Season after season, coach Bob Hurley finds it increasingly difficult to kid his kids. Hurley, who is a Hudson County (N.J.) probation officer eight hours a day and the leader of Jersey City's St. Anthony High School basketball team every other waking moment, understands the psychology and the hunger of the underdog. For 18 years now, that has been part of his motivational pitch.
"Ever since I began coaching I've told my players that our next opponent is the best basketball team that ever played," says Hurley, 42. "But it's been hard lately. Nobody buys it."
The problem is not with Hurley's delivery—it's more in the audience he chooses. His collection of young listeners hasn't lost a basketball game in almost two years. In fact, this week the St. Anthony Friars start the season riding a streak of 50 straight wins, 32 of them last season, including victories over nationally ranked Miami Senior (68-55) and Flint Hill (Va.) Prep (64-45). Add to that the Friars' average winning margin of 28 points, and it's easy to see why they were voted national high school basketball champions by USA Today and Street & Smith's.
What's more, in Hurley's 17 seasons his teams have won 13 state titles in the Parochial B and C divisions. And during that span all but one of Hurley's 60 players have gone on to college, 35 on basketball scholarships. The school's hoops alumni include David Rivers (Notre Dame) and Kenny Wilson (Villanova).
Except for all that prosperity, Hurley and his Friars would seem to merit some sympathy, St. Anthony is a Roman Catholic school with only 306 students and a tuition of $1,350. Hurley does not recruit and has no scholarships to offer. The school does not even have its own gymnasium. Yet each year Hurley takes a group of tough Jersey City kids and molds them into a superior team.
"We don't have a lot of what other teams take for granted, but we have my dad, and he's the reason St. Anthony is where it is today," says Bobby Jr., who was a guard on last year's team and is now attending Duke. "You have to come to every practice ready to play because he never loses his intensity."
During Coach Hurley's tenure, the Friars have practiced in a variety of gyms, halls and playgrounds. Although he hopes to consolidate most of this season's workouts at a local armory, Hurley knows that St. Anthony's alternative practice sites are part of its makeup. The most unusual of these places is White Eagle Hall, which also sees use as a bingo parlor, in downtown Jersey City. At the Eagle, one basket is held upright, and two inches too high, by two radiators supporting its base. The court is 29 feet too short. In some places, nailheads stick up menacingly through the wood, while in other areas dribbled basketballs thud as if they were hitting wet sand. The roof leaks when it rains, and the overhead lights have a tendency to flicker just as jumpers are cocked. For obvious reasons Hurley wants to limit the Friars' exposure to the Eagle this season, but the roots run deep. For 14 years on almost every Saturday afternoon during the season, the Friars convened there for practice, or what Hurley calls his whip-and-chair routine....
It's late in the evening at the Eagle, and everybody inside is at the breaking point. Hurley leaps about two feet above the worn center circle. When he lands, the tirade begins and the players fall silent, each hoping he will not be the coach's target. Hurley hits the floor at a dead spot, holding his head tightly, as though it were about to explode. He orders a player to leave the court and rhetorically asks him, "Do you have any idea what you're doing?"
No answer. Smart.
Then Hurley launches into his patented oratory—"Thousands of kids in this country really want to play big-time basketball"—including a few adjectives that might prompt a trip to the confessional. Practice resumes as he exits stage left. There is a whistle clenched between the coach's teeth, but his lips are curled ever so slightly into a smile. It's vintage Hurley, and he knows it.
Policy at the Eagle dictated that after Saturday's drills, the exhausted players had to set up 63 tables and 200 chairs for the 10 o'clock bingo session that night. At 9:30 on Sunday morning, the Friars returned to fold up the furniture and continue basic training.
Given all this, games have always come as a relief, although each one has involved a road trip. That's not all bad. For example, during the past two seasons the Friars traveled to Hawaii, Florida and Arkansas for tournaments. This season, Hurley has scheduled three games in Puerto Rico. But these kids do more than just rack up frequent-flier miles. The Friars sacrifice their vacations and must keep at the books. The school rejects any suggestion that its players are spoiled. "People say our kids are pampered, going on all these trips," says athletic director Sister Mary Alan. "I don't call eating on McDonald's coupons being wined and dined."
Most of the money for travel expenses is collected by the team, which organizes a variety of fund-raisers between practices. St. Anthony also profits from its share of gate receipts; the Friars' reputation tends to attract capacity crowds.
But his team's national prominence also causes headaches for Hurley, who constantly fields questions about accepting a job in the college ranks. He has a simple reply: "I've lived in Jersey City all my life. I'm not going anywhere."
Then there's the effect of the limelight on the team. Last year, Hurley worried that St. Anthony's 11 appearances on cable television would swell the players' heads. Players are often asked for autographs after games. Last January, Sister Mary even hired an extra secretary to handle calls from the media.
This season the Friars are rebuilding after the graduation of three big-time college recruits. Bobby Jr. is at Duke, and Jerry Walker and Terry Dehere signed with Seton Hall, in nearby South Orange. But Sister Mary's phone still rings, and St. Anthony's cupboard is far from bare. To replace Bobby Jr., Hurley looked no farther than his own dinner table. Danny, a junior, will step into his brother's sneakers at point guard.
And for the first time, the Friars will have a real gym to play in. With the help of a local congressman, Hurley obtained use of a run-down basketball court in the Jersey City National Guard Armory. He then spent his free time for six weeks sanding and refinishing the playing surface. His plan is to conduct practice at the new court six days a week and use the Eagle on Sundays. He even hopes to schedule some games in the armory as early as January.
With Hurley as its leader, St. Anthony is no underdog. After all the years and all the trophies, even the coach has trouble believing his speeches. Sitting in the dim, flickering light of the Eagle recently, he could barely hold back a smile as he reiterated a favorite line. "We're just a tiny Catholic School without a home gym," he said, "so all I can tell my kids is that they're the best road team in the nation."