It more than likely began in 1981, when Mandy Johnson was a freshman guard at Marquette University, facing Evansville in the NCAA Tournament.
A year later, it was Northeastern and Phil Robinson and Jarrett King carrying the school’s banner into the Big Dance.
It continued a few years later, when David Rivers led Notre Dame into March Madness.
Back then, it was still a rare occurrence for a St. Anthony graduate to participate in the granddaddy of all basketball tournaments, the NCAA Tourney, which is also known by its nicknames of March Madness and the Big Dance.
Now, 28 years later, it’s a commonplace event. Every year, there’s another former Friar gracing the hardwood in the tourney. Heck, one year, a St. Anthony product merely won the Most Valuable Player of the entire dance, when Bobby Hurley earned the honor after leading Duke to their second of back-to-back NCAA championships in 1992.
So while now, it might be just totally taken for granted that a St. Anthony product would be playing in the NCAA tourney, it’s never that way for the one constant that has remained associated with the Friars all these years, namely the architect of the St. Anthony program, head coach Bob Hurley.
“I still get a kick out of it,” said Hurley, who has now watched approximately 60 of his former players, including his own two sons, Bobby and Danny, go on to play in the NCAA tourney. “Maybe the first time it happened, it was unique, but every time after it, it’s been something special.”
Hurley said that he was watching the CBS telecast of the Selection Show last Sunday and noticed his former guard, Travon Woodall, sitting in the front with his University of Pittsburgh teammates as the Panthers were awarded the top seed in the East Region.
“Even though Travon is hurt and not playing, he was right there in the front row with a smile ear-to-ear,” Hurley said. “That is what it’s all about. I tell every one of our kids that the biggest thing you can do as a college player is to get a chance to play in the tournament. It’s something that they enjoy for the rest of their lives. They get a chance to enjoy that experience.”
Although Woodall will not play for Pitt, after undergoing knee surgery earlier this year and declaring the year as a red-shirt year, two other former Friars will get to dance this weekend.
Derrick Mercer, the diminutive point guard for American University who was named the Patriot League Player of the Year two weeks ago, will lead his team against Villanova in the first round.
Mercer is a senior and has now brought American to two straight NCAA Tournament appearances, the first two in the school’s history.
“When they did it last year, the school went berserk,” Hurley said. “His place is now set in that university’s history.”
Tyshawn Taylor, who played for the Friars’ undefeated national championship team last year and is now a freshman guard at Kansas, will help the Jayhawks in their quest to repeat as national champions.
“For Tyshawn, life is like a whirlwind right now,” Hurley said. “I don’t know if he knows what’s hit him. I think his career has happened much faster than anyone could have imagined. He’s been on a magic carpet ride.”
Taylor first signed to attend Marquette, but when the former head coach Tom Crean departed for Indiana, Taylor had a change of heart and went to Kansas, where he has been brilliant all season.
Two Jersey City kids from different eras in St. Anthony basketball get a chance to dance.
“I’d like to see every kid get that kind of opportunity,” Hurley said. “Hopefully, they can set that as a goal down the road. It’s also motivational to the other kids in our program, to see where these kids have gone. I can’t wait to see the games on television.”
So Bob Hurley, basketball coach, becomes Bob Hurley, basketball fan, when March Madness sets in.
“It’s nice to see where they all get to,” Hurley said. “Sometimes, the journey gets off course, but when they get to the finish line, it’s really worth it. I’m just excited to watch the kids play.”
While St. Joseph’s University didn’t make it to the tourney, a former Friar enjoyed his senior season as well. Ahmad Nivins was named the Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Year, which means that former teammates Mercer and Nivins were their respective conferences top players. That alone is amazing.
“Next week, I’m going to St. Joseph’s to sit with Nivins and three different pro agents,” Hurley said. “He’s going to have a career in pro basketball. I never thought that would happen, but it’s just terrific for both Derrick and Ahmad. They’re both excellent students and come from terrific family support. They go to see all their games. Derrick’s father never pushed himself into the picture. He was always there, but in the background. That’s a lesson for this day and age.”
Derrick Mercer Sr. was featured in great articles in the Washington Post, written by Mike Wise, and in the Newark Star-Ledger, written by Steve Politi. If you get a chance to go online, both are excellent reads.
We contacted Derrick Jr. to do a story before the tourney, but the American University sports media relations people would not allow a phone interview.
It was a little disheartening, considering that Derrick Sr. has been a lifelong friend, going back to our days together growing up in the St. Paul’s (Greenville) courtyard and we’ve known Derrick Jr. since he was in diapers.
Now you know that the NCAA Tournament is truly big time, because this big man got big timed by the people at American.
I was told that I could watch the press conference on ESPN and pull quotes from that. Yeah, that’s good advice to give to a sportswriter.
In any case, the tourney is a reason to be proud of local basketball products. Woodall will get his day when healthy. Mercer and Taylor will get their day this weekend. So will Corey Stokes, the Bayonne product who plays for Villanova. He’ll get to see Mercer up close and personal. Four Hudson County kids involved in March Madness, three will play.
It doesn’t get any better than that. Let the games begin.
To comment on this story on-line, go to our NEW website, www.hudsonreporter.com, and leave a comment. Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.