Saturday, April 8, 2017

O Glorious St. Anthony

A nighttime view of soon-to-be-shuttered St. Anthony High School, which will close at end of school year. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

It began in March of 1976.

I was home for break from graduate school, and my high school alma mater, St. Mary’s of Rutherford (NJ), faced St. Anthony in a parochial state playoff game. St. Anthony did not have the outstanding talent they would soon attract to Jersey City. The Friars, though, were always tough and competitive.
   
In the first half, it was a close game. The St. Anthony coach is roaming the sideline, hollering instructions to players, hollering a bit at officials, and just a whirlwind of energy. Sitting in the stands at the Wood-Ridge, New Jersey gym, I am wondering who this excitable (I may have had another word at that time) coach is and how long can he keep this up. The game moved on and St. Anthony gained control. That coach on the sideline is managing his team and the flow of the game with expert precision. All coaches can get intense, yet it was quite evident from watching him this one night, this is one who simply "gets it" on the sidelines.

That was my first memory of Bob Hurley, a legendary coach, inspiration and person I am privileged to call a friend.

Two years later, we formally met. The Jersey City Summer League, featuring college and high school players, was getting underway. Hurley was very active as an organizer and doing a little of everything; announcing, scorekeeping, getting concessions organized, whatever needed to be done. And, yes, some coaching in the high school circuit. From those summer league days, you could see basketball was a Hurley family affair. Wife Chris was there to help out. During timeouts, Bobby and Danny all but seven years of age or so, would take the floor and shoot baskets. Covering the league a few years, one could see their range increase. It was not uncommon for a few of us to get an invite to the Hurley house on some evenings after the games were finished to grab a cold refreshment and talk about the games and basketball in general, virtually an impromptu clinic listening to Coach.
   
One afternoon, arriving early at the summer league proved to be a blessing, as I watched Hurley put his summer team through a 45-minute practice. I jotted notes as this practice, all that was covered in a brief time, was exceptional. The Pershing Field court was transformed into a classroom, with Coach Hurley as the professor. His team, which basically played junior varsity the season before, advanced to the summer high school finals before losing in overtime, a masterful job watching his kids develop and Hurley orchestrate from the sidelines.

Seasons moved on. The Jersey City League, with its college and high school divisions, altered and moved on as well. Still, I always kept an eye on St. Anthony and their exploits on the court. When the Tournament of Champions was instituted in New Jersey, the opportunity was there to cover some Friar games.

To the media, Coach Hurley was gracious and thorough in his game assessments. That was win or lose, the latter of which he did not do on many occasions. The talent level was growing exponentially at the small school near the Holland Tunnel. Regardless, Hurley was the same: Demanding of his kids, requiring they play hard and play fundamentally sound, with defense the priority.

Years progressed and championships did as well. Hurley never changed. They say the years may have mellowed his approach to the officials. It did not, as noted, with his players. Division I-bound signee or last man on the team, the same was demanded of you. No preferential treatment under his watch.

The family stayed involved, with Chris keeping the scorebook, daughter Melissa attending games and occasionally doing thoughtful things such as baking cookies for the team, and even Bobby and Danny getting back to see a game when their playing and later coaching schedules allowed. Both were in attendance for Hurley’s 1,000th victory in 2011.

Banner commemorating Bob Hurley's 1,000th victory hangs at St. Anthony. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Covering college games over the years, I would see more of Hurley as; schedule permitting, he came out to watch his former players in action. One night comes to mind. It epitomized Hurley’s outstanding gift of breaking down a game. Notre Dame was in Madison Square Garden in the late 1980s. They defeated an overmatched Manhattan team. Following interviews Irish coach Digger Phelps worked the room, making small talk with alumni and a few media members. Outside the Notre Dame locker room, Hurley was talking with Irish guard David Rivers, who played for him at St. Anthony. Without a notebook or index card to refer to, Hurley recounted sequences of the game, remembering time and score. It was teacher and pupil again, as Hurley reviewed the good plays Rivers made, while offering suggestions on shots that may have been rushed or penetrations forced. It was amazing to see his recollection of each play, and Rivers took it all in, hanging on every word of a valuable teaching moment.

The years brought more titles, accolades and overtures from colleges interested in Hurley’s services. A Jersey City native who never left the city to attend school, grade through college, Hurley remained at St. Anthony, ever loyal and faithful to the small school and its mission.

Getting into officiating and working some St. Anthony games on all levels brought me another perspective on Coach Hurley. He would be in attendance and watch, make that study, JV games held prior to his varsity team taking the floor, always analyzing individual players and the team as a whole. At halftime of the JV game, he would go over the gym floor with a broom, his way of collecting pregame thoughts, but a practice that made quite an impression on a certain writer/official.

Hurley was demanding of assistants coaching JV or freshmen, not so much on wins and losses as playing the right way; the St. Anthony way, and ensuring the players worked hard and carried themselves in a respectful manner.

His lessons to the team carried beyond the basketball court. Off the floor, he demanded they carry themselves in a respectful, courteous manner. Covering college games, I often ran into former St. Anthony players on Division I teams. They knew my name but always called me “Mr. Floriani.” To a player, I would say, “You are in college, call me Ray.” It was still “Mr. Floriani.” Chalk it up to the Hurley effect.

On the court, the Hurley effect produced over 1,000 wins, 28 state and 13 Tournament of Champions titles, and a number of players heading off to play in college. Through his five decades, Hurley’s devotion to the school transcended basketball. He saw St. Anthony as a way for students to obtain a quality education in a small, faith-based setting rather than be lost in a crowd of a much larger institution, an opportunity to progress and go to college. In these last few years as St. Anthony’s president, Hurley generally enjoyed talking to students, asking about their classes, hopes and aspirations.  

St. Anthony had been on the ropes several times over the years. Each time the school survived seemed almost as if the angels were watching over. On this past Wednesday, a sun-splashed afternoon, the final verdict was handed down by the Archdiocese of Newark. St. Anthony would close at the end of the school year. Hurley, who did everything in his power to keep the school operating, was naturally distraught. Forget coaching. Hurley was concerned and thinking about the types of students St. Anthony helped over the years. Those students, a number still in attendance at the school, would now be without a wonderful opportunity.

A day following that Archdiocesan verdict it rained. Those angels had shed a tear.

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