A New Vision
Some say Hurley’s whole life has prepared him to coach. Buffalo is about to find out if that's true.
Published: Sunday, November 3, 2013
Updated: Monday, November 4, 2013 13:11
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.”