The Miracle of St Anthony

“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 it’s student body, to save a way of Catholic school education that is fading 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”
Adrian Wojnarowski ~ The Miracle of St Anthony

Too often in life our jobs become a way to pay the bills. Sometimes in life we are blessed to be given the chance to pursue career that we love but along the way disappointments and stress turn this career into a burden that we hold onto just to keep our stomachs full and to keep the bank from taking away our homes. Following St Anthony basketball for a year was the furthest thing from being a burden for Wojnarowski. Despite balancing commitments to his family, ESPN and the NJ Record that had him up until 3 a.m. most nights, documenting a year of St Anthony basketball was a passion for Wojnarowski and reading about a year with Coach Hurley will revitalize to any hoops fan.

“I think what happens in the book is you get emotionally invested in the school, the kids and the sisters,” said Wojnarowski. “For me I spend most of my time covering pro stuff and it tends to be less and less about teams sports, it tends to be about drugs and agents and those sorts of things. Spending time with Hurley reminds me of why I wanted to be a sports writer when I was a kid – there was an innocence about being there.”

Another aspect of the story that is so gripping is Bob Hurley. Despite of a rough exterior Coach Hurley motivates and molds his players into becoming better people, not just better basketball players. In “The Miracle of St. Anthony” Wojnarowski talks to a former player of Hurley, Mark Harris, who is now a firefighter. Harris looks back fondly on the time he spent playing for Hurley and values the life skills that were learned on the basketball court. Harris talked about a time his training on the basketball court gave him the ability to slow down events while fighting a fire which allowed him to save the life of his partner.

“When we played, we used to get guys in traps and look at their facial expressions – just to see how scared they were,” Harris told Wojnarowski. “As a kid, you’re not supposed to be thinking like that, but the game slowed 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 fire, 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 through my mind was: think before you react. Awareness. Alertness. And it was just like Coach had trained us. Everything turned into slow motion. It was like I was playing ball again.”

As a basketball coach myself, one of the most rewarding things is to watch that light click on with player you coach. This season coaching my junior high team we had the shortest player on the team start off the year afraid of driving the lane but by the time playoffs had rolled around he hard earned the nickname “Fearless” for his eagerness to tear down the middle of the key and willingly get hammered – just so he could earn a trip to the charity stripe. Here was the smallest guy on the court sacrificing his body to give his team a chance to win – what teammate wouldn’t love a player like that?

One player who was documented closely in the book that reminded me of “Fearless” due
to his heart was Otis Campbell. Wojnarowski loved to talk about this talented young player and said, “The kid who I saw grow the most in the year was Otis Campbell. The thing with Otis was early in the year he had come into St Anthony was shy and couldn’t open up. He struggled with Hurley and Hurley’s style the first couple of years. By his senior year the light had gone on and academically he was doing better.”

Later in the interview Wojnarowski was still singing the praises of Campbell and offered up some great insight into the maturation of the talented young man.
“We’d sit and watch practice and we’d end up talking a lot. The interesting part was to see this whole group grow together. When the season ended Otis decided to go to junior college and looked at a place in Florida but he thought there was too much to do at night, and he felt more comfortable in Kansas where it was quiet. He for me was probably the one that I was proudest to see how he grew and is still continuing to grow. We talk here and there and it’s great to see that light go on in a young kids’ life. He’s going to make a better life for himself than the generation before him in his family.”

Hurley’s players are able to see through his rough exterior most of the time and realize that he pushes them so that they can be successful in life and have better lives than their families have led. The sad part about this is that far too often these players don’t see this until they have caved to the pressure and demands that Hurley placed on them and they quit the team. Instead of being able to see that Hurley is challenging them so that they can grow and improve, they take his passion and outbursts on the sidelines as un-needed criticism. Wojnarowski documented a couple cases of players quitting the team in his book and without fail whenever a player quit the team they were begging to return to the team within weeks. Despite all the pressure of playing for Hurley and the intense practices the players craved the structure and discipline that Hurley provided on and off the basketball court for their lives.

“A lot of high school ball has been commercialized and kids have a sense of entitlement,” Wojnarowski lamented. “What I loved about St Anthony’s is you don’t have that there because coach Hurley doesn’t allow that culture to exists. I loved how selfless those kids are, I never heard kids talk about how many shots they were getting or how much they were scoring. It was about winning and getting a championship there.”

Another aspect that makes St Anthony so intriguing is the fact that they don’t have a “home” gymnasium. They are a school that consistently wins state titles and are ranked among the nations top high school teams, yet they have had 25 different practice facilities and at one time played their home games in an old bingo hall. The bingo hall, White Eagle, was so old that Hurley would need to walk around the gym prior to games and hammer down nails that were popping up.

We are raising a generation of basketball players that are used to playing AAU ball in air conditioned suburban gyms while the kids at St. Anthony don’t even have a gym to call their own. It’s this lack of affluence that unifies the kids at St Anthony and helps them to form a tight bond with each other while allowing them to mirror the toughness that their head coach embodies.

“I loved the fact that they still ride the yellow school bus to games, and the bus driver can get lost and your pulling into a gym 30 minutes before the game,” Wojnarowski reminisced. “After being around pampered guys in the pros and college it was refreshing being around these guys day in and day out because they appreciated the small things like schools offering them scholarships.”

The world of professional sports is one filled with agents, drugs, greed and corruption. Missing in professional athletes and some fans following the pro game is the love for the game that once existed. Reading Adrian Wojnarowski’s “The Miracle of St Anthony” reminded me why I fell in love with basketball, and despite my bitterness to certain aspect of the NBA why I still love the game.

Reading “The Miracle of St Anthony” will be a true blessing for any basketball fan who has forgotten why they fell in love with basketball.

About the Author

Ryan McNeill Ryan McNeill has appeared on ESPN Radio, MTV Canada, SiriusXM, The Fan 590 and other radio programs and TV shows. He has covered the NBA with media credentials since the 2007-08 season.