Read an Excerpt
In the old neighborhood, on the street corners in the Greenville section of Jersey City, in the playgrounds and the gymnasiums, Bob Hurley can still see him. Thirty-eight years have passed but Tommy Esposito will be forever eighteen years old, the kid the girls adored, the kid the boys wanted to be. He was Hurley's best friend, big and strong and smart, representing promise-the promise of every kid who Hurley someday would struggle to save, and the tragedy of those he would lose.
It happened late in the summer of 1965, in the fading innocence of his childhood, and it wouldn't be until years passed that Hurley understood that both of them had been desperately trying to hold onto something that was slipping away too fast.
Everything was changing, the way it had in the world beyond the borders of this jagged city in the shadows of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan: the racial tensions, the growing anxiety about the Vietnam War, the drugs. Bob and Tommy had missed all of it while bouncing a basketball. Together, they had held courts from St. Paul's Parish to the No. 30 School to Audubon Park. Afterward, they would drop a quarter on the counter of Irv's Deli on the walk home to Greenville, on the southern tip of the city, buying pressed ham sandwiches on half a pizza loaf. On Friday nights, they would cross Kennedy Boulevard for the Friday night dances at Sacred Heart Academy, where fluid footwork on the gym floor remained secondary to flailing fists outside in the parking lot.
It was one of those gorgeous summer nights when young men feel untouchable, like nothing could ever stop them. Bob, Tommy, and a few of the fellas had gone down to RooseveltStadium to watch Bucky Rineer, a buddy from the neighborhood, play quarterback for a minor-league football team.
In just a few weeks, Hurley would begin his sophomore year at St. Peter's College, over on Kennedy, where he had played freshman basketball. Tommy was a bright student and had a chance to play football in college, but no one had ever steered him that way at home. He had been a year behind Bob in school because he had run away as a kid and had been kept back at Snyder High. After enlisting in the army that summer, he would soon be leaving for basic training, and after that, Vietnam. Everyone was sure he would come home a war hero. Tommy Esposito could be a little crazy, but he always landed on his feet.
As they walked to the corner of Danforth and Fowler, Hurley told his buddies that his family was away for the night and invited them over to watch the Mets game. "Nah," Esposito told them, "we're gonna go swimming in the channel."
Now, on a bright October afternoon in the fall of 2003, Bob Hurley, the coach of the nationally renowned St. Anthony High School boys basketball team, was pulling up in his Toyota Camry to that same corner. His thoughts went back again to that night in 1965.
"So we get to the corner, and a couple of us made the right and walked over to my house," Hurley said. "Tommy and two others guys decided to turn down toward the water. They walked up and bought some beer, and now they were going to go swimming in the pitch black down by the channel. They decided to hop a train. Two kids hopped up. Tommy was carrying the beer. He tried to hop on while the train was going.
"He lost his balance. The one kid couldn't grab him."
While Bob had been sitting in his living room, Lindsey Nelson and Ralph Kiner flickering on the television set, Tommy Esposito ended up under that train, pieces of his body scattered down the tracks by the Morris Canal.
Hurley tapped the pedal in his old neighborhood, looked into his rearview mirror, and turned right, down Fowler. Window down, elbow dangling, he could feel the chilled autumn air through his blue nylon New Jersey Nets windbreaker. It meant that the start of basketball season wasn't far off. And it guaranteed to tighten the knot in his stomach, that edge to his disposition that always came with the beginning of practice, with the uncertainty of it all.
He made his way down Fowler, toward the gym, toward the basketball season and those St. Anthony kids looking as strong and young and alive as Tommy once had. He tugged on his baseball cap, snug to the edge of his forehead. His eyes were on the road, but his mind was back where Danforth met Fowler, where one boy had turned toward manhood, another toward a cautionary tale.
"You get older and you realize that something was going to happen to the poor guy," Hurley continued. "He didn't have much at home. He just didn't have the benefit of people helping him through things. Tommy Esposito had managed to fight everything. He was invincible."
That night, Hurley had learned the lesson about invincibility and these Jersey City streets, about what a kid needed growing up to give him a shot at getting on his way to a good life.
"I guess you just know sometimes that a guy's in danger, that someone has got to save him."
Thirty-eight years had passed, but on the streets outside his window, there were kids who now believed themselves to be just as invincible, who had no idea how vulnerable they were.
That was something that never changed in Jersey City. There was always a corner, and there was always a choice.
Seen from the steel arches suspending the Casciano Bridge over Newark Bay, Jersey City stands with a skyline of steeples and smokestacks, leaving the ill-informed the impression that it has stayed largely untouched and unchanged over the years. Still, everything had moved such a long way from those days when Bob Hurley's old man had walked the streets as a beat cop.
As crime and poverty remained on the rise in Jersey City, as the public school system grew into such disarray that the state of New Jersey had to strip control from the local board of education, Hurley and the two Felician nuns, Sister Felicia and Sister Alan, wouldn't let the doors of the tiny brick school on Eighth Street in downtown close for good, even when the parish church had pulled its funding, even when the archdiocese would do little but wish them the best and privately predict its demise. For a quarter of a century now, the three of them had been trying to keep St. Anthony High School open for the poorest of the poor in Jersey City. Each year, with limited resources-without even his own gymnasium-Hurley constructed a national powerhouse program out of an enrollment that struggled to stay at 200 students for four grades. And every year, as St. Anthony balanced on the brink of financial ruin, that basketball team and coach would find a way to rally everyone and raise the money so another class could graduate and keep the school's decade-long streak of 100 percent college acceptance. Most of all, Hurley just wouldn't let that school die in a Jersey City where so much else he had held sacred was gone.
Today, the varsity letter sweaters have turned to gold chains, the fists to firearms, and it breaks Hurley's heart to see that the Jersey City that raised him has grown so complicated and treacherous for the kids under his watch now. High school basketball has changed, too, growing corrupt and commercialized, but its greatest dynasty never budges because Bob Hurley is determined to stay the most stubborn S.O.B. ever to walk into the gym with a whistle. In thirty-one seasons as St. Anthony coach, his teams had 796 victories and 91 losses, twenty-one Parochial state titles, eight of the fifteen New Jersey Tournament of Champions titles ever held, two USA Today national championships and five runner-up finishes. And most of all, all of it had been done the St. Anthony way. His way.
"What I have here is a formula to get kids out of Jersey City," Hurley says, and it begins with his foot on their throats, commanding them completely until they get out of high school, until they've gone to college like each of his players but one has since he started coaching at St. Anthony in 1972.
Hurley has sent more than a hundred players to full basketball scholarships, and five to the NBA as first-round picks, including his son, Bobby. It stands as an odd juxtaposition: Hurley has stayed so that they can get out. Somehow, Hurley is still the biggest bargain in sports-$6,800 a season to win championships year after year, to mold men and raise the revenue to save the school and its student body, to save a way of Catholic school education that is fading fast in urban America.
To him there is something so pure about high school basketball. In Hurley's practice gym, it is always 1965. There are no tattoos on his players, no cornrows, no facial hair. The most improbable dynasty in basketball has survived against the longest odds because Hurley has kept watch on these streets when he could've left to be a famous college coaching star, with a million-dollar-a-year package, a shoe deal, and racks of Armani suits. Yet on game nights, he wore that same maroon sweater-vest, those gray slacks, and his dulled brown loafers. And his kids still play the fiercest man-to-man in basketball, treating opponents like they've broken into their homes and threatened their families. He drives his team with a tenacity taken from thirty years on the job as a Hudson County probation officer. Thirty years of walking into housing projects and gutted-out apartments where cops didn't dare go without a partner and a piece. Trusting his instincts to think on his feet, Hurley had hardened himself to deal with whatever lurked in the stairwell shadows.
The fear, the sheer uneasiness that his figure strikes into his players-what he uses to push his teams-is borne out of his own fear of the influence of the streets, out of the understanding that as soon as compromise and concession reach his gymnasium, he's lost everything. "I grew up in a neighborhood where you crossed the street to avoid somebody, or you just kept walking toward him, saying to yourself, 'Screw it, I've got to deal with it today,' " Hurley says.
Yet something still drove him that people couldn't see, couldn't possibly understand unless they had seen the innocence of Tommy Esposito's face, unless they had sat at Hurley's probation desk to witness the wasted lives and broken promise of two generations. Until his retirement from probation two years ago, he had done the best he could sifting through the carnage of Jersey City's lost souls.
"If they went to jail, it was because I had exhausted every other avenue with them," he says. "It was because that's where they belonged."
Hurley had been too late for most of them. He was picking up the pieces of families and lives that had already been shattered. It deepened his own resolve, a belief that coaching was a calling, a responsibility, the last line of defense between kids and the streets, between getting out and getting left behind.
"I would sit and listen to these men's stories for thirty years, and almost always it was the same: Somewhere in the eighth, ninth grade, when they were just starting to make decisions, they got off course," Hurley says. "At the end of the day, when it was time for me to go practice, I would want to run to those kids on my team. They all had the potential to rise above this, and I would do anything to see that they would. They would be behind academically, or need more discipline, and I would tell myself, 'I can't let them fall by the wayside, too.'
"There were an awful lot of days where I would stagger to practice and tell my kids, 'I had a brutal day today, boys.' Friday was sentencing day in the county, where it became the ultimate frustration of watching men go inside for years of their lives. And Monday would be the day where the ones on probation would come in and tell me their stories. Those would just take the life out of me. We would practice from 3:00 to 4:30 on those days, and it would be a catharsis for me, just to get out of there for those one and a half hours. After that, I would go back to the office and meet with more men from 5:00 until 6:30.
"But I would always bring these stories back to practice-and I still tell them now. I would point to a kid and tell him a story about a man going back to jail out of the housing project where the player was growing up. And once in a while, too, I'd have a story of someone who had turned his life around."
This would be the season of survival for Bob Hurley. The showdown of a street fighter's life awaited in the winter of 2003-2004. Everything was on the line this year, the history, the tradition, the lives of a senior class threatening to sink back into the city's streets. This would be the fight to save St. Anthony High School, the fight against the change in the culture of kids, the fight to prove that this basketball team-the one constructed around seniors he calls the "most dysfunctional class that I've had in thirty-two years"- would rise to meet a standard of St. Anthony Friars basketball greatness that they seemed determined to lower every day.
They would have to do it on the basketball court, because he was going to be on this team like nothing they'd seen at St. Anthony in years. He is known as the greatest high school basketball coach in the country, but maybe there is no stopping there, because no one teaches the game like Bob Hurley. No one inspires kids like him, and no one anywhere in basketball comes closer to perfection under the most imperfect of circumstances. Almost anyone who's watched his teams play through the years comes away convinced that they play harder than any team, on any level, that they've ever seen. And this promised to be a season where those seniors could expect him to keep coming at them every day.
Yet, going into this season, Hurley had already given this team so many second chances, letting kids back whom he would never have before. He feared that it tore at the fabric of his authority, undermined his ability to lord over this basketball program-this dominance-with an iron fist. Sometimes, he knows, one player needs to be cast aside to spare the rest. Because once anyone sees a crack in the foundation, once the discipline is dulled, once the fear of God that his players feel when Bob Hurley walks into the gymnasium is done, this dynasty is dead. They might as well deflate the balls, barricade the doors to the high school, and understand that St. Anthony basketball will have lost its edge, lost its usefulness, and ultimately, lost its way.
This worry wasn't just on his mind now, it was torturing him. But what was his choice anymore? Once more, Hurley was the last line of defense. The tiny school was dying, the money had dried up again, and most of the fund-raising and donations that had come in were because people believed in him, in his values from a different time, a different Jersey City. They knew that if Hurley ever left, if the school ever closed, a whole way of life would go down too.
Now, the relentlessly troubled seniors on his team were messing with the St. Anthony mystique, messing with Bob Hurley. They were daring him to a street fight that brought him back to the old days. They still didn't get it, but there was time. He knew that somehow, if he could just get through, they would understand. He just hoped it wouldn't be too late to save them, and maybe, save this senior class the dubious distinction of being the biggest bunch of screwups in school history.
Someday, he knew, Marcus Williams and Ahmad Mosby, Lamar Alston Otis Campbell and Shelton Gibbs-all of them-would hear his voice and it would resonate. Because that voice never leaves his players.
For better or worse, it stays with them forever.
Bob Hurley's ballplayers will even hear his voice far from the basketball court, long after they have left his watch, the way Mark Harris, a firefighter out of Jersey City Ladder No. 12, had heard it on the roof of those burning row houses on Harmon Street years after he had shared the Friars backcourt with Hurley's son Bobby, back in the late 1980s.
His partner, Donald Stembridge, had been cutting a ventilation hole in the roof, and his foot got caught in the hole. Beneath them, they could see the flames exploding into the rafters and through the roof.
"When we played, we used to get guys in traps and look at their facial expressions-just to see how scared they were," Harris remembers. "As a kid, you're not supposed to be thinking like that, but the game used to slow down that much for us. As players for Coach Hurley, we were so prepared that we began to see everything at a different speed. So I was standing in the middle of this, and the flames are everywhere and the roof is giving way and we're close to falling into the fire. . . .
"And right away, all that flashed into my mind was: Think before you react. Awareness. Alertness. And it was just like Coach had trained us. Everything turned to slow motion. It was like I was playing ball again."
After freeing his partner, Harris and Stembridge navigated across the crumbling footing, leaping to a safe area on top of a row house next door. A moment later, the blaze exploded through the rafters, engulfing the roof they had just abandoned.
As Mark Harris stood against the Jersey City sky, as flames spit into the air, the chills ran up and down his spine. It had hit him, like it would for so many old St. Anthony basketball players.
He looked into the inferno and thought: "Coach Hurley just saved my life."
Ed Szalkiewicz kept coming down the third-floor corridor of St. Anthony High School, insisting that Ahmad Mosby-the senior everyone called "Beanie"-turn around and talk to him. Beanie wouldn't take his do-rag off. That's all the teacher wanted. Just take the damn thing off your head.
"I'm going to call Coach Hurley," Szalkiewicz warned.
"Go ahead," Beanie said, still walking away from him. "I don't care."
This was one of those moments when working at the high school felt like working in a mental ward, because Beanie was losing his mind again. Actually, Beanie was being Beanie. It was a damned do-rag. Beanie wouldn't dare to wear it into Hurley's gymnasium, and he knew he shouldn't be wearing it in the corridors of the school. This was Beanie at his worst: acting out, convinced that the world was out to get him, that he was just the last in a line of Mosby men doomed to self-destruction. Bob Hurley never called him Beanie, the nickname his family gave him when, as a baby, he looked as tiny as a bean. Hurley called him Ahmad. "Beanie was always the guy getting in trouble," Hurley explains. "I want him to grow up and become 'Ahmad.' "
It was a Friday morning, November 21, just a week until practice started, and it looked like Beanie was trying hard to throw away the last chance he had to redeem himself. He was an elastic five-foot-eleven, all gangly arms and legs. At times, he could be one of the most charming kids in the school, but too often, Beanie just brooded. He had a long, thin face, often wearing a tired, troubled look-like a forgotten old man sitting alone on a park bench.
Beanie kept moving to his next class-psychology class, of all places-and dropped his books on the desk inside and sunk into the seat. Beanie remained defiant, telling the trailing teacher that he didn't want to be yelled at, that he just wanted to be left alone. Between periods of teaching his environmental science class, a young assistant basketball coach named Darren Erman had heard it all unfolding from down the hall and rushed into the classroom to defuse the kind of mindless confrontation that had cost Beanie a week's suspension at the start of the month.
"Beanie, you're so close," Erman said, standing over him. "You're too damn close to screw this up."
Beanie's eyes stared defiantly straight ahead. Erman stayed on him.
"You're almost there. You're getting the grades, the test scores. You're playing great. You can taste it.
"Don't blow it, Beanie."
How many times had he heard that?
Don't blow it.
His whole life, his mother and older sisters had shielded him like an endangered species, because, well, he was just that. The last Mosby man standing.
The first-marking-period grades had just come out and all the hard work and concentration that Beanie invested had been rewarded: all B's, and an A. He had been a good student in elementary school, pulling mostly B's, and even winning science and math awards. He had done the absolute minimum-and often even less-for his first three years in high school. It was too late in his high school career to raise his marks high enough for a Division I scholarship, but this marking period had shown promise. There was so much unfulfilled promise within him, and Hurley prayed staying with Ahmad Mosby was worth the trouble.
If only he could glide past his life's strains like he could a defender-with one of his stop-on-a-dime, stutter-step moves to freedom. Every star high school guard in the state of New Jersey had a story about Beanie embarrassing him somewhere-against St. Anthony, in summer ball, at a camp-somewhere. He was the guard that just kept coming for you, again and again. He was a pain to play against, and when his head was on straight, a quintessential Hurley player.
He was the youngest child of Cornelius and Beverly Mosby's three daughters and two sons. Growing up, they had never told Beanie the reasons his father was constantly in and out of the hospital near the end of his life, why he was finally gone when Beanie was just in the second grade. Cornelius had been a drug dealer, and it had cost him his life.
"Those years were so confusing for him," his older sister, Crystal, says. "He was the baby, and we tried to protect him from my father dying." She had gone away to college on a basketball scholarship, to the University of South Alabama, where after the constant telephone conversations with her little brother, and her mother's reports on the way it seemed Beanie was slowly, surely getting sucked into Jersey City's streets, Crystal had transferred back to Kean College in New Jersey for her final two years.
"It didn't hit him until he was thirteen and really realized his father was gone," she says. "He needed him, and he realized that he wasn't there. It hit him all at once: the acting out, the behavior, the mood changes."
Beanie escaped with basketball. Traveling constantly with the Jersey City Boys Club team, winning tournaments and trophies throughout the Northeast and the nation, basketball kept him on course. Basketball kept him going when an uncle had gone in and out of prison due to drugs, and basketball kept him going when his older brother ended up behind bars for pushing, too.
"It put a lot of pressure on me," Beanie says. "My father was in the drug game, and my uncle, and now my brother is locked up for it. It was like all the males in my family. Everyone is relying on me . . . 'I want him to go to college . . . I want him to do this,' and it's pressure. It's pressure I can handle, because I want to go to college. It's like I shouldn't mess up, because everyone is relying on me.
"But it falls on my head. It's like, 'How am I going to keep myself on track, and not fall into the drug game like them?' I think about it at times, and then I just tell myself, 'No, you can't even let yourself think of that, because you're going to fall, too.' "
Crystal says, "When you're growing up and that's what you've seen out of your role models, there's that identity crisis that a young man will go through, trying to find out who he is, and where he fits. With what my brother has seen and been through, it's remarkable that he's never dabbled in that life. Never did."
And maybe it had been too much last year, when Hurley and the basketball team counted on him as a junior. Twenty games into the season, with the stretch run for the state tournament looming, Hurley had started to turn up the heat on his kids. He was on Beanie, the way he was on everyone. He kept telling him that he was only on the floor until Sean McCurdy came back from his injury, just keeping his spot warm.
At home, in the Hudson Gardens projects, the pressure continued. His mother was watching a young grandson for a few hours a day, but the boy's mother was constantly coming back late to take over the responsibilities. When Beanie would arrive home, he felt like his mother was taking her frustrations out on him. "She would start to yell at me, just after I came home from practice," he says. "Coach Hurley was yelling at me there. I just couldn't take it."
So he missed a practice in February and didn't call anyone. And then another. In his mind, he was just going to walk away. Yet, as he sat home that second day, the confusion slowly gave way to clearer thinking and he reached out to Hurley's assistant coaches with some tale about an injury, and then the snow. Nobody bought it. For thirty years, Hurley had listened to professional con men sell him stories every day in the probation office. The kids on his basketball teams could never get over on him. Never. Had he just told the truth, Beanie would've suffered a suspension and made it back to the season. He didn't, so he was tossed.
"In other schools, what he did would not have warranted what happened to him, but he's in a different place," Hurley says. "Instead of just admitting that he made a mistake, he tried to build some more stories to cover himself. The thing was, he was caving. We were coming to the pressure time of the year and there was some real performance anxiety there."
And then, Beanie made the mistake of trying to talk to Hurley after the next game, a sluggish victory over St. Peter's of Staten Island in Jersey City. After witnessing Hurley's fury in the postgame locker room, his top assistant coach, Ben Gamble, was mortified to see Beanie walking toward him outside. "I wish I could've stopped him," Gamble says. Beanie tried to explain himself, only to have Hurley unload on him. "Get out of my face," Hurley screamed. He was done, Hurley told him. He was suspended for the rest of the season. After flunking off the team as a sophomore, Beanie would fail to complete his second straight season. There was no guarantee that he'd ever play basketball at St. Anthony again.
Looking back, Hurley had wished the assistants had stopped Beanie, told him to come to practice the next day and talk to Hurley after he had cooled down. He would've reinstated him for the state tournament, but it was too late, in the coach's mind. The deed was done. Beanie was gone for the season.
"At that point, he went from double secret probation to off the charts," Hurley says. "There is a little bit of social worker in me. I had counseled him. It's not like out of the clear blue that I'm going to chop someone's head off. This is a sentencing. And the sentencing up in Superior Court is going to be based on the charge and the previous record. Judge Olivieri and Judge Callahan, good friends of mine, are very fair judges. And I think I'm a very fair judge."
In the end, St. Anthony had lost to number-one-ranked St. Patrick's, its archrival, when sophomore point guard Derrick Mercer was overcome by St. Pat's ball pressure. He kept turning the ball over, and everyone couldn't help but think that Beanie would've made the difference in that game. They still lost by just four points.
"The whole team brought that up to me," Beanie says. "All of them were saying, 'If you had played in that game, we would've won.' "
When Beanie kept showing up at games at the end of last season, Gamble was afraid of what he saw in the stands. More and more, Beanie looked like he was slipping into the thug life. Because without basketball, the kid would to try to fit in somewhere, with someone else. "He was walking around with that hard image, thinking he needed that to be accepted," Gamble says.
Ten years ago, Hurley never would've considered bringing Beanie back to the team. The relentless-twelve months a year-commitment was what separated St. Anthony-the conditioning, the camps, the summer leagues. Once he let one kid slide on it, the others would think that they could come and go as the mood struck them, and the championship foundation promised to crumble. But when the season was over, the coaches talked a lot about Ahmad Mosby and kept coming back to the same thing: He had nowhere else to go.
They told Beanie that his grades had to come up, and as long as those did, he could start coming to open gym in the springtime. He had to start over with Hurley, but for better or worse, he was back together with his graduating class for a final run at redemption at St. Anthony, a final chance to chase what Hurley had always promised was waiting for them beyond the rainbow, a state championship and a scholarship. His family wanted to get him out of the Hudson Gardens, out of Jersey City, and away.
Between now and then, Hurley would still call him Ahmad. To him, Beanie was the screwup, the baby, and Mosby needed to leave all that behind.
"Everyone thinks that I'm a head case," Beanie says. "I've gotten into trouble, but I can keep myself out of it. I can hit the books hard this year, and I can dedicate myself to the team. Since he let me back on the team, I haven't missed an open gym yet. I'm gonna have to work harder than everybody else on the team. I have to prove that I've committed myself to them, to coach.
"This is it for me now."
* * *
Now Darren Erman was standing over him in Darryl Powell's psychology class, pleading with him, and Szalkiewicz was still seething in the hallway, threatening to call Coach Hurley. It just seemed like so many demons tugged at him, so much anger and fear and uncertainty conspired inside him.
Beanie took the do-rag off.
It wouldn't be long until basketball practice would begin and Hurley would be back in his face, testing his commitment, his resolve. No one could be sure if in that bony little point guard a man would emerge who could step out of the shadows of the Mosby men, of the troubled St. Anthony seniors, and give Beanie a shot to finally find Ahmad.
It was growing late on a chilly, overcast November afternoon, late in the autumn and far too late in the seniors' careers for them to be messing with the man, with the start of practice still three weeks away. Eyes narrowing beneath that graying, cropped hair, Bob Hurley moved quickly over the sidewalk on Montgomery Street and up the cement stairs of the Jersey City Armory. Once he burst through the steel doors and into the loud, bustling gymnasium, Hurley had that twitch going good. He was rubbing his right hand over the watch on his left wrist, like he was tightening the band to his arm-a warning to get out of his way now, because he didn't just want someone's ass, he wanted everyone's ass.
Hurley wanted to bring them back to the old days, the old rules, bring them back to a time when the code of the street could've corrected this kind of disrespect. He wished he could take care of them the way his father had taken care of him. Somehow, his seniors still believed they could get away with giving a St. Anthony teacher volunteering to tutor them on the SATs attitude during the final period of the day-or just walk out early, or blow it off-and somehow think that it wouldn't get back to the coach. Every day, it was something else with this crew. So now Hurley stormed into the Armory, stalking straight for his basketball team when a most satisfying sight softened the ferocity in his face. Someone else had beaten him to it. Someone else was pounding on his players. Greeting him were the pained groans of his players crawling like crabs across the Armory floor, wearing wire-braced contraptions that connected arms and legs and created resistance. The sweat leaking looked like an oil spill on the floor. Standing in the middle of the floor, delivering his weekly torture chamber to the St. Anthony players, was a shiny-domed conditioning guru, Burke Spencer. The shrieking was a sweet symphony to Hurley's ears, and he wished only that his old friend Carmine Salerno, the St. Anthony teacher who ran the SAT session earlier that day, could've had a front row seat for the seniors' suffering. Truth be told, this would be a popular spot to hold a St. Anthony faculty meeting. Hurley considered the Class of 2004 the most academically, athletically and socially underachieving in St. Anthony basketball history.
Marcus Williams. Otis Campbell. Ahmad Mosby. Lamar Alston. Shelton Gibbs. Together, they were the cornerstone of an unprecedented five-time Athletic Amateur Union (AAU) state championship team representing the Jersey City Boys Club, winning thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-, sixteen- and seventeen-year-old-and-under age group titles. Twice, they had reached the final eight of the national tournament. None were considered blue-chip college prospects, none stood taller than six-foot-three, and still they had managed to vanquish thirty opponents without a loss in state tournament games. In an era when sneaker companies bankrolled traveling AAU teams, stocking them with all-star talent and sending them on expense-paid trips to tournaments throughout the country, the Jersey City Boys Club team remained a tribute to neighborhood basketball teams. They won with an innate sense of playing together, a bond built back in grade school. Most of all, they won with the principles of St. Anthony basketball: unselfish passing, unforgiving defense and unparalleled toughness.
All the basketball they played together revolved around a twelve-month-a-year commitment to their high school program. For St. Anthony, these seniors had been the driving force for running roughshod over teams in the spring and summer of 2003. After losing to archrival St. Patrick's High School of Elizabeth in the Parochial B North championship game in March, the Friars had returned to work with a vengeance for the 2003-2004 season, lifting weights almost daily in the dimly lit basement of White Eagle Bingo Hall and playing ball upstairs on the creaky, warped court.
Over the spring and summer, St. Anthony had gone unbeaten in sixty-one tournament and recreation-league games. Most promising of all had been the team's performance in the AND 1 sneaker company's national high school tournament. Two hundred fifty-six teams in eight regional brackets started across the country, with St. Anthony beating the best teams in the Northeast to reach the final eight at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia in late June.
St. Anthony and AND 1 were an unlikely marriage of basketball past and present, old school and new school. AND 1 tapped into the basketball street culture, separating itself from the Nike and Adidas empires with a marketing slogan that crystallized a clarion call for an antiestablishment basketball revolution: Get Yours. It was a middle finger flung in the face of tradition, the hip-hop generation colliding with old-time values on the basketball battleground.
AND 1 turned the old school of basketball into a new school of showmanship, where the biggest stars and the biggest reps were manufactured by style over substance, humiliation over humility. In AND 1's vernacular, the F-word is fundamentals. When America turned on Fox Sports Network that Sunday afternoon in June to watch St. Anthony beat Booker T. Washington, 72-60, they witnessed something of far greater consequence than the championship game of a national summer tournament. Between the contrast of the fundamentally sound St. Anthony game set against the company's commercials celebrating the decline of civility in American basketball, the game had unwittingly morphed into a basketball culture war.
In one moment, AND 1's circus basketball ads flickered on the screen, where balls whipped between legs like the Globetrotters meeting PlayStation, where passes bounced off the heads of defenders, inspiring the heckling, taunts and belly laughs of teammates and fans. In the next moment, returning to the game, it was a trip back in a time machine. There was St. Anthony running its meticulous offense: setting screens, back-cutting and always deferring the shot to the open man; playing its fabled man-to-man defense, swallowing up dribblers, full-court pressing, trapping and holding the two-time Mr. Basketball in Tennessee to just ten points. The Anti-AND 1 was winning the rebel company's championship. With Hurley home in Jersey City, letting his assistant and ex- player, Ben Gamble, coach the summer team, St. Anthony had conducted a clinic. To Hurley, the ultimate judge of his teaching came not always when he was there to direct his players, but when they were on their own.
If only this senior class could incorporate the discipline and clear-minded choices from the gym into a world beyond the court. If only the summer's success could carry over into the start of the seniors' final year at St. Anthony. If only they could push past the sordid array of dysfunctions borne out of broken homes and emotional frailties and a shared appetite for self-destruction. At once, the St. Anthony seniors and Jersey City Boys Club crew were the best of friends and each other's worst enemy.
"When one of us gets in trouble, it's like the rest of us has to find a way to go down with him," Beanie said.
The Boys Club's director, Gary Greenberg, has steered his eighth graders to St. Anthony for twenty years, believing the best chance any Jersey City kid has is with Hurley and the Sisters at St. Anthony. "But we never had a group that needed them as much as this one did," Greenberg says. "I don't want to think where they would be without them." Still, there were too many times Greenberg and Hurley huddled, picking up the pieces of the latest letdown.
"Do they understand the opportunity in life they're blowing?" Greenberg would ask Hurley over and over.
On the night of Bobby Hurley's annual charity golf tournament and dinner auction at the Montclair Country Club in late September, Marcus, Otis and Shelton were turned in to school officials for raising hell on the bus ride back to Jersey City. For Hurley, it was the ultimate kick in the stomach. Here it was at the end of a long day and night, when so many people had invested the time and energy to raise $200,000 to help save the school, and his seniors had gone and shamed everyone in the worst way possible.
The three seniors and two junior starters, Barney Anderson and Derrick Mercer, had been suspended for a month from working out with the team and punished with thirty hours of community service. For Hurley, one of the most disturbing parts was how the seniors dragged Derrick and Barney into the mess with them. Those two had never been in trouble.
Beanie and Lamar had spared themselves a role in that drama, but found trouble elsewhere for themselves. Beanie lost his temper toward a teacher, his old jayvee basketball coach, Tony DiGiovanni, and it won him a week's suspension. In September, Lamar had disappeared for three days, AWOL without telling his parents or his coach where he had gone.
As a junior, Otis had quit the team in the preseason for two weeks, partly because of an inability to handle the heat Hurley directed toward him, and partly because he had lost a starting job to the most unique transfer in school history, Sean McCurdy. One of the reasons Hurley had been so hard on Otis in the preseason a year earlier had to do with what had happened late in his sophomore year, after Otis had been instructed to make the move up to varsity for the state tournament. He had spread glue on a teacher's pet rock and then watched as her hand got stuck to it. "Just a way to self-destruct and keep himself from handling the responsibilities of coming to varsity practice," Hurley would theorize.
From one day to the next, Hurley never knew how the seniors' demons and defects would manifest themselves. They had tested Hurley in new ways, causing him to reflect on the leadership decisions of balancing second chances and accountability, saving a life and costing himself the credibility to instill the fear of consequences into his underclassmen. This November afternoon was the first day of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's letter of intent signing period, which had slipped Hurley's mind until now. As far back as Hurley could remember, there hadn't been a fall when he hadn't had a steady stream of college coaches making presentations to his seniors. Just one year earlier, it had been three national championship winning coaches-Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun and Maryland's Gary Williams-courting the Friars six-foot-nine star, Terrence Roberts. Across thirty-one years as a coach, Hurley as averaged three scholarship players per graduating class. He has sent them to every major conference in the nation: the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-10, SEC and Atlantic 10. He had sent even more to Division II and Division III programs. Almost every player is so well coached, so well schooled in the fundamentals, that they arrive far more advanced than their classmates. This season, Hurley has ten of his ex-players playing Division I basketball. Hurley tries to never tell a kid where he should go, but does his best to guide him through a decision he calls the most important he would make to date in his life. In his twenty-five years of mining St. Anthony for Iona, Florida State and DePaul, Coach Pat Kennedy even confessed to getting tired of listening to himself make the same pitches over and over on visits to Hurley's prospects in Jersey City. But Bob Hurley never does. "Bob knows exactly what I'm going to tell his kid, but he sits there in his shirt and tie with the same intensity as if it was the first time he had ever heard me," Kennedy says. "He sits there with such respect for you, such an interest on behalf of his kids. How many high school coaches do that anymore?
"He's the most consistent guy I've ever met in my life."
For the most consistent force of the most consistently great high school basketball program in the country, it had come to this in the November chill: Hurley had to rely on his most inconsistent collection of players to take its turn carrying the torch. If Otis and Lamar could make academic progress, they had a chance to earn Division I scholarships for next season. For Marcus and Beanie, they had grade point averages so low that it would be impossible to become Division I prospects. Because of this, they had limited options, mostly centering on two-year junior colleges, where, after earning associate degrees, they could transfer to four-year schools for the final two years of basketball eligibility. The backdoor route to university life was something that St. Anthony players had previously endured in isolated cases, but never before en masse with an entire class.
Whatever they would accomplish on the court this season, the embarrassment of the players' poor academic standing gnawed at him, leaving him wishing away the preseason USA Today Super 25 poll that had ranked St. Anthony fifth in the nation. Under Hurley, St. Anthony had been a consistent part of the poll for two decades, climaxing undefeated seasons in 1989 and 1996 with number-one rankings, and finishing number two in '88, '91, '93, '97, and 2002.
After going 29-1 and winning Parochial B and Tournament of Champions titles for the second straight time in 2002, St. Anthony struggled through an injury-riddled 21-5 before losing to St. Pat's last year. For now, Hurley had his eyes fixed on reclaiming state superiority this season. The Friars were the consensus preseason number one in New Jersey, a precarious perch, considering the checkered histories of the seniors.
The composition of this team made it an oddity among the elite. It didn't have that one blue-chip college basketball prospect to carry them. No consistent twenty-point scorer, no All-American. The best player was Marcus Williams, a four-year starter who was considered an under-sized high school forward at six-foot-two. For the purposes of the national polls, their coach was the superstar. He was the most comforting of high school difference makers: one who never graduated.
In some respects, this team had the chance to meld into the quintessential Hurley team. Built to dominate defensively, it would have to manufacture points by transforming turnovers into easy baskets. Beginning the season without a starter taller than six-foot- five, they were small but as quick as water bugs, physically strong and the beneficiaries of a deep bench of fresh legs.
"As much as any we've had, this will have to be a 'team,' in every sense of the word," Hurley would say.
Between November and March, Hurley's mission was to finally get these kids to buy into his program, into St. Anthony, into the tradition. Mostly, that meant Hurley had to get them to buy into Hurley. Maybe these soap operas were becoming standard operating procedure everywhere else in high school basketball, but Hurley was going to be damned to let it happen here.
Inside the Armory, as his weary players were finishing with the trainer, Hurley said softly, "Maybe I'm getting old, but if I have to drag their asses from point 'A' to point 'B' then that's what I'll have to do this year."
Soon Hurley called his team over, and thirteen varsity players surrounded him in a tight, closed huddle. Fifteen years earlier, the Armory floor they stood on had been brought back to life for the homeless St. Anthony basketball program, because Hurley and three friends sanded and varnished an area of 10,000 square feet, installed lights and even an electronic scoreboard. Like everything else they had at St. Anthony, it had been borne of his bare hands, and there was no way in hell he was going to stand on the sideline and watch them tear it all down.
As the team gathered, there were no eyes gazing in the distance, no wisecracking or whispers. However else they did things in school and at home, however else they treated parents and teachers and elders, they stood like soldiers when Hurley spoke to them. Hurley started with the telephone call he'd gotten from Carmine Salerno about the SAT class, and went from there, his voice rising to be heard over the acoustics and noise in the busy building.
"I'm going to go out of my way this year to take you on," Hurley said. "I will not look the other way this year. I am coming straight for you people. I'm a basketball coach. It's not my job to raise you. You have no self-discipline. You don't set goals for yourself. You hear over and over how important it is to get an education. And you don't care. Since you've been here, kids quit the team, kids have been suspended, and now you're seniors and it's the same shit, different year."
He stopped for a moment, letting the words hang there. Marcus stood the closest to him, the indisputable leader of the old Boys Club crew. He had been listening to these speeches for four years, but this was supposed to be his team now, and Marcus knew Hurley was talking to him more than to any of his teammates.
"You seniors don't work hard. You aren't anything I want our underclassmen to see. I want to put up a wall around you, just to keep them away from you all. You still don't understand that what you do away from here affects you here. When are you going to learn that you can't be a shithead in school and go be a good player on the court? When are you going to learn that it doesn't work that way?"
Hurley's eyes rolled over Ahmad Mosby and Lamar Alston and Otis Campbell, and his glare met with sullen, blank faces. They understood that the slightest tic, the mildest sign of exasperation with his lecture, could turn what was merely an agitated disposition for the coach into a full-blown rage.
"The seniors are supposed to be leaders, but all you do is play ball and then try to cut corners. Why isn't anyone in this senior class in student government? I'll tell you why not: because nobody would listen to you."
Looking down, Lamar and Otis stubbed their feet into the floor, but Hurley's glare never left them.
"We've had to put up with your sorry asses for four years. I know you're all thinking that you can't wait to get out of here, that you can't wait to not have to put up with this anymore. But how do you think your coaches feel about you?
"Are you kidding me? Do you think we love coaching you? We can't wait for you to be gone."
Hurley breathed out and delivered one final dismissive glance around the circle. "Prove me wrong this year, but I don't think you will."
Hurley stalked off, leaving the kids to gather up their gym bags and winter jackets and head for the door.
Gamble turned to another assistant coach, Tom Pushie, and smiled a knowing smile. "You can tell it's getting close to Thanksgiving," he said.
What he meant was this: It was getting closer to the start of the season. Hurley was becoming Hurley again.