A New Vision
Some say Hurley's whole life has prepared him to coach. Buffalo is about to find out if that's true.
Bobby Hurley was easy to pick out: He was always the smallest, always the youngest at the local basketball courts in Jersey City, N.J., where 25-30 guys lined up to play.
The rules were simple: win, and stay on the court, lose, and move to the back of the line. Hurley didn't like the back of the line.
He stood a mere 5 feet tall in those days and his father, a basketball coach, recently referred to him as a "shrimp boat." On the court, he made up for his size with intensity and grit.
"People underestimated me because I didn't look like much," Hurley said.
He knifed through the defense with his quickness - his defender wasn't expecting to get beat - and dished to the open man with the efficiency of a young John Stockton, but with the creativity of a player who was bred on the playground. As the consummate underdog, those tools helped him stay on the court.
The older guys all wanted to shoot, so he learned to pass. Playground pick-up games gave him vision and court awareness.
"Winning was always the most important thing," Hurley said.
Through the first half of his life, that was all he did.
He won four state titles at St. Anthony's High School in New Jersey and was a McDonald's High School All-American game co-MVP with Shaquille O'Neal. He won two national championships at Duke, was a first-team All-American and is the NCAA's all-time assists leader.
All the while - even at the height of his game - he always felt like an underdog, like he had to prove he was worthy every time he played. That may be the secret that Hurley - UB's new men's basketball coach - brings to Buffalo and what he hopes will define a team many have already pre-labeled a Mid-American Conference Championship contender.
Hurley doesn't like predictions like that. He's also not one for excuses. In the winter of 1993, just two months into his NBA career, he was in a near-fatal car accident but refused to let it keep him off the court.
Now he's bringing that toughness to the sidelines, where he hopes to instill the hunger he never could contain as a player to his roster of 12 Bulls.
"I really feel like [Hurley] has a lot of fire to him and inspires our guys to play hard and it keeps us together," said Javon McCrea, a two-time first-team All-MAC selection.
This is not only Hurley's first year at UB, but it's his first year as a head coach anywhere. He's replacing 14-year head coach Reggie Witherspoon, whose firing last year after a disappointing 14-20 season shocked the Buffalo community. 'Spoon' had turned a bleak Division I program into a MAC contender and led UB to four straight seasons with at least 18 wins. Western New York loved him.
Fans and media were distraught at his dismissal. Freshman guard Shannon Evans, UB's top recruit last season under Witherspoon, even de-committed.
Athletic Director Danny White - who was roundly criticized in Buffalo media for the firing - shot back with the Hurley hire on March 26 and, suddenly, UB was making headlines in sports media powerhouses like ESPN and Sports Illustrated. Everyone was saying that a man who had learned from the best, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, would now run Buffalo basketball. Evans re-committed.
In addition to McCrea, who may be among UB's top athletes ever, Hurley has inherited a team with junior forward Will Regan, a preseason first-team All-MAC East honoree, and senior point guard Jarod Oldham, who missed most of last season with a wrist injury.
Hurley has already begun to shake up the strategy. He's conditioning his players to play intense defense and push the ball up the court - something he excelled at in his time at Duke. During a scrimmage between the starters and reserves on Oct. 24, the starters jumped out to a 23-0 lead and Hurley credited the defense for the performance.
"The starting group was dominant defensively and that led us to transition and got guys open shots," Hurley said. "It was exciting because the guys have fun playing that way."
The players agree.
"[Witherspoon] challenged us as a team but [Hurley] really knows where to push and individually challenge each person to get the most out of them," Regan said.
Hurley has implemented a new up-tempo offense, one that may benefit McCrea and the other athletic swingmen on the Bulls. The catalyst is the defensive intensity. Missed shots and forced turnovers often result in a quick outlet pass and an attempt at a fast break.
Regan enjoys the new offense and McCrea said he loves it.
"If they play hard defensively, are disruptive and create turnovers, then they're going to play the kind of style they want and have fun playing in the open court," Hurley said. "We're going to generate a lot of possessions."
Despite the expectations and the exciting new style of play, Hurley knows there is more to winning than a roster that appears glamorous on paper.
"People assume that because there are a few players that have accomplished a lot that that means that we're going to win," Hurley said. "That's not how it works and it didn't work that way last year for the team."
If there's a man who knows how to win, it's Hurley.
Hurley's first basketball memory is as a 5-year-old, attending a practice of his father's - Bob Hurley Sr. - high school basketball team. But Bob Sr. said Hurley's first time around a basketball was much earlier.
"His first trip to the gym, he was one and a half [years old]," Bob Sr. said.
Sr. has been coaching for 41 years at St. Anthony's High School in New Jersey. He has won 29 state titles, has been USA Today'sNational Coach of the Year three times and, in 2011, became the 10th coach ever to win 1,000 high school games.
Bob Sr. was a perfectionist who demanded excellence, which he often got.
Hurley was constantly around his father's team and remembers watching him coach. Every time the team got a breather, Hurley would grab a ball, dribble around the court and shoot. Later, he became the team's water boy and kept stats during the games.
When Hurley was a freshman at St. Anthony's, he moved up to varsity midway through the team's state-title season and came off the bench. At 5-foot-4, he was still the smallest.
"The sport clearly favors the bigger guys," Bob Sr. said. "The bigger guys almost have to disprove that they can play, where the smaller guys have to confirm they can
Bob Sr.'s lessons stayed with Hurley, and he began demanding excellence of himself.
"I was never satisfied with anything I did and I had a real drive when I played," Hurley said.
By the end of his sophomore year, Hurley had grown eight inches. In his final three seasons as the starting point guard, he led the school to three straight titles, its first-ever national championship and a 91-2 record.
Hurley had overcome his own expectations for his high school career but remained motivated to keep getting better
Bob Sr. had demanded excellence, and Hurley obliged.
Duke basketball has a stigma. Coach K is a military man and that's how he runs his basketball team. Most of his players are clean-cut, well-behaved, active students from privileged backgrounds. When Hurley arrived on campus, he was slightly different.
"I had a bit of an edginess to me and I played in a lot of difficult places, playgrounds and tournaments," Hurley said of his days in Jersey City.
The neighborhood he grew up in was just five minutes from the inner city, which, like most major cities, was riddled with poverty, crime, drugs and violence. But basketball and his family kept him focused. Bob Sr. doubled as a probation officer when he wasn't winning state titles, and Hurley's mother, Chris Hurley, was a teacher's assistant.
"My family was really strong," Hurley said. "Having those people expecting stuff from you kept me on the right path."
Hurley took his edginess with him to Duke. A quick YouTube search brings up highlights, one labeled "Best Duke PG Ever!" It shows Hurley weaving through the lane and finding the open man for an easy dunk, or crossing over his defender and knocking down a jumper from the elbow.
What the clips don't show is the street-court mentality Hurley couldn't contain. In college, he became notorious for yelling at referees. In 1991, The Baltimore Sun included an anecdote in a story about Duke's national championship, saying, earlier in the year, the coaching staff put together a video to show Hurley's 'tantrums' on the court and how they affected the team.
"I played with a lot of fire, and at times it was divisive and in a negative way," Hurley admitted.
Such irreverence shook up Duke's more buttoned-up basketball style. Hurley's character was unfamiliar to Duke basketball, a program that, at the time, was thought to lack toughness. This was before Duke's glory days and before Coach K was considered to be the greatest coach of all time - Duke had been to the Final Four seven times before Hurley arrived but failed to win one national championship.
Opponents' players and fans despised Hurley for his on-court antics - and because he often won. The Cameron Crazies (Duke's student section at the Cameron Indoor Stadium) loved him for the passion and pride with which he played.
"I think I was identifiable to the people," Hurley said. "It meant a lot just in terms of people seeing me, regular size, regular athlete - nothing extraordinary."
Eventually, Hurley contained his combative playground persona and learned to control his emotions. But he never surrendered his toughness - Coach K didn't want that.
In 1991, his sophomore year, Hurley helped bring Duke its first national title. The team won it again in 1992. Forward Christian Laettner was the National Player of the Year, Grant Hill was a future NBA All-Star - Hurley was crowned the tournament's most outstanding player.
"I think it's simple: If he was playing against your team, you didn't like him," Bob Sr. said. "But people around Duke really cherished the time he was there because he brought championships and it kind of opened up the door to what Duke became."
In his office on the top floor of Alumni Arena, Hurley spoke in a flat, monotonous tone. Who could blame him? He has done these interviews before and answered the same questions countless times.
In the same tone with which he described how he felt winning national championships, Hurley talked about another rare experience - scrimmaging the Dream Team.
"I had such a fear factor. As good as I thought I was playing coming into it, I just thought they were too good for me to even stay on the floor with," Hurley said.
The fear was justified.
The Dream Team consisted of some of the most legendary players in NBA history: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, to name a few. The Team was assembled in September 1991 and it first met together for a series of scrimmages in June 1992 before traveling to Barcelona for the Games. Hurley was on a team of NCAA all-stars that was the Dream Team's first-ever competition.
Led by Hurley at the point, the NCAA all-stars won the first scrimmage 62-54.
In his book about the Dream Team, Jack McCallum, a former Sports Illustrated writer, wrote:
"Hurley was the key. He was an unusual player, a pallid six-footer with no discernible athleticism ... There was a lot of street in Hurley. What he had was the best point-guard quality, albeit an ineffable one: he could go where he wanted to go. And where he wanted to go was right by Magic Johnson, who guarded him much of the time."
Hurley goes back and forth in his mind debating what was greater: winning the championships at Duke or having the opportunity to play against the best players in the world.
"[The time around the scrimmage] stands out because it reminds me of being at my best in the game of basketball," Hurley said.
Hurley came back to consciousness the morning of Dec. 13, 1993, clinging to his life. The night before, his Toyota 4Runner was broadsided by a Buick station wagon traveling at about 55 mph without its headlights on. Hurley was thrown from his vehicle into a ditch, where he lay face down in the water.
"I was blindsided and hit and I don't really remember a lot of details after that," Hurley said.
He suffered two collapsed lungs, five broken ribs, a shattered left shoulder blade, a torn ACL in his right knee, a broken right fibula and a myriad of bruises and sprains.
"There's no preparation in dealing with those types of life-altering situations," Hurley said. "It was a tough fight I was in, initially for my life, and then it became more about reestablishing my career."
The night of the accident, he had struggled on the court, as did the Sacramento Kings, who had drafted him No. 7 overall in June of the '93 NBA Draft. The Kings had lost 112-102, their 11th loss in 13 games. Hurley wasn't used to losing.
If you're judging by points scored, it was the worst game of his 19-game NBA career. He dished out seven assists but failed to score a point for the first time all season.
Hurley started every one of those 19 games at point guard for the Kings. He averaged 7.1 points and 6.1 assists but made just 2 of 16 3-pointers.
"I was struggling shooting the ball, but statistically it wasn't awful," Hurley said.
That was all before the accident.
Now, after all the injuries, he had to resurrect a career that had yet to click on all cylinders in the first place. Throughout the recovery process, Hurley had his doubts. There were times when he wondered if he would ever feel normal again.
"That frustration when you don't feel like you'll go back to what you were was real tough," Hurley said.
Some days, he spent seven to eight hours in physical therapy and training to rebuild his body.
On Nov. 4, 1994, he returned for the Kings' season opener - a miraculously quick recovery. The Kings defeated the Phoenix Suns 107-89, and Hurley came off the bench to score 11 points and dime out five assists.
"Everything had to work out perfect for me to get there and I didn't have any major setbacks throughout recovery. But I wouldn't recommend anyone try that," Hurley said, laughing, as he discussed his speedy comeback.
He played in 222 games for the Kings over the next four years before being traded to the Vancouver Grizzlies in February 1998. April 19 of that year was the last time he donned an NBA jersey.
The NBA had a lockout the following year and the Grizzlies waived Hurley before the season finally started in January. He sat out the remaining four months of the shortened season and planned to play in Spain in the fall. In a summer league game in the states, three weeks before heading to Spain, he re-tore the same ACL he had injured in the car accident.
"I'll always have to live with some disappointment with how my pro career ended," Hurley said.
He retired after just five years in the NBA. The most points he ever scored in a game was 17 and he had finished with a career average of 3.8 points and 3.3 assists per game. Still, he refuses to place any blame on the accident.
"I don't like to put the blame on the accident. I still should have overcome enough, and I had enough ability in me to have a better career than what I had," Hurley said.
Bob Sr. said Hurley was lucky to survive but didn't hesitate to claim the accident had a direct effect on Hurley's pro days.
"There's no question that if that stuff hadn't happened to him, he would have had an entirely different career," Bob Sr. said. "The physical limitations that were put on him after that happened kept him from being the player he ever could have been."
Hurley's disappointment and frustration built. It was time to take a break from basketball.
"Songandaprayer's pace is blistering!" said NBC's horse-racing broadcaster Tom Durkin, as the colt Songandaprayer made record time through the first half-mile at the 2001 Kentucky Derby. Owner Bobby Hurley - who'd been in the horse business just one year- craned to see if his horse would win the most prestigious race in the sport. His heart raced like it did when he was on the courts.
"It was a competitive business, and for a guy that was retired and ultra competitive, it was a way to stay in sports and compete," Hurley said.
Hurley purchased the horse for $1 million in 2000. The thoroughbred business gave him flexibility - he had just retired from the NBA and he wanted time with his wife, Leslie, and their family.
Hurley has two daughters, Cameron, 17, and Sydney, 15, and a son, Bobby, 11. Sydney plays soccer and Bobby loves basketball - they have both taken after their father's athletic roots.
Three months before the Derby, Hurley realized horseracing was as fast-paced and volatile as basketball - perhaps more so. He was not only a new owner and not a born horseman, but Songandaprayer was an 18-to-1 long shot when he entered the Fountain of Youth Stakes - a prep race for the Kentucky Derby.
He won. Hurley calls the moment "one of my best experiences from a non-basketball standpoint in sports."
The Derby didn't go as well. Songandaprayer led 3/4 of the race, but finished 13th.
Hurley enjoyed horses, but he couldn't shake what he refers to as the "itch." He scouted for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2003 and volunteered at Florida youth basketball camps, but it wasn't enough.
In April 2010, he became an assistant coach at Wagner College under his brother Dan, who was in his first season as the men's basketball head coach.
"[It was] the greatest way I could enter college coaching," Hurley said of the experience coaching with his brother every day.
The brothers led Wagner to a 25-5 record in their second season and were hired at Rhode Island in 2012.
"Work didn't always feel like work," Hurley said. But it was work. And it's where Hurley learned how to run a Division I college basketball program.
"I learned so much from him and how to run a program and the intensity of how you need to go about your players and practice," Hurley said.
But the desired career path of an assistant coach is inevitable - each wants to be a head coach, Hurley said. A few months after his first season at Rhode Island, Hurley got his chance.
It all happened within two or three days.
Danny White called Hurley and both knew the chemistry was electric. Hurley arrived in Buffalo a few days later.
"Obviously [Witherspoon, the former UB head coach] was well liked, and that's great. I would hope that I would have the same kind of impact on the community," Hurley said.
Hurley is now four days away from coaching his first game with the Bulls, and fans and players are curious what the player who accrued such a storied career will bring to the sidelines.
Will he be a disciplinarian like his father? Will he focus on a "clean program" like Coach K? Or will he bring a new edge to a program that needs to win, like his brother Dan did at Wagner?
Perhaps the biggest question is: Can he teach stars like McCrea and Regan the pluck of the playground? Can he turn the Bulls into a team that dives for loose balls, attacks the basket and never stops hustling? That's what Hurley made a career out of. And he expects the same of his players.
Two weeks ago at practice, a Bulls forward didn't set hard enough screens and made excuses for his lackadaisical effort. Hurley told him to, "Get the f*** out."
"Things that infuriate me in practice are letdowns of weakness and non-hustle plays," Hurley said. "I don't get mad if they miss a good shot; I want them to be aggressive. I just don't like passive errors."
Contradictory to his style of play, Hurley said we aren't going to see him jumping up and down on the sidelines like a "madman." But when the players need an extra charge during a timeout, he hopes to be a source of confidence for them.
Hurley wants players with character that love basketball - he can relate to that.
The Bulls may meet expectations this year and make a run at a MAC Championship. Even if they don't, one thing is for sure: They'll play hard defense, rebound and push the ball. They'll be aggressive and passionate.
Hurley wouldn't accept anything less.