The odds are heavily stacked against St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City, New Jersey. The school is situated in the heart of a drug-infested, economically backward part of the city. It struggles to maintain an enrollment of two hundred. The school has been more or less disowned by its owners, the Felician Order (a Poland-based church) and is constantly on the cusp of financial bankruptcy.
Amidst this backdrop of hopelessness and despair, the St. Anthony Friars basketball team maintains an unenviable record. It has won two USA Today national championships, numerous state titles, has sent more than a hundred players to full basketball scholarships in college, and five first-round picks to the NBA. The book chronicles the 2003-2004 Friars’ season as they fight through crisis after crisis involving absentee students, a principal with terminal illness, and better-funded rivals. Leading the Friars for the thirty-second season is the larger than life figure Coach Bob Hurley.
Adrian Wojnarowski was granted total access to the school and its basketball team for the entire season. He makes full use of it to take the reader through an amazing, fact-infinitely-stranger-than-fiction narrative that shines the spotlight on such a committed coach that Bob Hurley has refused several lucrative offers to move to the college ranks. Wojnarowski holds nothing back in this revealing portrait of leadership amidst despair. Hurley’s modus operandi may raise a few eyebrows – he constantly yells at and berates his players – but it is clear that his heart is in the right place and his commitment is palpable.
At the beginning of the 2003-2004 season, Hurley is convinced that the season is going to be frustrating as he is faced with myriad problems concerning his players. Ahmad Mosby, whom everyone calls “Beanie,” alternates between defiance and conformity as he battles his home life in the projects and schoolwork that is demanding. Senior Marcus Williams is expected to be the team’s leader on the court and during practice. Yet the fear of Coach Hurley finding out his secret – he has a son out of wedlock – casts an ubiquitous pall on his game and his life. And then there is Sean McCurdy, the only white player on the team, whose ambitious mother orchestrates a move from Connecticut to St. Anthony’s to further her son’s chances of a college scholarship, then stage manages every on-court activity of her son.
Wojnarowksi’s paces the book perfectly, the cadences of practices and games perfectly choreographed amid detours into the lives of the people involved. A series of plucky people populate the narrative. Sister Mary Alan Barszczewski, the administrative head of the school, does not let her debilitating illness come in the way of cheering for her team and acting as a friend and counselor to the players. Darren Erman gave up his lucrative job as an attorney in Chicago to work as an assistant coach at the school; there is both pathos and humor in the story of his hardship.
But ultimately the book is about Bob Hurley. Hurley, whose son Bobby made headlines as a feisty point guard at Duke University, is strictly old-time. He is a throwback in an era when a coach is more a babysitter to recalcitrant players who tend to use school and college as avenues to showcase their talents to strike it rich in the NBA. Hurley is first and foremost a teacher. In doing that, he is also a strict disciplinarian. But the reader clearly understands that Hurley has his players’ future in mind when he goes about preparing them for life on and off the basketball court.
Wojnarowski’s book is an antithesis to Ian O’Connor’s The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High Stakes Business of High School Ball, that looked at the dark side of high school basketball. This is a heartwarming tale that is a true story of an indefatigable coach who has no ulterior motive other than to prepare impoverished young men for life.