“Everybody get a man,” he yells out at the group of 8-and-9-year-old youngsters running up and down the court that bears his name. “Pass the ball. Take good shots, guys, because layups win games. Get your man.”
The voice is as familiar as ever. There’s only one person that it could belong to.
It’s the voice of Bob Hurley, the legendary Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach who spent more than 50 years of his life coaching basketball at St. Anthony High School in downtown Jersey City. It’s a voice that guided the fabulous Friars to heights never before imagined on the high school level.
Under Hurley’s tutelage, the Friars won an astounding 28 NJSIAA state championships, a New Jersey record and believed to be a national record as well.
Hurley’s teams won an amazing 13 NJSIAA Tournament of Champions crowns, a tournament that was established to reap the benefits of Hurley’s 1989 undefeated team that traveled the Northeast region of the country and sold out gyms all over, like they were the Beatles of high school basketball. The popularity of that team was so unmatched. So was their talent level, with three NBA first round draftees.
But that all came to a crashing halt last June, when the Archdiocese of Newark decided that it was in the best interests of everyone involved to close the tiny school on Eighth Street forever. St. Anthony became a victim of a society that just doesn’t want or need Catholic education any longer.
And with that, Hurley’s magnificent and majestic career came to an end, after 1,184 victories and only 125 defeats.
“It’s not the way I wanted it to end,” Hurley said. “I stopped coaching because I had to.”
Hurley said that he had offers to coach elsewhere.
“I had a chance to do a lot of different things,” Hurley said. “But I’m 70 years old now. Was I going to start off someplace else? Was I going anywhere? I was not leaving Jersey City. I’ve had enough of traveling in the winter. I also can’t go someplace and show up just one day a week. That’s not me.”
Hurley certainly wasn’t going to a place where he had to serve as an assistant coach, even if was at places like Rhode Island, where his son Dan has become a highly successful head coach, or Arizona State, where his older son Bobby has turned that program around in a heartbeat.
Incredibly, both of the Hurley boys are head coaches of nationally ranked teams in the latest Associated Press Top 25. Rhode Island is currently No. 21 in the nation, with Arizona State sitting at No. 25.
But their father and their mother Chris weren’t about to depart their familiar surroundings in Jersey City to sit on their son’s respective bench and remind the son how many timeouts they had remaining. That wasn’t exactly Bob Hurley’s style.
So this is the first year in a half century that Bob Hurley isn’t a head basketball coach anywhere.
“It’s really amazing to think I was at one place for 50 years,” Hurley said.
Hurley isn’t retired by any stretch of the imagination. Of course, come summer time, Hurley is one of the busiest men around, running from basketball camp to clinics, organizing two highly successful camps in Pennsylvania and another at the Jersey Shore.
But it’s February now and the high school basketball season is winding down toward playoff time. And Hurley’s without a team. It’s a little bizarre to see and totally fathom.
Hurley went to see a few high school practices, like Linden, where his friend Phil Colicchio has been doing magical things for ages. He also went to St. Joseph’s of Metuchen to look in on their practice. He even ran practice one day for his former player and coaching colleague Ben Gamble at Mater Dei where Gamble, a long-time Hurley assistant, is now the head coach. Hurley designed the practice schedule that day for Gamble, much like he mapped out practice schedules for the Friars down to the very precise minute for 50 years.
Hurley has made a few trips to Rhode Island to watch Dan’s team play.
Hurley has even paid visits to colleges like St. Joseph’s of Philadelphia as a favor to long-time friend Phil Martelli and Fairleigh Dickinson, where fellow Hudson County native Greg Herenda is the head coach.
But it’s not the same. Hurley’s not the head coach.
“Do I miss it? Absolutely,” Hurley said. “I’m very detached from it all. I miss the adrenaline. I miss the juice on game day. I miss making halftime adjustments during games. I miss the practices. I miss the personal relationships with the kids.”
Hurley said that he has a chart with all of his former players currently playing college basketball. He tries to keep up with them with televised games. One of his former players Markis McDuffie is on a nationally ranked team like Wichita State. Jagan Mosely is at Georgetown. R.J. Cole is at Howard. Shyquan Gibbs and Mohamed Bendary are at NJIT. Hallice Cooke is at the University of Nevada.
That’s just a sampling of Hurley’s former players. There are more that he tries to follow.
“I try to monitor them,” Hurley said. “I can tell what every kid is doing.”
There’s also following Kyle Anderson’s doings with the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA. The Hurley family just went to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to see Kyle play against the Brooklyn Nets.
There were some words of wisdom passed between Anderson’s high school coach in Hurley and his current coach in Gregg Popovich, who will undoubtedly join Hurley in enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield one day.
But it’s not coaching a team. Hurley is a basketball coach without a team and that’s just too unbelievable for words.
Make no bones about it. Hurley is still involved in basketball.
Every single day, Hurley heads to his former home court in the Explore 2000 School (formerly known as the Community Education and Recreation Center) and is charge of a combined basketball clinic/league on the court that is officially named the Bob Hurley Court.
The players in the league, spearheaded by a non-profit organization called the Hurley Family Foundation, are ages eight through 10. There are approximately 150 kids from all parts of Jersey City participating in the clinic and league.
The players were not able to participate without a signed permission slip from their parents. Once that was approved, they were assigned a team to play for and given a jersey, courtesy of Coach Hurley’s prior association with the sneaker company Reebok.
The Hurley Family Foundation also secured the funds to install retractable eight-foot baskets for the youngsters to properly learn how to shoot. The Hurley Family Foundation, through its annual golf outing and other donations, was able to secure enough funding to pay for the rental of the gym as well as insurance. The gym is now run by the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, so even though the court has Hurley’s name on it and his picture is prominently featured on a banner on the walls, they still have to pay rent.
And with it, Hurley is going back to his roots, teaching little kids the proper way to play the game he taught for the last half century.
“It’s a terrific opportunity for them to learn how to play,” said Hurley, who closely watches over the development of two important youngsters, namely his grandchildren, Gabe Ursic, age 8, and Anna Ursic, age 6, although Anna is going to miss some time from playing after suffering a broken ankle while playing last week.
“The majority of the time we spend teaching them how to play, but we now have a league, so they can play games as well,” Hurley said.
Hurley gets assistance daily from his wonderful wife, Chris, who was organizing teams and jersey distribution recently, making sure each jersey had the youngster’s initials written inside on a tag. And then there was former St. John’s and Holy Cross standout Bobby Kelly on the floor offering instructions as well. Former Friar Shelton Gibbs, Jr. was also on hand monitoring the progress of his young son, the grandson of current Snyder boys’ head coach Shelton Gibbs, Sr. The elder Gibbs is the father of the aforementioned Shyquan who plays at NJIT.
So it’s still the game of basketball for Hurley, just at a lower level with younger players.
“It’s been fun working with the younger kids,” Hurley said. “I love the diversity we have with the kids. We have every ethnic and racial group here and we’ve put them together as teammates and to learn. I enjoy the time I spend with them.”
However, old habits are hard to quit when you’ve been doing the same thing for 50 years.
“Some days, I long for the adrenaline that came with competition,” Hurley said. “It was tough recently with the Dan Finn Classic and the Hall of Fame game in Springfield. We were part of both tournaments for so long.”
It was also a sentimental weekend for Hurley, as the man who hired him to come to St. Anthony from the CYO youth program at St. Paul’s in Greenville, John Ryan, passed away.
“He was a wonderful man,” Hurley said. “He was my basketball mentor. So it was especially emotional for me.”
So basketball is still a major part of Bob Hurley’s life. The whistle still hangs from his neck and there are instructions that come barking out of his mouth like they did hundreds of thousands of times during a high school coaching career that will never ever be equaled anywhere.
There’s just not a team anymore. There are no more fabulous Friars. And that aspect is especially sad to everyone who knows the competitive spirit that drives Bob Hurley.
“Most people would say that I should enjoy retirement,” Hurley said. “But I didn’t go out the way I wanted to. I stopped coaching because I had to.”
It was a loss to high school basketball, but a major gain to the up and coming stars of tomorrow. Think about it. How many 8-year-old kids get taught how to play basketball from a Hall of Fame legend? It’s a priceless occurrence for these eager kids from Jersey City.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.