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WSJ Article: The King and Prince of High-School Hoops

Posted by Daniel Ackman | Mar 18, 2024 | 0 Comments

The Wall Street Journal

The King and Prince of High-School Hoops


Dan Ackman

Jan. 24, 2007

From 1972 until 2004, Bob Hurley enjoyed every success imaginable. Coach Hurley won more than 800 basketball games and 22 state championships, while besting 90% of his opponents at tiny St. Anthony High, a school without its own gym, and which can be found by making a hard left out of the Holland Tunnel in Jersey City, N.J.

Then the program fell from grace, if only by the beatific standards of St. Anthony. In 2005 and 2006, they lost eight games and won a mere 47 games. And no state titles!

Now they are back on top, undefeated after 13 games and ranked fourth in the nation by USA Today.

But eight miles away, in Newark, Bob's son Danny is doing even better. He coaches at St. Benedict's, which is currently 17-0 and currently ranked number one in the nation.

After graduating from St. Anthony, Danny, 34, played for Seton Hall and was an assistant coach at Rutgers before returning to the high-school level. Still, "Ninety percent of what I do is from my dad," Danny says.

And why not? If you ever wondered how much coaching can do for a team, watch St. Anthony for five minutes at a practice. Even warm-ups tell the story: The team takes the floor like a cross between the Army Rangers and Alvin Ailey, tipping the ball off the backboard and whipping it corner to corner with speed and precision -- no lay-up lines here. When the game begins, St. Anthony, starting four juniors, traps and presses, forcing turnover after turnover. On offense the players pass the ball so well that dribbling is rarely necessary.

Bob Hurley, 59, has coached four undefeated teams. His most recent, in 2003-04, was perhaps his most impressive. They won every game and were ranked number two nationally despite the fact that none of the seniors would play in a top-tier college program. That season was chronicled by Adrian Wojnarowski in his wonderful book, "The Miracle of St. Anthony."

It seemed that the 2005 team would be even better. But a rash of injuries and a plague of careless play led to five losses, including a 16-point loss to St. Patrick's -- an awful year for the St. Anthony Friars.

Meanwhile, St. Benedict's, already a top squad, was rising to national prominence under Danny. The 2005 team finished at 26-1. In 2006, the team wound up 28-2, losing only to St. Patrick's by a point and to Oak Hill Academy, a prep school from Mouth of Wilson, Va., which attracts players from around the country and barnstorms the nation. St. Benedict's was also producing blue-chip talent: Five of its former players are now at top Division I programs. A sixth, J.R. Smith, jumped directly to the NBA and is starting for the Denver Nuggets. This year, despite losing three seniors to Duke, Marquette and Seton Hall, the St. Benedict's Gray Bees picked up where they left off.

Neither coach is ever satisfied. At the Dan Finn Classic in Jersey City this past weekend, St. Anthony's played a winning Hoboken (N.J.) High School team, starting the game in a fury and finishing the first quarter leading 28-4 on the way to a 76-30 win. But after the game, Coach Hurley was disappointed with the effort of the second string, in particular during a four-minute stretch of the third quarter. "You have to respect your minutes," he lectured, singling out two upperclassmen for their lack of leadership. Victory, he says, can breed inattention to detail.

Danny is little different. While not as fierce as his dad, he demands the same full-court focus. At one recent practice held a few days after St. Benedict's beat Prep Charter of Philadelphia, the reigning state champion of Pennsylvania, the coach stopped practice and berated his players for being too soft on each other. "You have to get mad at your teammates," he told the team. "There is a fine line between patting a guy on his back and putting your foot up his [backside]."

At the time, it seemed like the players were making a brave effort. Danny didn't disagree, but needed to keep them motivated. "When you're 15-0 and number two in the country you have to make up something," he explained later.

Soon after, Oak Hill lost its first game to Chicago Simeon High School, clearing the top spot for St. Benedict's coming off its Dan Finn Classic win over Plainfield (N.J.) High School.

Both Hurleys emphasize tradition. "Let me tell you something fellas, it's a privilege to play here and to go to school here," Danny tells his team. One college coach, University of Cincinnati assistant Larry Davis, scouting a St. Anthony practice marvels at how hard the kids compete and notes, "When they come here, they know it's not about them; it's about St. Anthony."

St. Anthony and St. Benedict's are often on the same court on the same day, but never at the same time. They were both at the Dan Finn in Jersey City and will both play this weekend at St. Benedict's Brian Doherty Classic and at the Primetime Shootout in Trenton starting Feb. 10. But by decree of Bob's wife and Danny's mom, the two teams will never play each other. Since St. Benedict's plays in a division of mostly prep schools, rather than the all-parochial league in which St. Anthony competes, the two schools do not even meet in the state tournament.

So the question remains: Who would win? At first blush, St. Benedict's would seem to have the edge. While most of its players are from Newark and its suburbs, its top-ranked player, 6-foot-10-inch Samardo Samuels, a junior, came to the school from Jamaica, and St. Anthony has no big man with his size and power, combined with a soft touch around the basket.

On the other hand, St. Anthony is unparalleled defensively and has a quicker backcourt. With 15 buildings, a 12-acre campus, and 507 boys in its high school, St. Benedict's has a huge advantage. But if resources mattered, St. Anthony, with 235 students (120 boys) and a rented gym, wouldn't beat anybody. The college coaches scouting the two teams either can't or won't answer the question. "That'd be quite a contest," says one, venturing no further. Danny Hurley evades the question directly. "I don't even want to think about that scenario. It would make me, my dad, my wife, my mom -- it would drive us crazy."


Mr. Ackman is a writer based in Jersey City, N.J.

About the Author

Daniel Ackman

D​​an Ackman focuses on civil rights, administrative and constitutional class action litigation. Perhaps best known for representing New York City's taxi drivers in a series of civil rights class action lawsuits, Ackman's cases have resulted in a half dozen City practices being declared unconstitutional.


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