It’s safe to say that St. Anthony High School has been a major part of my life since childhood. I mean, I remember seeing Bob Hurley dribbling around our neighborhood in the Greenville section of Jersey City, wearing the high top sneakers and heading up to St. Paul’s (Greenville) courtyard, bouncing the ball and I was a toddler. Hurley lived a block and a half from me _ him on Linden Ave. and I was on Kennedy Boulevard between Greenville and Linden.
Then, I remember the day in second grade at St. Paul’s when we were introduced to the new gym teacher and it was none other than Hurley, who quickly became forever “Mr. Hurley” to me, but some of my classmates were calling him “Bob.” To this day, some 47 years after he was introduced to the students of St. Paul’s, he remains either Mr. Hurley or Coach Hurley to me.
I simply cannot bring myself to calling him “Bob.”
Mr. Hurley ran the Jersey City Recreation summer program in St. Paul’s courtyard. In the morning, it was for the kids of the neighborhood, an organized way for hundreds of local youngsters to play football, softball and of course, basketball. It kept all of us out of trouble and gave us an activity during the summer months.
In the early evening, Hurley ran a summer league for high school players. I was fortunate enough to keep score for a lot of those games. I read in Hurley’s book that some of the other scorekeepers were paid money to keep the book. I think I got paid in olive loaf sandwiches and apple juice from the free lunch program. Still, I had the major responsibility of keeping score _ and I was all of 10 years old. My parents didn’t have to worry where I was, because I was with Mr. Hurley in the courtyard “doing the book.”
But in that summer league, I got to see all the great players from all over come to my courtyard. I remember seeing a guy wearing a plaid jacket and dark-rimmed thick glasses. That was Dick Vitale. I also met a guy wearing a maroon windbreaker in the middle of the summer, which I thought was very weird. That man was Jim Valvano.
I also followed Bill Willoughby, who was going to become the first player to go directly from high school to the NBA. I followed him to a local alleyway near the court where Willoughby proceeded to urinate. I was thrilled to tell people I saw Bill Willoughby pee.
Hurley became the head coach at St. Anthony in 1972. He had a team of players who were from the same St. Paul’s neighborhood that we were from, namely my childhood idol Bob Kilduff, Hurley’s point guard, and the Rochford brothers, Pat and Danny, who were the two older brothers of my nearest and dearest childhood friend John, who eventually played for Hurley as well.
But that great St. Anthony team of 1973 was fun to watch. I was fortunate to climb into the back of the Rochford family station wagon with my buddy to watch his brothers play. I also looked up to Kilduff, who lived around the corner from me on Greenville Ave. and always stopped to give me a basketball pointer or two.
To his credit, Bobby Kilduff never once treated me like I was a little kid, even when I was a little kid. I can still hear him saying, “Jamesy, in basketball, you can’t do everything with just one hand. You have to get a left hand.” Kilduff eventually helped me develop a little bit of a left-handed layup and dribble moves.
But can you imagine the sense of pride I had watching those Friars win game after game and I personally knew three of the players? Pat and Danny Rochford really didn’t give me the time of day, because I was their little brother’s best friend, but hey, I was their brother’s best friend. So I was there all the time.
I also got the opportunity to watch a two-year-old little boy taking a basketball that was far bigger than him and hoisting it at the basket over and over. He didn’t come close to making a shot, but he kept trying, even though a lot of the crowd in St. Mary’s of Elizabeth’s gym was laughing.
Well, want to know who got the last laugh? That little boy turned out to be Bobby Hurley, who 20 years later was named the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament, a distinction owned by such legendary names as Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Bill Bradley, Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing before him.
After those early Friar years, I followed the team through that heart wrenching loss to Hudson Catholic in the 1975 HCIAA championship game at the Jersey City Armory, a Hudson Catholic team that featured NBA players Jim Spanarkel and Mike O’Koren. I closely watched the Friar teams of the late 1970s, because my buddy John Rochford was on those teams. I remember having the flu and not being able to go to the Friars Parochial C state title game one year, but watched the game on the New Jersey Network with Dick Landis doing the call. I had a major school assignment, but I was able to count how many times I spotted Roch on television that day.
I watched the Friars with Mandy Johnson, especially one state playoff game played at St. Peter’s Prep, when I was already at Marquette and brought my best friend from college Dean Antony to the Friar game to see future Marquette guard Mandy Johnson first hand. And who was at the game? None other than Marquette coach Hank Raymonds.
I followed the Friars through the David Rivers era and watched David move on to Notre Dame, where he became a First Team All-American and later a first round draft pick of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Then that little kid who I used to watch in St. Paul’s courtyard, who received scorn from the fans in Elizabeth as a toddler, got his chance to play for the Friars. Bobby Hurley was brilliant. So were his teammates.
In 1986, I was hired by the Hudson Dispatch to write sports. I had been writing at other newspapers in the state since 1983, but in the glorious year of ’86, I was able to return home to Hudson County and write for my father’s favorite newspaper, the one that we had delivered to the front door for 25 years.
At that time, I got to see the Friars play from a different perspective, as a sportswriter. I was no longer the fan in the stands. I had a job to do and I tried to do it as best as I could, although I was perceived by some to be “anti-St. Anthony,” which was so far from the truth.
In those days, I did have my wars with the late Sister Mary Alan, the school’s athletic director. They were some epic battles. Sister Alan stood up at an HCIAA meeting one time and blamed me for inflating the vicious feud between St. Anthony and Ferris.
Someone broke into St. Anthony and spread feces on the statue of St. Anthony. I learned about it and wrote it. That game resulted in a nasty brawl after the last game played between the two at Dickinson High School. St. Anthony requested _ and received _ its release from the league before the 1988-89 season. At the HCIAA meeting, Sister Alan said that it was “Jim Hague’s fault for writing that silly article.” I thought I was just doing my job.
That year, 88-89, was incredible. The now independent Friars were unbeatable. Bobby Hurley quickly became the best high school player I’ve ever seen. His court awareness and sight was hard to describe. Terry Dehere was a lights-out scorer, Jerry Walker the tough-as-nails defensive force and freshman Rodrick Rhodes showed the potential that would eventually make him an NBA first round selection.
That team was like covering the Beatles. They sold out every gym that they played in. Some places had hour-long waits to get in. There were girls screaming and squealing for a piece of their heroes. The NJSIAA tried to capitalize on Friar Madness and decided to establish the basketball Tournament of Champions that year. It was a way to make money, a chance to perhaps sell out the Meadowlands Arena. It remains in place to this day.
I remember that year North Bergen was the only team to face the Friars during the regular season and not get housed by more than double digits. North Bergen lost by only eight, which caused the late Randy Chave, the North Bergen coach at the time, to say about the Friars, “They’re not that good. There’s a team in Hudson County that could beat them.”
This was Randy just allowing the green monster known as envy and jealousy to get the best of him. I wrote a column across the top fold of the Hudson Dispatch that talked about Chave’s quote and that there was a team in Hudson County that could actually beat the fabulous Friars. I thought of two teams: Jersey City State and St. Peter’s College. I thought that the Friars could beat JCSC on talent alone and that St. Peter’s, playing with men against the boys of St. Anthony, would simply wear down the Friars, but it would be a close game.
St. Anthony rolled through that season undefeated _ of course _ defeating Elizabeth in the T of C final in the Brendan Byrne/Meadowlands Arena.
There were other great St. Anthony moments in the Meadowlands, including the great 1996 final performance by guard Rashon Burno, collecting 10 steals in the T of C title game against Shawnee. Why was this so important? Because Burno spent the first three years of his basketball career playing for a blowhard, loudmouth youth basketball coach.
And when Burno was 10 years old and missed two free throws with no time on the clock to lose in the state semifinals, that coach told Burno he would play for St. Anthony someday and forget all about that heartbreak. That coach was me. Needless to say, he recovered well.
There was a dry spell in the T of C for a bit, from 1997 until 2001, when Donald Copeland calmly drained a corner jump shot to give the Friars a 48-47 win over Shabazz. A year later, the Seton Hall-bound Copeland did it again at the Meadowlands Arena when the Friars defeated Neptune by 20 points.There were the undefeated national championship teams of 2008 with six NCAA Division I scholarship players and 2011 with Gatorade Player of the Year Kyle Anderson (now with the San Antonio Spurs) and future Rutgers guard Myles Mack
In between, there was the incredible 2010 ceremony at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Springfield, Massachusetts that I was fortunate to cover. The legendary coach, my former gym teacher, was getting inducted with the 1992 Dream Team and with people like Karl Malone and Sheryl Swoopes. It was almost surreal to be a part of. Mr. Hurley even told other sportswriters to use me as a reference to our old Greenville neighborhood and the St. Paul’s courtyard.
Through it all, St. Anthony basketball has been a major part of my life since I was a little boy straight through my life as a sportswriter. You kind of take it for granted _ until you get the news that came down Wednesday afternoon.
I sort of knew it was coming, because I heard the resignation and defeat in Hurley’s voice last week. I’d known the man for 47 years, interviewed him professionally for the last 34 _ and I never heard defeat like I did last week. He knew the other shoe was about to drop, that there was no saving the little school on Eighth Street this time around.
Still, it doesn’t make the news any less painful. It stings bad that St. Anthony is closing. It’s another slice of my childhood, of my hometown, that is being ripped away, like so many other Catholic schools before it.
But those schools didn’t feature the fabulous Friars. They didn’t have the legendary coach. They didn’t have the incredible history of nearly 1,200 wins and 28 state championships and 13 Tournament of Champions titles, of 150 Division I scholarship players, of nine NBA players. That’s all St. Anthony and that will all go with Hurley when the locks are put on the doors for good _ and eventually the wrecking ball comes to tear down the school and put up a gigantic high-rise like the one going up across the street from the school right now.
It’s sad, so very sad, that it will all come to an end. No one wanted to see Bob Hurley’s coaching career end this way. No one could have ever imagined he would have stayed there for nearly 50 years, but no one could have dreamed it would all end this way. We truly believed that Hurley would ride off into the sunset on his own terms, not being told what to do by the greedy powers-that-be that run the Archdiocese of Newark.
That’s the sad part. Hurley didn’t leave on his own. He deserved better.