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A profile of the coach of Jersey City's championship-winning basketball team from St. Anthony High School offers insight into the strategies that have earned the team twenty-two state championships and two USA Today national titles, offering particular coverage of the 2003-2004 season. 60,000 first printing.
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Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record of New Jersey, where he was honored as Columnist of the Year in 1997 and 2002 by the AP Sports Editors, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He has appeared numerous times as a featured commentator on ESPN, on Jim RomeÂ’s television programs, WFAN radio, and the MSG Network.Estratto. © Riproduzione autorizzata. Diritti riservati.:
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 Roosevelt Stadium 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 inno...
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