It is late June, and six young boys—career gym rats, judging from their serious hoops attire—stare through small windows in the doors that lead to the basketball floor at the La Jolla Jewish Community Center on the outskirts of San Diego. Who has taken their usual court away from them? Why, it's the eight-man USA Basketball Development squad, a group of collegiate all-stars down in to provide tune-up material for the U.S. Olympic Dream Team before that august group packs its three-woods and endorsement portfolios and heads to Barcelona to liberate the gold medal from the Evil Empire.
The gym rats watch in awe as the collegians run through plays they will shortly perform against the Dream Team. Six of the players—Kentucky's Jamal Mashburn, Tennessee's Allan Houston. Duke's Grant Hill, Memphis State's Anfernee Hardaway, Wake Forest's Rodney Rogers and Michigan's Chris Webber—are black and huge, averaging 6'7½", 221 pounds. Another, Eric Montross from North Carolina, is white and huge: 7 feet, 260. And one, the kid with the ball, the other guy from Duke, is white and...and....
"Jeez," says one gym rat, "Bobby Hurley is so little!"
It's not just size and pigment that set Hurley—6 feet, 165 pounds—apart from his brethren. There's something else that has caught the watchers' eyes. Call it a lack of muscle tone, or a vague, childlike bemusement over coach George Raveling's instructions, or the air of pallid frailty that emanates from him as he stands, ball in hand, at the top of the key, waiting for a pick-and-roll to develop down among the giants. Whatever it is. Hurley has mesmerized the gym rats because in his unassuming ordinariness he looks just like... them.
November 23, 1992
And that, in a nutshell, is the whole rap on Bobby Hurley. That physical ordinariness has dogged him his entire life. As he prepares to lead Duke on its quest to win a third straight NCAA title, it still nags in the background. It's easy to think that Hurley has always been a marginally talented player lucky enough to be at the throttle of some hugely talented teams. There's a tendency for observers to think: I could go out there like that little guy and throw the ball above the rim every few minutes and have someone slam it down. But the observers couldn't.
Even some of Hurley's opponents don't understand this. After Duke crushed Michigan 71-51 in last year's NCAA title game, Michigan freshman guard Jimmy King assessed Hurley's play as "average." Ah, freshmen. Hurley was only voted the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. King, for one, should have known better. After all, in a December matchup between Duke and Michigan in Ann Arbor, Hurley pushed his team to an 88-85 overtime win by playing all 45 minutes and finishing with a career-high 26 points, seven assists, two steals and just two turnovers. Were Hurley's points critical? Just a bit. He scored the final eight in regulation and the last four in overtime.
Should we go on? Hurley himself would prefer we didn't. Shy, retiring, often melancholy, always courteous, self-deprecating and self-doubting, Robert Matthew Hurley from Jersey City would prefer we let him play buckets and let his record speak for itself. And what a record it is. Check it out.
As a pint-sized freshman at Jersey City's St. Anthony High—for which his father, Bob, has been the basketball coach for 21 years—Hurley helped lead his team to a 24-3 record and a first-place finish in the state tournament for parochial schools. As a sophomore he led St. Anthony to a 29-1 record and another state championship. As a junior he led the team to a 30-1 record and a third title. As a senior he led it to a 32-0 record and the No. 1 ranking in the U.S. For those of you without a calculator handy, that's a four-year won-lost total of 115-5. A 96% win rate. Four years, four championship games. So much for high school.
At Duke, Hurley started al point guard from day one. Indeed, coach Mike Krzyzewski had recruited him with the keys to the Duke machine dangling from his hand. "He and Kenny Anderson were the two best guards in the country, and they came out the same year from high schools about 10 miles apart," says Coach K. "A lot of schools were recruiting both. We didn't. We told Bobby. "You're the one.' " Hurley responded by starting all 38 games in 1989-90 and setting Duke's single-season assist record, with 288. He also helped guide the Blue Devils to a 29-9 record and a spot in—what else?—the championship game at the NCAA Tournament. As a sophomore he led Duke to a 32-7 record and the national championship. As a junior last season he directed the team to a 34-2 record and another national title, which made Duke the first school to win hack-to-back NCAA championships since UCLA, in 1972-73.
Yet even now the question dogs him anew. Without Christian Laettner, the 1992 NCAA Player of the Year, can Hurley lead Duke back to the Final Four? Can he duplicate his high school feat—four years, four championship games? If he does, he'll be the first player in the history of the NCAA tournament to do so. Maybe then he'll be able to relax a little. Maybe then he can begin to enjoy himself.
"It's weird to be as good as he is and to never be satisfied," says Hill, Duke's 6'8" preseason All-America. "He's just very critical of himself."
Hurley admits that he tends to see the glass as half empty rather than half full. He recalls Duke's 1991 upset of UNLV as "the closest we've come to being perfect." All he did in that game was play all 40 minutes against an outlaw UNLV high-wire act that had won 45 straight games and seemed ready for NCAA immortality. He had seven assists and scored 12 points, including a three-pointer with two minutes to go that cut UNLV's lead to two and blazed the emotional trail for Duke's shocking 79-77 victory.
But he recalls even more vividly the beating he received at UNLV's hands the year before. Sick with the flu, frighteningly pale, weak and overwhelmed, he finished with two points, live turnovers and zero confidence. "I remember Coach K leaving me out on the floor for the final minutes." says Hurley. "It was just humiliating, like I was out there by myself. I felt like they could do no wrong and I couldn't do anything right. They ran a fast-break show on me. everybody dunking. I don't know if Coach K did it on purpose. I haven't asked him. But it had its effect—I haven't forgotten."
Ask Hurley if he remembers breaking Tommy Amaker's school assist record of 708 last season, and he replies. "Yeah, it was at North Carolina, but it was overshadowed by the fact that we lost. Plus I broke my foot." Hill started at point guard until Hurley returned from his injury, five games later, leading Hill to comment. "Man. I learned quickly how valuable Bobby is." So why is everything doom and gloom for such a needed performer? Why is water always draining from his half-empty cup, the deserved praise always ignored?
"I know I'm a good player," says Hurley, "but...." He tilts his head in that semireflective, semi-insouciant, all-Jersey way he has, and thinks. Analyzing himself and then reporting his findings to other people is not among his favorite activities. But he has had courtesy drilled into him by his no-nonsense parents. "I think I'm constantly looking for ways to improve." he continues, "to prevent myself from being complacent. At times I'm my own worst enemy, but because I'm a point guard, a lot of the team's success depends on how I play, so I have to keep pushing myself."
That fierce drive was woven into Hurley's fabric at an early age, the result of some combination of genetics, his parents' stern tutelage and the lessons of a competitive world. Eddie Rich, who has been an assistant coach for Bob at St. Anthony for the last seven years, has a photo of himself, Bobby and Bobby's younger brother. Danny, that was taken at a summer basketball camp when the boys were sixth-and fourth-grade campers, respectively. Rich is holding a ball, and peanut-sized Bobby is looking at him very intently, while Danny is casually smirking. "It's exactly the same in the picture as it is now." says Rich. "Bobby was intense and would get real upset it' he lost. Damn was laid-back—if he got in his 10 jump shots, he was O.K. I remember when Bobby's team lost the camp championship game, he had a bit of a temper tantrum."
Early on at Duke, Bobby reacted so melodramatically to referees' calls against him that it seemed he was in physical pain and might soon begin rending his clothes and snatching out tufts of his hair. It wasn't good theater, and it wasn't good leadership. During the 1990 Duke-Arkansas game. TV commentator Dick Vitale watched a surly Hurley tirade and then shouted to the viewing audience, "Hey. Bobby Hurley's gonna make my All-Bill Laimbeer team! A whiner, and a moaner, and a groaner. I mean, come on, Bobby!"
Krzyzewski sees Hurley as a work in progress, a young man maturing physically and emotionally, catching up, in a sense, with the skilled athlete who already can control much larger men on a court. Indeed, his whininess has all but vanished, due in part to a sort of shock therapy. Last year Duke assistant coach Pete Gaudet put together a 10-minute greatest-hits videotape of Hurley sulking and complaining in various games and showed it to him. "That helped." says Hurley. "But what helped more was Coach K making a tape of the good things I did and showing that to me. I'm down on myself enough as it is."
"Bobby's not that confident a person," says Krzyzewski. "He doesn't want the limelight because it takes him away from being normal. And he likes being normal, being Bobby. I've talked to him about that, about how he can't have both. "You took us to two national championships." I tell him. "You hit the three-pointer against Vegas—those are not normal things. You have to handle success. I want you to enjoy it." But he just gets so mad at himself. I'm Catholic, like he is, so looking at it from a certain standpoint, I see his actions as his way of doing penance for having sinned. Instant penance, contrition right on the spot."
Today's act is one of contrition, in a sense. Hurley, Hill and Krzyzewski have come to the University of North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill to visit 15-year-old Telvin (Shoestring) Canady, who is paralyzed from the shoulders down and hooked to a ventilator, the result of his being struck by a van while riding his bike. The visit has been made possible by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants requests of children with terminal or life-threatening illnesses.
Hurley is here because Michael Jordan, Shoestring's first choice as a visitor, couldn't make it. He's also here because he loves kids and because he was recently arrested near the Duke campus for drunken driving, a charge that was dropped when he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of careless and reckless driving. He received a six-month suspended sentence, paid a $500 fine, lost his license for 90 days and volunteered to do community-service work, talking to kids about the dangers of drinking and driving. Technically, visiting Shoestring is not part of that work, but for the Catholic-school kid in Hurley it is certainly a form of penance. His name was smeared all over the papers after the arrest, and his embarrassment was monumental, and this, he hopes, can help pay off the debt.
Silent on the ride to the hospital, Hurley lights up when he stands at Shoestring's side. A nurse says that Jordan will be sending the boy some "stuff" soon.
"I wish he'd send me some stuff," Hurley says to Shoestring with a big grin. The boy can barely turn his head, and his voice is inaudible because of the lube in his throat, but Hurley leans down to listen.
"Coach, Shoestring's asking why we don't get nice shoes like that," says Hurley, pointing to the new Air Jordans on the youth's motionless feet.
"Because they don't go with our uniforms," says Krzyzewski. "And because our players would try to play like Michael."
In the hallway, later, a TV reporter asks Hurley how he feels about leaving soon to play against Jordan and his Dream Team mates in California. "The good part is no one will see it," says Hurley of the closed-door sessions. "What happens in that gym, hopefully, will stay there."
As he prepares to scrimmage against the Dream Team in San Diego, Hurley worries that his stamina may be about the only thing he has to offer the Olympians. He enters the gym with his teammates, then emerges from the building 90 minutes later, having battled the Dream Team without any members of the press being allowed to watch. How did he do? "O.K.," he says, looking down at his shoes.
But as the week progresses, word gradually spreads that the collegians pasted the Olympic team and Hurley did better than O.K. "He's about as good as anybody I've seen playing college ball." says Magic Johnson. "Whew! He can dribble."
"He's a great player," says Charles Barkley.
"He surprised me," says Jordan. "I thought he'd be average, but his penetration is unbelievable. Ask Stockton."
Rumor is that John Stockton had big trouble covering Hurley—that, on occasion, Hurley ate him alive. "He's done a nice job, that's all I can tell you." Stockton says curtly.
"That's all I can say," snaps Stockton.
Is it possible, then, that Hurley can be effective in the NBA, that he might even be a...force? "Hell, yes," says assistant coach Lenny Wilkins. "He just looks out of place."
Bolstered by his showing against the world's best, Hurley sits a few days later in the small living room in his family's two-bedroom row house in Jersey City with his mother. Chris; his father; Danny; his 11-year-old sister, Melissa; and his girlfriend, Ana Quinones. a medical student at Tufts University, who has come down from Boston to visit. Outside it is raining, and Jersey City looks like the dark, troubled place it is.
Mayors come and go like weeds here, corruption bubbles steadily, crime and poverty surge. But this is where the Hurleys want to live. A probation officer by day, Bob Hurley was born in Jersey City and has never wanted to commute or get caught up in the suburban rat race. He and Chris, also a Jersey City native, have been married 22 years, during which time Bob has turned down all oilers to work or coach elsewhere. "We thought about buying a vacation home in the Poconos," Bob says. "But then we realized we'd never use it."
And so the Hurleys live in a middle-class enclave, in a narrow house attached to two just like it, in a row of a dozen more that are nearly identical, with the lights of New York City beckoning wanly in the distance. Chris and Bob sleep in one bedroom with the family's two dogs, Duke and Brutus; Melissa and Chris's mother, Hattie, sleep in the other (with Ana sleeping there too, during her visit); and the boys sleep in the basement. Out back is a narrow slice of synthetic-turf-and cement-covered yard with a raised pool so small that it could lit in the back of a pickup truck.
The Hurleys are city people who know the pitfalls of idleness and separation, which is why the parents raised their kids with tough love. Pretty much all Bobby and Danny did was study, cat, sleep and play sports, especially basketball. Bob taught them fundamentals, ran them through drills and played against them in fierce one-on-one games at the nearby courts until they started beating him in their early teens, at which point he quit. After that he paid their bus fare to parks in some of the meanest neighborhoods in town so they could play against the best street ballplayers around. And always he critiqued their games.
"I've been very tough on the boys," Bob acknowledges. "But I tried to keep them out of trouble and build up their competitiveness." And it's not that the boys didn't love basketball. "They wouldn't be the players they are if I were living my life through them," Bob says.
The boys basically agree. "He pushed hard." says Danny, who is now a sophomore point guard at Seton Hall. "But there are boundaries, and my dad never crossed them." Bobby finished second academically in his class at St. Anthony, as did Danny, largely because of prompting from their parents. And because of the discipline Bobby learned at home, he's set to graduate in four years from Duke with a degree in sociology.
Over at St. Anthony later in the day, Bob runs a group of high school kids and his sons through a series of bruising scrimmages in the tiny, rundown gym that doubles as the church's bingo hall. The walls are so close to the sidelines that they're considered in bounds, and fouls can't be called until game point is at hand. "The name of the game is Don't Come In Here With Any Weak——," says the coach. A scrawny player is knocked sideways on a layup and crashes partway through the plywood wall beneath the stage. Two players chase a ball into a corner of the gymnasium, sending bingo cards flying. Bobby's team loses a close game, and in disgust he kicks an electric fan as hard as he can, then limps away in pain. It seems hard to believe a national championship high school team could have jelled here, but outside is Jersey City, a splendid motivational tool for those who would make something of themselves.
Bobby and Danny were bonded here through shared toil and suffering, particularly on that freezing-cold night in 1989 when their dad threw Bobby out of a St. Anthony practice for loafing and told him to get home on his own, any way he could. Moments later, Bob looked at Danny and said, "You're his brother—you get out of here too!" Eddie Rich thought about giving the boys a ride after practice ended, but he drove right past them as they stood shivering at a bus stop "because Bob was following me to make sure I didn't stop," says Rich.
The brothers are so competitive that Bob won't let them guard each other in pickup games anymore. When the two matched up against each other in the Duke-Seton Hall NCAA East Regional semifinal last March, it proved disastrous for both. In 18 minutes of action Danny missed four shots and scored no points, while Bobby, who played most of the game, finished with four points and six turnovers. "I'd be happy never to play against my brother again," says Bobby.
Back in the living room after the scrimmages, the Hurleys eat pizza and watch the big-screen TV that is almost too large to view clearly in this limited space. Ana sits by Bobby while he reads a letter from a Make-A-Wish official thanking him for his recent visit to the hospital in Chapel Hill. "After everyone was gone." the official writes, "Shoestring let out a deep belly laugh when talking about the visit—a sound that surprised even him!"
The letter cheers Hurley, and he says he wants to go back and visit Shoestring without reporters and cameras on the scene. But he is still bothered by his drunken-driving arrest and the effect it has had on people's perception of him. He's not a drunk. I le was out with buddies and had a couple of beers at a local pub. He was not swerving or speeding. He was stopped at a late-night roadblock and registered .10 on the Breathalyzer, the legal minimum for alcohol impairment in North Carolina. But he knows he was wrong, and he knows that, as Coach K says, he's not a normal person anymore.
"A lot of people are happy [about the arrest), because they don't want to see me succeed," he says. "And the ones who do want me to succeed, they are hurt. I constantly think how I've affected so many people."
He thinks of Magic Johnson and his great smile and his vocal, overwhelming presence on court, a communicative grace Hurley can only marvel at. He talks about the way Magic directed everything his team did in those scrimmages in San Diego, pointing, ordering, encouraging, running the show like the greatest point guard in the world. "I've never seen anybody handle things like that," says Hurley, his voice filled with reverence. But he knows he himself is growing. "People have told me how much better at speaking I am today than last year," he notes. He recently had braces put on his teeth, to correct his overbite. The teeth, combined with his slender build and his pallor, have always made him look somehow unhealthy. "I'm not overly concerned about my looks," says Hurley. But the braces are a concession, however slight, to a desire to improve his image. Hurley knows that he has his own special tools, that there are things he can do all on his own.
Can the Duke basketball team keep growing and contend for a third consecutive national crown next spring? Hurley thinks so, going so far as to suggest that some players may bloom—"relax" is how he puts it—now that the talented but overbearing Laettner has gone to the pros and won't be constantly criticizing his teammates.
"Christian was tough on us," says Hurley. "He would never not say something."
Coach K also thinks Duke can go for it all one more time: "Whenever you have a player like Bobby Hurley, you can challenge again. To say any less would be stupid."
With any luck, Hurley might even have some fun along the way.