What would you think of a high school basketball coach who talks to his players like this?
That USA Today that came out today, that says you're the number-two team in the country? Get a copy, go home and wipe your a*s with it!
This is the new f*cking world? You made the mistake and you're giving me the tilted head? You gave me the tilted f*ckin' head? Are you sh*tting me? Who made the mistake? Me?
I'm 56 years old, and when I can't kick anybody's a*s in this building, I'll be 70. Just know something: I don't drive up to practice every day saying to myself, "Gee, I hope Barney's ready to play today." It never registers in my head, because Barney better be f*ckin' ready to play. If he's not, then another child is going to play. Because what am I going to do? I'm going to coach whoever is here. So get a drink of water, and get your a*s back out here ready to be coached. Or get your sh*t and start running so I don't put a size 12 up somebody's a*s right now.Just to complete the picture, the coach is a 56-year-old white guy, and the players are, with one exception, all African-American.
Is that a good coach?
Well, as it turns out, it's one of the best. It's Bob Hurley of St. Anthony High School of Jersey City, N.J., father of former pro hoops star Bobby Hurley. Hurley Sr. is not only the winningest high school basketball coach anyone's ever seen, but also the savior of quite a few of his players' lives. Because without Hurley and his basketball program, there would be no St. Anthony High, and many of his kids would fall victim to the tough, tough streets of the ghetto.
And even as those streets get tougher and tougher, and the kids' problems grow bigger and bigger, their attitudes drifting from bad to worse to even worse, those who are lucky enough to play for Hurley usually graduate, often get into colleges that they otherwise never would have even known about, and sometimes thrive. Yes, they chafe under the verbal assaults that they must endure, but they learn basketball better than they could under virtually any other teacher. They learn about discipline and hard work and responsibility. And Hurley opens doors for them to worlds outside of inner-city Jersey.
That he does all this at St. Anthony High -- and sweeps the floor of the court himself, thank you -- is beyond remarkable. The school, down by the Holland Tunnel in a hard part of a hard city, is forever on the edge of financial collapse. It has no gym -- that's right, none. The basketball team practices at a nearby charter grammar school, or the Polish White Eagle Hall, where the court isn't even regulation length and the trainer tapes up sore ankles in a food pantry. And yet year after year, St. Anthony wins the state championship (or comes close) with its tight execution, uncanny intelligence on the floor, athleticism, conditioning, and unflappable will.
Which means its players get to go to college on some sort of scholarship. A few even make it to the pro's.
Hurley hardly gets paid to do this. His day job is as a probation officer in Jersey City, and he also works in the municipal recreation department. There he sees what's happened to that town since he grew up on its streets in the '50s and '60s. He sees how the increasing poverty, despair, drugs, and violence of the place can easily take a good kid's life nowadays. He's determined not to let that happen to the 15 or 20 that he works with at the school.
This dedication comes at a significant cost. Hurley's been offered huge coaching contracts at major colleges -- places where he would have been set for life years ago -- but he's not interested. His heart is the heart of that high school, and separating the two would likely kill them both.
Hurley's story has come to my attention via a recent book by sports reporter Adrian Wojnarowski of the Bergen Record. It's called The Miracle of St. Anthony, and it follows Hurley's team, the Friars, through its tumultuous 2003-04 season. It was, by consensus, one of the most troubled and troubling teams that Hurley had ever faced coaching. The story of its highs and lows, and the perspectives it provides on the character and tenaciousness of its future Hall of Fame coach, are riveting.
I'm a sucker for basketball stories, particularly those about Catholic high school ball in Jersey City. I was the student manager of the basketball squad at my old school, St. Peter's Prep, in that city for a couple of years back in the late '60s, and so the story of the St. Anthony kids hits extremely close to home. But this book is more than a nostalgia trip; it's got an impressive message for the current era. At a time when sports at all levels have become so corrupted by money that their ties to character and education are laughable; when the players seem like spoiled gangsta wannabes who have had everything in life handed to them; when there are so few people who spend their whole lives giving their all for one noble thing, this is an inspiring story.
A side benefit is getting to know most of the players, some of whose names will become better known as they now work their way through the college ranks. Like this guy (cheerleader mom problem notwithstanding), and him, him, him, him, and him. (Sebastian Telfair even gets a cameo mention or two, although he was playing over in the Big Apple.)
Not everyone will come away from this book loving Bob Hurley. But you're going to have a real hard time getting him off my list of heroes, anyway.