It is late June, and six young boys—career gym rats, judging from their serious hoops attire—stare through small windows in the doors that lead to the basketball floor at the La Jolla Jewish Community Center on the outskirts of San Diego. Who has taken their usual court away from them? Why, it's the eight-man USA Basketball Development squad, a group of collegiate all-stars down in to provide tune-up material for the U.S. Olympic Dream Team before that august group packs its three-woods and endorsement portfolios and heads to Barcelona to liberate the gold medal from the Evil Empire.
The gym rats watch in awe as the collegians run through plays they will shortly perform against the Dream Team. Six of the players—Kentucky's Jamal Mashburn, Tennessee's Allan Houston. Duke's Grant Hill, Memphis State's Anfernee Hardaway, Wake Forest's Rodney Rogers and Michigan's Chris Webber—are black and huge, averaging 6'7½", 221 pounds. Another, Eric Montross from North Carolina, is white and huge: 7 feet, 260. And one, the kid with the ball, the other guy from Duke, is white and...and....
"Jeez," says one gym rat, "Bobby Hurley is so little!"
It's not just size and pigment that set Hurley—6 feet, 165 pounds—apart from his brethren. There's something else that has caught the watchers' eyes. Call it a lack of muscle tone, or a vague, childlike bemusement over coach George Raveling's instructions, or the air of pallid frailty that emanates from him as he stands, ball in hand, at the top of the key, waiting for a pick-and-roll to develop down among the giants. Whatever it is. Hurley has mesmerized the gym rats because in his unassuming ordinariness he looks just like... them.
And that, in a nutshell, is the whole rap on Bobby Hurley. That physical ordinariness has dogged him his entire life. As he prepares to lead Duke on its quest to win a third straight NCAA title, it still nags in the background. It's easy to think that Hurley has always been a marginally talented player lucky enough to be at the throttle of some hugely talented teams. There's a tendency for observers to think: I could go out there like that little guy and throw the ball above the rim every few minutes and have someone slam it down. But the observers couldn't.
Even some of Hurley's opponents don't understand this. After Duke crushed Michigan 71-51 in last year's NCAA title game, Michigan freshman guard Jimmy King assessed Hurley's play as "average." Ah, freshmen. Hurley was only voted the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. King, for one, should have known better. After all, in a December matchup between Duke and Michigan in Ann Arbor, Hurley pushed his team to an 88-85 overtime win by playing all 45 minutes and finishing with a career-high 26 points, seven assists, two steals and just two turnovers. Were Hurley's points critical? Just a bit. He scored the final eight in regulation and the last four in overtime.
Should we go on? Hurley himself would prefer we didn't. Shy, retiring, often melancholy, always courteous, self-deprecating and self-doubting, Robert Matthew Hurley from Jersey City would prefer we let him play buckets and let his record speak for itself. And what a record it is. Check it out.
As a pint-sized freshman at Jersey City's St. Anthony High—for which his father, Bob, has been the basketball coach for 21 years—Hurley helped lead his team to a 24-3 record and a first-place finish in the state tournament for parochial schools. As a sophomore he led St. Anthony to a 29-1 record and another state championship. As a junior he led the team to a 30-1 record and a third title. As a senior he led it to a 32-0 record and the No. 1 ranking in the U.S. For those of you without a calculator handy, that's a four-year won-lost total of 115-5. A 96% win rate. Four years, four championship games. So much for high school.
At Duke, Hurley started al point guard from day one. Indeed, coach Mike Krzyzewski had recruited him with the keys to the Duke machine dangling from his hand. "He and Kenny Anderson were the two best guards in the country, and they came out the same year from high schools about 10 miles apart," says Coach K. "A lot of schools were recruiting both. We didn't. We told Bobby. "You're the one.' " Hurley responded by starting all 38 games in 1989-90 and setting Duke's single-season assist record, with 288. He also helped guide the Blue Devils to a 29-9 record and a spot in—what else?—the championship game at the NCAA Tournament. As a sophomore he led Duke to a 32-7 record and the national championship. As a junior last season he directed the team to a 34-2 record and another national title, which made Duke the first school to win hack-to-back NCAA championships since UCLA, in 1972-73.
Yet even now the question dogs him anew. Without Christian Laettner, the 1992 NCAA Player of the Year, can Hurley lead Duke back to the Final Four? Can he duplicate his high school feat—four years, four championship games? If he does, he'll be the first player in the history of the NCAA tournament to do so. Maybe then he'll be able to relax a little. Maybe then he can begin to enjoy himself.