Masterpiece theater: National title is greatness as usual for Hurley

Watching I’ll never forget this: Back in 2002, my first year home from college, I had this running route I liked that took me through six towns in North Jersey. That winter, on one of those runs, I passed a mid-60’s gentleman in a St. Anthony’s varsity jacket, and I stopped to talk to him.

The man told me that though he hadn’t attended St. Anthony’s, he had become a fan of their style of play over the years. He described how it was crisper and more precise than anyone else’s. He said he tried to make it to as many games as he could, and I vowed to him I’d check it out sometime.

At that time, basically all I knew about St. Anthony’s was Bobby Hurley had gone there, and his dad coached there. And I didn’t know a thing about Bob other than he was Bobby’s father.

Obviously, I had a lot to learn.

*****

Looming When I started really getting into high school ball in 2002-03, it was sort of a golden year for that, what with LeBron James’ magic carpet ride across the country. And North Jersey in particular was sort of a hotbed — Luol Deng and Charlie Villanueva up at Blair, J.R. Smith and Lance Thomas at St. Ben’s, Mike Nardi and Derrick Caracter at St. Pat’s, Sean Banks at Bergen Catholic, Darryl Watkins at Paterson Catholic.

Hurley had a good, not great team that year, led by Syracuse-bound forward Terrence Roberts. They certainly didn’t jump out at me like the Deng-Villanueva Blair team when I watched them win on Saturday, and then lose to Sebastian Telfair’s Lincoln team on Sunday.

But out of respect to my friend with the jacket, I looked closer. What I saw was a team incredibly precise in their technique, honed to a fine point.

Without Hurley on the bench — his mother had passed away the night before — they staged a clinic on putting on a full-court press against Lincoln, even in defeat. You’d have to think having Hurley there pushing buttons would have put them over the top.

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As much as the No. 2 team in the country beating the No. 1 team can be, Wednesday night’s result in front of a sold-out crowd at Rutgers University would certainly be considered an upset by anyone who’s seen both teams play live. But having followed Hurley since that first weekend at the Shootout, it wasn’t really much of a surprise at all.

(Note: I couldn’t make it to the game, instead resorting to a webcast, but SportsAngle technical director Terry Rains was at the RAC and has a great writeup that should be up shortly at Blue Devil Nation.)

Kyle AndersonSt. Anthony’s has a few talented ballplayers, most notably versatile forward Kyle Anderson and Rutgers-bound guard Myles Mack, but I wasn’t impressed with the team on the whole when I watched them at the Primetime Shootout in a win over Hotchkiss of Connecticut. St. Anthony was good, but didn’t seem special.

They also didn’t play a tough schedule. They played and beat some good New Jersey schools, but nationally, there wasn’t much to speak of.

St. Patrick, on the other hand, has future Division 1 talent at every turn, most notably SportsAngle favorite Michael Gilchrist, headed to Kentucky next fall. Kevin Boyle is sort of like a high school version of John Calipari, and has no love lost for Hurley — and vice versa. St. Pat’s played a travel schedule a college team would cringe at and beat a laundry list of the top schools and players in America.

And they couldn’t beat Hurley.

Anderson played the game of his life, and the Friars held Gilchrist to seven points. As so many other talented teams have over the years, St. Patrick realized too late that they were caught in the familiar quicksand of not being as mentally tough or as disciplined as Hurley’s crew.

Provided St. Anthony’s doesn’t lose its focus in their remaining games — and there’s no reason to think Hurley would let that happen — this latest national title is yet another testament to what’s at Hurley’s core, which is that if you buy into his message of self-discipline, you will quite simply have an excellent chance to succeed in all facets.

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It continues to astound me that one of the best coaches in America — I’d put him in a top tier with Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers and Mike Krzyzewski — just stays at this small Catholic high school in Jersey City that always seems on the verge of shutting down. But just as Krzyzewski’s legacy and heart belongs at Duke, Hurley’s life is meant to be spent in that dusty gym, sweeping the floor, molding the lives of teenagers, leading by his own sterling example.

Winning a national title with Bobby Hurley on your team, as they did in 1989, is one thing. But Bob has gone undefeated with unlikely teams, including his undersized and underachieving 2004-05 squad, depicted in Adrian Wojnarowski’s must-read The Miracle of St. Anthony. (They finished No. 2 in the country; it certainly wasn’t Hurley’s fault Oak Hill had Rajon Rondo and went 38-0 that same year.)

hurley3 In certain ways, the high school level is perfect for a coach as good as Hurley, who can execute his program and have complete control without ever wavering from the convictions that define him.

When you watch a St. Anthony’s game, you notice two things: the crispness of their play, and the enormous pressure he puts on his charges as players, and as men.

The way Hurley berates his players privately and publicly can definitely be construed as off-putting if you’re not familiar with him, but what he’s really doing is being harder on them than the streets are. If they can meet Hurley’s expectations, they’re tough enough to break away from their surroundings, and disciplined enough to qualify academically to play in college.

God knows how many St. Anthony kids ended up with a legitimate future that normally would have been sucked under by gangs, drugs, guns or whatever.

So when Hurley pulls an upset like he did the other night, it’s not really an upset at all. His teams are bulldog tenacious and meticulous in their strategy — an extension of Hurley himself.

Prep basketball has attracted more prestige in recent years, with ESPN picking up a few games every year, but Hurley’s victory still comes far below the mainstream radar. There’d certainly be more public glory and money if Hurley were to ascend to the college or pro levels. But Hurley has chiseled in stone his life’s work as a teacher, a role model and a sentinel, upholding his ideals at St. Anthony’s and masterfully bridging the gap to a simpler time.

Hurley has found his kingdom. And precious few will achieve, or even deign to aspire to, a similar calling and meaning in their life.

But if all of us did, it’d be amazing to think what we could accomplish.

Esoteric

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