A broom evokes powerful images.
For some, it is inextricably tied to witches. J.K. Rowling gave the broom a major boost in popularity by making it the vehicle for Quidditch, the top sport in the wizarding world she created in the Harry Potter series. For many sports fans, it is the physical embodiment of a series sweep in which the opposing team does not win a single game.
For basketball coach Bob Hurley, though, the broom is not metaphorical, but practical. He sweeps the tiny St. Anthony’s gym in Jersey City where has coached for most of the past four decades to maintain order, claim a space and show respect for himself, his program and his players. The former probation officer sweeps even as the school’s funding is declining, its facilities are crumbling and its future is in doubt. Over and over again, Hurley picks up the broom and cleans the floor where he has led his team to dozens of state championships, three national titles and 984 wins.
Last week, the 62-year-old Hurley joined basketball’s ultimate elite circle, joining DeMatha legend Morgan Wootten becoming the second high school basketball coach in history to be named to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Some have argued that Hurley’s recognition is long overdue, and this may be true. Readers wanting to learn more about Hurley’s method and results should check out Adrian Wojnarowski’s The Miracle of St. Anthony, a chronicle of the 2003-2004 season.
Hurley’s picking up the broom and sweeping is the book’s opening and closing image. In between, one gets a year in the life of a scrappy, fearless, relentlessly working and fundamentally sound basketball team that was not expected to do well, but that ended up going undefeated, winning yet another state title and being ranked second in the nation.
The road was not an easy one.
Wojnarowski shows the many challenges the team faces from within as the team is comparatively small and inexperienced and the school’s finances are in dire condition, and from without as the students must navigate an urban environment in which drug use is rampant and the temptations of the street are all too real.
While the team’s players have their moments, in the end, the book is about Hurley. A man of complete focus-he takes his family to basketball tournaments during their vacations-he is a throwback to an earlier time and the complete opposite of coaches who coddle their high school stars. Hurley routinely berates and demeans his players, but always with the goal of improvement.
His methods can lead to conflict, none more intense than his son Bobby, the older of his two sons and a former Duke University star who, along with Christian Laettner, led the team to its first two national championships in the early 90s. Although St. Anthony’s reached some of its greatest heights with Bobby at the point, the family struggles were so wrenching that Hurley’s wife Chris couldn’t wait for her son’s career to end.
The Miracle of St. Anthony has many memorable scenes. In one, Hurley goes into a housing project and confronts drug dealers who are messing with one of his players. In another, burly power forward Jerry Walker, one of Bobby’s teammates who went on to star at Seton Hall, jumps into the bushes to avoid being seen by his coach after he had skipped practice.
The force of Hurley’s personality, the directness of his communication style and his unyielding commitment to excellence all contribute to the results his teams have produced and, now, the ultimate accolade he has garnered. The book’s title suggests that the goings on at the school are a miracle, and faith certainly is a major part of Hurley and the school’s life, and, in the end, much of the credit must go to the broom sweeping coach with an uncompromising and unquenched thirst for victory.