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The eyes have it

Hurley has turned program into basketball powerhouse

By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / December 28, 2010

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JERSEY CITY — It starts with “The Stare.’’

That’s what the St. Anthony High School players call Coach Bob Hurley Sr.’s bulging blue eyes.

“The Stare’’ means that the former probation officer and Hall of Fame basketball coach is upset. And that spells trouble.

“He yells a lot,’’ says senior Lucky Jones. “But we know it’s because he really cares about us.’’

The 63-year-old Hurley, a 2010 inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, is just the third boys’ high school coach to be honored in Springfield.

Since becoming head varsity coach in 1973 he has won 23 state championships and three national titles. But the number that makes the legendary Hurley proudest involves academics. All but two of his 200 former players have gone on to college. Winning basketball games is not the most important thing in his life.

“Ultimately my goal is to get them to college,’’ says Hurley, who conducts a one-hour study hall to ensure that homework is done before practice begins. “I just have to stay on them all the time.’’

He has kept St. Anthony, a struggling private Catholic school tucked in between the Holland Tunnel and the tenements of Jersey City, from closing its doors with full-court fund-raising. It is a school without a gym, but not without a heart.

“Without him,’’ says principal Mathew Glowski, “it wouldn’t be here.’’

The brick school has a motto painted inside its entrance that says, “. . . the Street Stops Here.’’

Not always. Earlier on this day there was a lockdown at the school and police cars raced down 8th Street, now known as Bob Hurley Sr. Way. The problem turned out to be minor, but the issues students here face are daunting.

More than half of the students’ families live below the poverty line. Although the group dynamic is slowly changing for the better, half of Hurley’s players have been raised without their fathers. Hurley, born and bred in Jersey City, becomes their de facto dad, eyes darting at practice, head swiveling, his mind racing faster than his point guards. He relentlessly chomps on gum while teaching offensive plays. His red whistle, a present from a New York and New Jersey Port Authority worker, is loud, and he’s not afraid to use it.

“We have a contract that the kids sign,’’ says Hurley. “It’s 19 things. There’s a curfew [10 p.m. school nights, midnight on weekends] because nothing good in the world happens after midnight. It covers the way they dress, jewelry, no tattoos, short haircuts, no facial hair.

“It’s a benevolent dictatorship. The ACLU may have a problem with it, but it works. Mel Brooks was right, ‘It’s good to be King.’ ’’

Basketball fans can see this year’s powerhouse St. Anthony team — the 3-0 Friars are ranked No. 6 in the USA Today national rankings — at the four-team Garden City Classic in Newton tomorrow and Thursday. St. Anthony faces Catholic Memorial tomorrow at 6 p.m., with host Newton North playing Newton South in the second game.

Unique motivator Catholic Memorial hockey coach Bill Hanson, who has won 17 Massachusetts state championships with a tough-love attitude similar to Hurley’s, says it is hard to keep motivating student-athletes, especially seniors.

“Familiarity breeds contempt,’’ says Hanson.

Hurley agrees.

“He’s right,’’ said Hurley. “But they keep coming back. My relationship with the kids changes drastically after they play with me.’’

Former player Ahmad Nivins, who was part of the 2003-04 undefeated team, has returned to the rented gymnasium the team uses down the street to rehab a torn ACL he suffered playing in Spain. When he hears Hurley yell, and he doesn’t have to wait long, he smiles.

“I can confidently say that every one of the greats that have played here have at one time or another gotten the boot,’’ says the 6-9 Nivins, who is still under contract with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. “He pushes his players not only on the court but off the court.’’

And woe be the player who is disrespectful.

“I made a mistake on one of the plays and I kind of made a face at him,’’ said Nivins. “He looked me in the eye, came up to me, put his hand up, and said, ‘Let’s go!’ No punches were thrown, but I was convinced he was ready to take me on. It’s a teaching thing. He’s definitely family.’’

Hurley says no player ever has taken him up on his offer.

“No, no, no,’’ he says. “Would somebody punch their father? My relationship with the kids is different. They know I care about them.’’

He also admits that his salty language, well-chronicled in Adrian Wojnarowski’s book, “The Miracle of St. Anthony,’’ never would fly in public schools.

“I flip, but it’s over things that kids are doing that are unacceptable. I flip over basketball things, or academic things like not taking your education seriously.’’

Ben Gamble, a former player and now an assistant coach at St. Anthony’s, says Hurley has mellowed.

“My sophomore year [1979], after we lost to Plainfield, he told us to lock the balls up and he pulled out the wrestling mats. We all had to get down on our knees and wrestle each other. We weren’t pinning them the way he wanted us to. All kinds of fights broke out. We did that for about two hours and then he moved the mats and we had to do about 20 suicide drills.’’

The following year they were in Las Vegas, trailing by 20 points at halftime to Valley High School.

“Coach walks in, looks at everybody, locks his hands over his head, looks at us, and says, ‘Fellas, Plainfield,’ and walks out,’’ says Gamble. “We all knew what that meant. We went out there and kicked their behinds. Didn’t want to do that wrestling thing again.’’

Hurley never has had a class graduate that didn’t get a championship during its tenure. Five of Hurley’s players have been NBA first-round draft choices, including his son Bobby, who starred at Duke.

Strong family ties Once Villanova coach Rollie Massimino and his son, Tommy, went to the Hurley home to recruit Bobby Hurley and Jerry Walker. The entire one-hour presentation was done by Tommy Massimino.

“Coach Massimino sat with his arms folded on the couch the whole time,’’ said Hurley. “When it was all done he leaned forward and said, ‘Do you have any questions?’ And Jerry Walker said, ‘I have a question. If you’d like me to go to your school, why did you let him make the whole presentation?’ Which is absolutely right. You don’t use a backup to make a big sale to win an account. He kind of bounced off the couch and stood up. Things escalated quickly. It kind of ended with me telling him to get out of the house. I said, ‘I don’t want to see you again.’ It got too personal.’’

Despite the nitty-gritty neighborhood, Hurley’s players never play dirty. They don’t argue with a referee, taunt an opponent, grab a jersey, or fight.

“It’s all positioning and technique,’’ he says. “I don’t want kids cutting corners. I don’t want anyone being disrespectful to the sport.’’

Hurley was a Celtics fan growing up during the Bill Russell era. His oldest son grew up wanting to be the Celtics’ point guard.

Hurley started bringing Bobby with him to the old bingo hall where his Friars practiced when Bobby was just 18 months old.

“We laid blankets down on the floor and the manager used to watch him,’’ he said.

Bobby Hurley led Duke to back-to-back national championships in 1991 and 1992, when he was named NCAA Final Four Most Valuable Player.

Bobby is currently an assistant coach at Wagner College under his younger brother, Danny, who also played at St. Anthony and then at Seton Hall.

Hurley had several offers to move into the college coaching ranks, but he choose to stay put and has no regrets.

“My world is this little world,’’ he says. “I’m up there every day doing anything I can do. That’s my golf, my going to the track. It’s who I am.’’

Some of his detractors charge that he is running a basketball factory at St. Anthony.

“I’d love to say I have time for people that don’t know anything about me, but I don’t,’’ he said. ‘You know, I put the head on the pillow during basketball season and I go to sleep fast.’’

He called his inclusion in the Hall of Fame “overwhelming.’’ But he made sure his 13 current players got to go, courtesy of Reebok, and he was delighted when Charles Barkley spent 15 minutes talking to them.

“He told them to make sure to get a good education, ’cause we’ve got enough dumb people in this world,’’ Hurley says.

But Hurley didn’t even bother to look at his plaque.

“I couldn’t get myself to go upstairs,’’ he says. “The level of discomfort was off the charts. I’m shy outside of the gym.’’

Closing in on 1,000 wins In February, he most likely will get his 1,000th win. To celebrate, he will go to an Irish pub and get a beer and a burger with his wife, Chris. They’ve been married for 40 years. They met, of course, in a gym.

Hurley says he may coach five more years. He wants to spend more time with his family, including his six grandkids.

He’s also got 200 former players to follow.

Some of their success stories are chilling.

Rashon Burno was the point guard on the 1996 national championship team that included shooting guard Anthony Perry, who later played at Georgetown. Burno’s parents both died of AIDS when he was 7. He lived in Jersey City’s notorious Duncan Projects, his grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease, and his family members used their apartment as a place to use drugs. Hurley was his compass.

“I love him,’’ says Burno, now an assistant coach at Towson University. “He had integrity in everything he did. That was something I could mirror myself after.’’

But he, too, got “The Stare,’’ and then some.

One winter’s day a big snowstorm forced the school to cancel classes. Burno says the next day it snowed again and he called the school early. A recording said that classes were canceled. Unfortunately, it was the previous day’s message.

“They didn’t change the voicemail,’’ Burno says. So both he and Walker stayed away.

St. Anthony had a big game coming up against Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania and its star player, Kobe Bryant.

“In the locker room before the game, Hurley said, ‘You two [expletives] are not playing because you cut school.’ At the time I thought he was out of his mind. I said, ‘Coach, I’m the starting point guard and this is the leading scorer. This is not like the ninth and 10th guys. What are you doing?’

“Meantime they go out and win without us. And that was probably the most valuable lesson I learned as a young man in my life. It’s all about accountability. That no one is bigger than the program, no one is bigger than the family. Hurley had his principles and he wouldn’t compromise for anyone.’’

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.