I’ll admit it.
I’ve got a high school sports thing going these days.
I wrote last month about Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, Adam Yauch’s documentary about the inaugural Elite 24 game at Rucker Park. That film follows future pros Tyreke Evans and Lance Stephenson and five others in the buildup to the initial game.
Evans and Stephenson also have bit parts as opponents in The Street Stops Here, a documentary film about Bob Hurley and his St. Anthony Friars of Jersey City, New Jersey, a work that shows a far different and grittier side of high school basketball.
A legendary coach and recent inductee to the NBA’s Hall of Fame in Dunreith’s home town of Springfield, Massachusetts, Hurley has guided 22 teams to the state championship when the film opens at the beginning of the 2008 season.
His group of seniors, despite being the most talented group of players he has ever coached, enter their final year with a chance of earning the dubious distinction of being the only class to go through St. Anthony’s without having earned a state title.
A consistent portrait emerges in the The Street Stops Here and The Miracle of St. Anthony, Adrian Wojnarowski’s book about a St. Anthony’s season in the earlier part of last decade.
Hurley’s unparalleled knowledge of basketball, his fiery temper, his ritualistic broom pushing before each home game, and his ceaseless pushing his players to higher levels of play are very much in evidence in the book and film. So are his bone-deep commitment to the city’s young people and to helping alter their life’s trajectories from the streets and an all but inevitable incarceration to college scholarships and a stable future of employment.
At times, Hurley look sand sound remarkably similar to Bob Knight, with heavy doses of profanity, verbal abuse and reminders that individual or team accomplishments along the way to the ultimate goal mean nothing.
At St. Anthony’s, no one is bigger than the program.
Yet both the book and the movie show player after player testifying about the positive impact Hurley has had on their lives and the pride they take in being part of the St. Anthony’s tradition.
Both works also show the shabby conditions in which the school operates and its ongoing financial struggles that often threaten its very existence. One of the movie’s more painful scenes involves a fundraising event gone wrong with Bear Stearns CEO Alan Schwartz after that company’s ills had become public knowledge.
The money difficulties provide an additional layer of conflict and emotional resonance to the book and movie, as does Sister Mary Alan’s years long battle with cancer (A longtime St. Anthony’s employee, she often provides a soothing counterpart to Hurley’s hard-edged interactions with the players.).
A former probation office and Jersey City native, Hurley knows all too well the dangers and negative outcomes his players face, and marshals all his available resources to help them avert that fate. His profane tirades can be difficult to hear, yet they are underpinned by intense attention to emotional and behavioral detail.
He pushes and pushes, but always with an eye on his larger goal and with an understanding of the importance of the team coming together. In one of the scenes in the movie, Hurley and his assistant Ben Gamble, a former player, leave the room so that the players can hash out the differences between them that are cropping up and negatively affecting their play.
Controversial though he may be at times, Hurley has had undeniable results-all but two his 200 players have graduated and gone to college-and has decided to use his life to make his stand in a small corner of an American city and to take an unwavering stand for integrity and doing things the right way.
That’s a different type of code than the one in display in Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, and one that to me has an appeal, even if the methods along the way are rough.
What do you think about Coach Hurley and how he meets the challenges he faces?