Season after season, coach Bob Hurley finds it increasingly difficult to kid his kids. Hurley, who is a Hudson County ( N.J.) probation officer eight hours a day and the leader of Jersey City's St. Anthony High School basketball team every other waking moment, understands the psychology and the hunger of the underdog. For 18 years now, that has been part of his motivational pitch.
"Ever since I began coaching I've told my players that our next opponent is the best basketball team that ever played," says Hurley, 42. "But it's been hard lately. Nobody buys it."
The problem is not with Hurley's delivery—it's more in the audience he chooses. His collection of young listeners hasn't lost a basketball game in almost two years. In fact, this week the St. Anthony Friars start the season riding a streak of 50 straight wins, 32 of them last season, including victories over nationally ranked Miami Senior (68-55) and Flint Hill (Va.) Prep (64-45). Add to that the Friars' average winning margin of 28 points, and it's easy to see why they were voted national high school basketball champions by USA Today and Street & Smith's.
What's more, in Hurley's 17 seasons his teams have won 13 state titles in the Parochial B and C divisions. And during that span all but one of Hurley's 60 players have gone on to college, 35 on basketball scholarships. The school's hoops alumni include David Rivers (Notre Dame) and Kenny Wilson ( Villanova).
Except for all that prosperity, Hurley and his Friars would seem to merit some sympathy, St. Anthony is a Roman Catholic school with only 306 students and a tuition of $1,350. Hurley does not recruit and has no scholarships to offer. The school does not even have its own gymnasium. Yet each year Hurley takes a group of tough Jersey City kids and molds them into a superior team.
"We don't have a lot of what other teams take for granted, but we have my dad, and he's the reason St. Anthony is where it is today," says Bobby Jr., who was a guard on last year's team and is now attending Duke. "You have to come to every practice ready to play because he never loses his intensity."
During Coach Hurley's tenure, the Friars have practiced in a variety of gyms, halls and playgrounds. Although he hopes to consolidate most of this season's workouts at a local armory, Hurley knows that St. Anthony's alternative practice sites are part of its makeup. The most unusual of these places is White Eagle Hall, which also sees use as a bingo parlor, in downtown Jersey City. At the Eagle, one basket is held upright, and two inches too high, by two radiators supporting its base. The court is 29 feet too short. In some places, nailheads stick up menacingly through the wood, while in other areas dribbled basketballs thud as if they were hitting wet sand. The roof leaks when it rains, and the overhead lights have a tendency to flicker just as jumpers are cocked. For obvious reasons Hurley wants to limit the Friars' exposure to the Eagle this season, but the roots run deep. For 14 years on almost every Saturday afternoon during the season, the Friars convened there for practice, or what Hurley calls his whip-and-chair routine....
It's late in the evening at the Eagle, and everybody inside is at the breaking point. Hurley leaps about two feet above the worn center circle. When he lands, the tirade begins and the players fall silent, each hoping he will not be the coach's target. Hurley hits the floor at a dead spot, holding his head tightly, as though it were about to explode. He orders a player to leave the court and rhetorically asks him, "Do you have any idea what you're doing?"
No answer. Smart.
Then Hurley launches into his patented oratory—"Thousands of kids in this country really want to play big-time basketball"—including a few adjectives that might prompt a trip to the confessional. Practice resumes as he exits stage left. There is a whistle clenched between the coach's teeth, but his lips are curled ever so slightly into a smile. It's vintage Hurley, and he knows it.