When he’s sitting on the bus on the way to a game, Peter Hooley has this ability to shut everything off. Silence. Such a fantastic friend.
He thinks about home back in Hahndorf, a small town in the Adelaide Hills in southern Australia. He pictures the farm he grew up on, the concrete court where he hoisted all those jumpers and frequently faced off against his twin sister in heated games of one-on-one. His mind turns toward the final words his parents told him. The last thought is a prayer. Then, he’s good.
Hooley is a redshirt junior at Albany, but he didn’t even take a visit before he decided to attend the school in the state capital, roughly two hours north of New York City.
After Hooley helped South Australia to a third-place finish at the country’s 2011 U20 Championships, Albany head coach Will Brown got in touch. He’d heard about Hooley from Phil Collins, a sporting director in the northern territories who’d played college basketball with current Albany assistant Jeremy Friel. Collins couldn’t stop raving about this Hooley kid. He could score. He could shoot from anywhere.
“We told Phil, ‘We don’t want kids that can ‘play here,'” says Brown. “A lot of guys can play here; we want guys who are really good.”
Brown was sold on Hooley. The high basketball IQ, the way that this 6-4 guard could play multiple positions; how he found a way to always make an impact. Then, that fluid ability to put the rock in the net.
Hooley was intrigued about Albany. He consulted with Great Danes forward Luke Devlin, a compatriot who hailed from Sydney. Devlin was the forerunner in what has become an Australian pipeline. Devlin raved about life on and off the court. Hooley consulted with his father, Jeff. Since he couldn’t take that visit…
Why not go and see how it turns out?
This is pure Hooley, a player endearingly described by Brown as a unique bird. “They don’t make ’em like him,” says Brown. “They just don’t.”
There’s Hooley’s redshirt season, after he suffered a stress fracture of his right foot during Albany’s tour of Canada ahead of ’11-12. Like it would’ve gone to waste. “When he sat out, we’d talk to him about certain things to watch during games,” says Brown. “He needed to know our scouting reports. We held him accountable. You can be a valuable asset, talking to your teammates on the bench.
“You really learn the game from a coach’s perspective; you begin to understand what we’re preaching, and why we’re preaching it, how it helps us win.”
Hooley offers a similar assessment of that time on the sidelines. Healthy the following season, he was named to the America East Conference All-Freshman team.
Consider this past season’s conference tournament championship, held at Stony Brook. Pritchard Gymnasium, where the Sea Wolves had played since 2008, holds 2,000 people. (The brand new, 4,008-seat Stony Brook Arena opens this fall.) Pritchard…well, it gets up there, decibel-wise. The Sea Wolves were riding a 40-3 streak on that court, heading into the final.
But Albany wasn’t anything near fazed. This was nothing new. A season before, they’d had won the conference tournament title at Vermont. Before three minutes had gone in that one, Albany was down 10-0.
Over the next six minutes, the Great Danes went on an 11-0 run. They beat the Catamounts 53-49. It was the first time that a 4-seed had won the America East Conference tournament. Hooley finished with 8 points, 4 assists and 4 steals. (Stat sheet stuffing is nothing new. He has a single-game career high of 12 boards.)
So one year later, again the No. 4 seed in the tournament field, Albany came out at Stony Brook and…went down 9-0.
Hooley remembers running past Brown, unable to hear his own thoughts amid the din. But Brown got his message simple, and he got it through. “Don’t worry about it,” he told Hooley. “We were in this position last year. We stuck with it. Every guy bought in. And good things happened.”
Albany reeled off the next 10 points. At halftime, they led by three. Then, in true seesawing tradition, the Great Danes trailed Stony Brook by six with just seven minutes to go. Their NCAA Tournament hopes on the line, they stormed to a 23-8 run to seal their second consecutive berth. Brown joined Jim Calhoun as the only coaches to win at least four America East tournament championships.
Let’s get this point across: Albany relishes this type of environment. Tough, tough kids. The week before the conference tournament championship, they held practices held in a tiny P.E. gym on campus, music blaring to give a sense for what the crowd will be like.
The night before big games, the team heads to the movies. Plush seats, gazing at a silver screen. Darkness, a serenity discovered amidst the noise. When Brown tells his team to ignore the crowd, they understand completely.
“Only one of nine teams is going to go to the NCAA Tournament,” says Brown. “That’s the tough thing about our conference. If there’s a hiccup in the conference tournament, you’re done. But we don’t fear that; we embrace it. We don’t call it pressure, we call it fun. We love the fun of knowing we need to survive and advance.
“I don’t think we were the most talented team in the conference these past two years, but I do think we were the best team at the right time. We were the most prepared. You have to play well, you have to stay healthy, and you have to have a little luck on your side. Things have gone right for us.”
As a sophomore, Hooley led Albany with 15.1 points per game. For the past two years, he’s known nothing but the NCAA Tournament. This offseason, he’s gotten bigger and stronger. “I think the best of Peter is yet to come,” says Brown.
Consider the toughness. Consider the talent. Marvel at the player and the person that emerges from such an alloy.
During last season’s conference tournament, Hooley was transcendent for the Great Danes. In three games, he averaged 23.7 points, hit 52 percent of his threes and 49 percent of his field goals. In the quarterfinal romp over a short-handed UMBC, he dropped 30 points in 20 minutes. As he headed to the locker room at halftime of the semis against Vermont, he had 22 points to his name. It was the timing as much as the torching. “In the last two minutes of the final at Stony Brook, he hit this floater—I call it the Aussie finger roll—that really opened the game up,” says Brown. “He’s not afraid to take big shots, he’s not afraid to make big shots. He’s fearless.”
He was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, the first sophomore in 15 years to earn that honor. Then, after each of these games, Hooley raced to his computer. He opened the Skype app and called his parents. Susan, his mother, was in her fourth year battling colon cancer. The night before the conference tournament championship, Dad nearly lost his hand to a saw on the farm. It needed to be surgically re-attached. When he spoke to them before Stony Brook, they were both in the hospital.
But you wouldn’t know this, because Hooley didn’t want to make it public.
He put his head down and played: In each of the final three games of the season, he went all 40 minutes. Says Brown, “He had every reason in the world—and it would’ve been justifiable—to come up with excuses for why he’s not taking care of business in school, why he’s not practicing hard or playing well. But with Peter, there’s never any excuses.
“He was the 2014 America East Conference co-scholar athlete of the year for men’s basketball. That says a lot about his focus, his mental toughness. I don’t know how I would deal with it, if I was in his shoes. Probably not as well as he is. I have tremendous respect for him as a person.”
“I knew they would have been there had that not happened,” says Hooley. “But they said how proud they were, how they knew I could do anything. So I really wanted to do it, not only for my team, but for them. Everything I do is trying to make my family proud.”
This past summer, he was able to go home. He’d given his first NCAA Tournament watch to a parent; now, he was able to make it two. One for each. It had been 364 days since he’d seen the farm. He spent six weeks with a now cancer-free mom and fully recovered dad. They’ll be out to Albany at Christmas this year. Hooley is sure they can’t wait.
Brown makes a point of checking in with Hooley every day. He wants Hooley to know he’s constantly thinking about him. Sometimes, when Brown is home watching film, he’ll shoot Hooley a text.“Hey, how’s the family?”
“Every coach in the country preaches toughness,” Brown says. “Toughness, toughness. A lot of times, you get caught up with toughness as it relates to what guys are doing on the court. Banging, taking charges, diving for loose balls. I think sometimes you forget about toughness off the floor—what a kid is going through on a daily basis.
“Peter didn’t have access to his family besides through the computer. I told him, If you need to go home, go home. I was willing for him to go home in the middle of our season.”
“They really do look after you here at Albany,” Hooley says.
This past January, Hooley’s shoulder popped out, forcing him to miss practice time and a game at UMass Lowell. Three days later, he was back against UMBC. He played 36 minutes, added 19 points (12-12 from the line) and 6 assists.
There was a three-to-four game stretch during conference play when Sam Rowley, an Aussie post and the Great Danes’ leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, couldn’t take a shot with his right hand—his strong hand, because it had become too bothersome. “It’s hard to win games at our level, and win them at a high rate, when your two best players aren’t healthy,” says Brown.
By the time March rolled around, Albany used a seven-man rotation. Brown called them the Iron Seven. Hooley had to play through the pain. Rowley, too. Both did what they had to do, then iced afterward. “Unless it was something that was going to not let me be able to pass or shoot, I was going to make sure I was out there for the next game,” says Hooley.
The threat of further attrition meant Brown had to adjust as a coach. He changed up the length and frequency of practices. By March, his players commented about how fresh they felt. “As coaches, we ask our players to adapt and adjust,” says Brown. “We as coaches have to do a good job of analyzing how we can help, instead of always putting the onus on our players.”
“It was huge,” Hooley says of Brown’s decision. “We had a lot of niggling injuries. But we stuck with it. Everyone looked after themselves, and we took care of business when we had to. We knew we were ready, come tournament time. We just had to make sure everyone was healthy.”
They really needed to be. Albany played its conference tournament championship game on a Saturday, then on Selection Sunday found out it was headed to Dayton for the NCAA Tournament First Four game on Tuesday evening.
The Great Danes took Mount St. Mary’s down 71-64, booking passage to the Round of 64. Their reward: a matchup against No. 1 overall seed Florida. In Orlando. They wanted to celebrate the first NCAA Tournament win in program history, but they weighted that against getting ready for the Gators. This was a chance at history: the first 16-seed to ever topple a 1. So it was back to bus, back to the hotel and off to the airport, where they lumbered on to a plane just after midnight. Then, off said plane and into the warm Orlando spring air.
A frenzy awaited them. Media, fans, police escorts to and from an arena that seats 20,000 come tourney time. Entry into the arena through a maze of backdoors and corridors. But Hooley & Co. kept calm. They spent time laying by the hotel pool. Brown kept them away from courts. The most strenuous physical activity involved a walkthrough in the hotel ballroom. The coaches created a court with tape. By Thursday, everyone was fresh. Minds were buzzing with possibility.
“We did a bunch of film work with our guys,” says Brown. “Our mindset was, ‘If we’re going to play the best team in the country, we’re doing it to win.'”
Two of Brown’s assistants played on his ’05-06 Albany team that, as a 16-seed, gave UConn all it could handle in the Round of 64. Hooley spoke with another member of that team, Jamar Wilson, about such a task.
The core returning group had tasted this in 2013, when Albany faced Duke in the Round of 64 in Philadelphia. Against the Gators, Albany came out with a vengeance. They mixed up their defense; through the junk looks, they forced certain Gators to try and beat them. For the first 13 minutes, Albany was in the lead. They were tied with just 14 minutes left in regulation. Then, they fell 67-55. A local beat writer’s opening line in his post-game column: It was supposed to be easier than this. It was a fun way to exact a bit of revenge upon an article Brown had been sent ahead of the game: Gators open with laugher.
Brown was asked about the glut of games in the past week. Yes, it was hard, but that’s not how this team looked at it. “If they made us play every day, we’d play every day,” Brown told reporters. “We’d represent our city and our university to the best of our ability.”
“There’s no point showing up if you think you’re going to lose by 40,” says Hooley. “The coaches gave us a great game plan. As a 16-seed, we had nothing to lose. The opportunity to upset the best team, really, in the country at that time was something everybody wanted. Guys just ended up getting tired toward the end.”
Now, with a summer’s worth of reflection, Hooley wants another shot at the Tournament. He wants to knock off one of those “big-time” programs. To get there again, Albany must replace three starters. Hooley and Rowley will need to increase their roles.
“We need those two guys (Rowley and Hooley) to work together to lead this group,” says Brown. “Peter has the capabilities to be a vocal leader. It’s something we need to continue to work with him on.”
“I embrace that,” Hooley says. “I look forward to that challenge. The old veteran heads like (Sam Rowley) and myself have to increase our roles that little bit more from last year—as leaders as well.”
Brown thinks this season’s team will be good enough to once again compete for a conference crown and an NCAA bid. But new guys will need to step up. The coach likes what he sees from Sam Rowley’s younger brother, Mike, a 6-8 sophomore who’s a Swiss Army knife of a forward. He thinks Mike, injury-free after battling foot problems all last year, will be the next Aussie to make a big jump.
Sophomore Dallas Ennema finished second in the conference in three-point field-goal percentage (50 percent) last season. Now he’s got to add more versatility to his game.
Hooley’s game continues to grow. In ’13-14, he finished second on the Great Danes with 87 assists. He’ll look to improve his shooting percentages: 39.8% FG, 38.8% 3FG. (His 85.2 percent free-throw accuracy ranked second in conference.) “Now he’s the focal point, he’s getting the best defender his opponent has on a consistent basis,” Brown says. “It was a learning experience for him. Not only does he have to adjust, we have to adjust and make sure he gets the ball in spots where he can be successful on a consistent basis.”
He’s kept writing. Hooley has begun work on a book about his mom’s ordeal. He blogs for an Australian basketball website. Having posted a 3.51 GPA through the first five semesters of his double major in Journalism and Psychology, there will be no shortage of options once his playing days are through. As he puts it, “I just have to decide what I want to do.”
But first, there are more championships to win, more NCAA Tournament bids to snap up. The Great Danes have yet to lose in a conference championship game under Brown. They know they have to fare better during the conference season. (They went 9-7 in America East play in ’13-14.) But you can’t knock the way they come good in the end.
The night before this last conference tournament championship, Hooley was feeling particularly unsettled. He’d done the preparation, but something still felt slipped. Then, his phone bleeped. On the screen was a text from Mike Black, a former Great Danes guard who was a senior when Hooley was a redshirt frosh.
Very. I don’t know how you did it.
Embrace it man…you the man now everybody countin on you gotta accept the challenge man that’s how I did it. But at the end of the day it’s basketball.
It might have been the last line that did it. Nerves no longer jangling, Hooley took a screen shot of that section of the conversation. The next morning, he added it to his pregame routine. He went out and helped his team win. He made sure to thank Black once more.
“You keep in contact with these guys,” Hooley says. “You become brothers with every guy on the team. It’s always good for the future.”
Don’t it look bright.