Holding Court And Performing Miracles

Coach Bob Hurley has been hailed as a godsend, a saint, a beacon of hope. And what he has accomplished is nothing short of a miracle. Our Armen Keteyian has a case in point:

At St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, N.J., Bob Hurley presides over what he laughingly describes as a "benevolent dictatorship, yeah, for sure."

In an age when winning is often just the means to a million dollar paycheck, Hurley is a throwback, a hometown boy who turned his hometown team into one of the greatest dynasties in high school sports … and never left.

In the process Hurley turned this small Catholic school into a beacon of hope in a community in dire need of help.

"Nobody ever challenges the kids," Hurley said. "Parents let kids be mediocre. Teachers let kids be average. If I could hold them to a higher standard, I will. I try to get myself to a point where I'm holding them to about the highest standard I can. I wish I could hold them to a higher standard."

St. Anthony is an unlikely powerhouse. With just 245 students, it's a struggling school in a struggling city.

The cafeteria doubles as the locker room; the weight room's a closet. There's no money for a gym. In fact, Coach Hurley's boys have practiced in more than two dozen different places over the years, like a former bingo hall where players had set up tables after practice.

Despite it all, Hurley wins … and wins. In 37 years he's won nearly 1,000 games, 23 state titles, and three national championships, and sent 5 players on to the pros.

Hurley grew up here, the son of a beat cop and a graveyard-shift nurse.

He married his high-school sweetheart Chris, who said he "really was the only guy that I dated steadily. And we got engaged, got married."

"Met in the basketball court in Greenville!" he adds.

Hurley followed in his father's footsteps and became a probation officer, learning first-hand what happens to kids with no one to look out for them.

"I'm working in the inner city and I'm supervising men on probation. And what are they? They're poor souls. They're people that made bad decisions at 12, 13 and 14 years old."

"And it's pretty easy to see what the end result of that is," said Keteyian.

"Yeah," Hurley said. "It becomes an adult life where they just give up on themselves, you know?"

Hurley began coaching at St. Anthony in 1972, determined not to let that happen.

He makes every player sign a contract, to show their commitment to themselves and the team.

"They don't know if it's really a legal document," Hurley said.

"I would say around here it's pretty legal," Keteyian laughed.

"Yeah, I've had no one challenge this document!" he laughed. "But it gives everybody a chance to say all the time, 'Well, no, I can't do this because, you know, my coach, he crazy.' That's the phrase in Jersey City: 'He crazy!' 'I've gotta make sure I'm home at a certain time. I can't be drinking.'"

Current players like junior Derrick Williams say the contract works.

"We don't bring it up - 'Oh, remember the contract and stuff' - but we have to be conscious at all times because people see us and know we represent the school," said Williams.

And junior Matt Rista says all that yelling and screaming has a purpose.

"Tough love," he calls it. "He treats you like an adult. He doesn't treat you like a 15- or 16-year-old. He treats you like you're going to be treated in the real world."

Rashon Burno is one of the kids who honored the Hurley contract. He grew up in the projects, raising himself after both his parents died from AIDS.

"It's a badge of honor for me knowing that, you know, I went to the school and played for the legendary Coach Hurley," he said.

"I'm a tough kid to survive playing for Coach Hurley. He's a dying breed. His morals and integrity will never be questioned."

They're qualities Burno took to DePaul University, and then to the world of finance. But before long it was time for a change, and Burno decided to give back some of what Coach Hurley gave him.

"I think Coach Hurley is someone who should be praised for his decision to dedicate his life to help young men," Burno said. "I'm in Aurora, Illinois. The kids I teach here are being taught by what I've learned from Coach Hurley."

"He wasn't supposed to do that," Hurley said of his former player. "He was supposed to remain in public housing, and he should be incarcerated right now. But, not that kid. He's the American dream."

And among Hurley's kids, Rashon Burno is the rule, not the exception.

"Every other day there's about 50 to 75 recruiting letters," Hurley said.

In nearly 40 years, all but 3 of his players have gone on to college. More than 200 have received scholarships. For Hurley, basketball is the means to a more important end …

"I think every kid here can play in college," he said. "So, if every kid can play in college, now, part of this is we're gonna get you a degree. Now, you're gonna be far more marketable in the future. Education is the way you put yourself in the best possible situation for the future."

Among the players he's developed at St. Anthony were his two sons, Danny and Bobby Junior.

Mike Kryzewski coached Bobby Jr. to two national college titles at Duke University and is a long time admirer of his dad.

"Don't tell me 'cause we don't have a gym we can't have a great program," he said. "Don't tell me because this kid doesn't have a mother or father or because this kid's poor that he can't go to an Ivy League school. How important is that in a community? Come on. One of a kind. He's one of a kind."

If you have any doubt, consider this: The 61-year-old Hurley has been offered millions to coach in college, but he's never made the leap despite the fact that he's never earned more than $9,000 a year at St. Anthony.

He's thought about retiring, but every year something funny happens …

"I say to my wife, 'Oh, those couple of freshman, I think they could be good players. Let me project this over three more years…' And she just looks at me and her head spins and, 'Here we go again!'"

"They become part of your family, you know, each group of kids, when they come in, and they never leave," she said of her husband's players. "They always come back. They become part of your family. It's been very rewarding for both of us."

Coach Hurley's been the subject of a bestselling book and an upcoming documentary chronicling last year's run to number one.

But the highlight of his career could come tomorrow, when he finds out if he'll become only the third high school coach in history to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame …

… which his players, and the people of Jersey City, will tell you is exactly where Bob Hurley, the "Patron Saint of St. Anthony," belongs.

"It's hard," he says of such praise. "It's hard to tie in with my outbursts and some of the things that I do. I may not necessarily be the best comparison!" he laughed.

"But I'm here for a long haul."

For more info, and to help:

  • St. Anthony High School:
    Coach Bob Hurley
    St. Anthony High School
    175 8th St.
    Jersey City, N.J., 07302
    (201) 653-5143
  • The Boys and Girls Club of Jersey City:
    Gary Greenberg
    Boys and Girls Clubs of Hudson County
    1 Canal St.
    Jersey City, N.J., 07302
    (201) 333-4100
  • "The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty" by Adrian Wojnarowski

  • Shooting Touch: Learn about the nonprofit's involvement with St. Anthony High School.
  • Rashon Burno, Marmion Academy, Aurora, Ill.

    Upcoming Documentary: "The Street Stops Here: The Story of Bob Hurley & St. Anthony Basketball"
    (Photo: TeamWorks Media)