back in love with it, to be real candid.”
As No. 1 Kansas prepares to face No. 11 West Virginia on Tuesday night in Morgantown, W.Va., Mickelson’s love has perhaps never been stronger, even as his playing time fluctuates. Mickelson has started the Jayhawks’ last eight games, but he is playing just 10.2 minutes per game for the season, averaging 3.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. In the Jayhawks’ ever-changing frontcourt rotation, it’s unclear what his rotation will be in a month, but Darien Mickelson says his son is where he always wanted to be.
“The only thing he’s ever wanted to do since he was little is play on a top-10 team and play in an NCAA tournament,” Darien Mickelson says. “And now, he knows it’s realistic.”
Life at Kansas does have one fairly significant drawback, though. It’s taken away most of his days in a pit blind. In recent years, Mickelson says, his hunting adventures have been relegated to the few days around Christmas. Two years ago, while he was sitting out, he went once in Kansas with former Kansas star Wayne Simien. But it wasn’t quite the same.
“I didn’t have my gun,” Mickelson says. “I had to borrow gear.”
His second sport remains in his blood. Mickelson ponders a career related to hunting when his basketball days are over, and his talent has survived the time off as well. Two years ago, Mickelson returned home for Christmas and went on a flooded timber Mallard hunt with his father. He had not shot a gun in a year, Darien says, but it did not matter.
“He’s got such good eye-hand coordination,” Darien Mickelon says. “He killed the first five ducks he shot at with one shot before he missed one.”