by Franklyn Calle / @FrankieC7
If you follow the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller or Jay Bilas on Twitter, then you may have noticed a common hashtag coming from all three just days after Thanksgiving: #HelpHurley it read. The tweet was part of #GivingTuesday, which served as a kickoff to the holiday giving season, following Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It particularly revolved around legendary high school coach Bob Hurley and national basketball powerhouse St. Anthony HS. Just days earlier, the coach had launched a fundraising campaign that aimed to help save the school from its financial distress. Despite being touted as one of the top basketball programs annually and featuring one of the most celebrated coaches in the sport’s history, the school has constantly struggled to meet the fiscal operating budget while keeping tuition at an affordable price to its 220+ students from the surrounding inner-city communities. As Hurley begins to think about his retirement, he wants to reassure the school’s financial security until at least 2020, and thus launched a multi-year fundraising campaign called St. Anthony 2020 with the assistance of TeamWorks Media, which was also involved in the marketing and distribution of the school’s documentary The Street Stops Here in 2010. The campaign’s ultimate objective is to raise $10 million, the amount needed to make sure the school is financially stable until 2020.
The track record on the hardwood speaks for itself. Coming into this season, Hurley had over 1,086 career wins, 25 state parochial championships (the school has 27 overall – a national record), four USA Today national championships, and 12 TOC titles. The former probation officer has coached six NBA first-round draft picks, eight McDonald’s All-Americans, and over 150 players have received basketball scholarships. Yet, it is the school’s track record off the court that has had the biggest impact on its students’ lives. The school’s had a 100% graduation rate for the past 20 consecutive years. In contrast, roughly 67% of kids attending public schools in Jersey City graduate from high school. St. Anthony also boasts a 100% college acceptance rate, with the most recent senior graduating class having collectively received $6.5 million in scholarship money.
Nonetheless, St. Anthony HS has annually found itself in a familiar financial situation that eventually led to many of the Catholic schools in the surrounding area to shut its doors for good, including Patterson Catholic HS, St. Patrick HS (which was subsequently spun-off into an independent private school named The Patrick School), and Rice HS in Harlem, NY. Last year alone, six Catholic schools in Jersey City closed.
The survival of St. Anthony throughout the years reflects the stories of its students. The stories of those that defeated the odds, that transcended what the statistics projected, those that overcame personal situations, tragedies and environments that could have easily led them to becoming just another number. The school has defied the odds just likes its students have, refusing to become just another number — another Catholic school that had to close its doors like many of its neighboring counterparts, leaving many families without an affordable and reliable education for their children. As the opportunity to experience upward mobility within our society continues to become more challenging, for families coping with financial hardships, St. Anthony HS can be difference between their child being able to move on and compete in the job market or not. Students commute from out-of-state cities as far as Brooklyn, looking to obtain a better education than what city schools in their area offer.
Despite the records and accolades, the school has never had its own gymnasium. There is no state-of-the-art athletic facility for this nationally renowned basketball program. For years, St. Anthony has rented time at a recreational center nearby to use for practice sessions. The weight room, you ask? Well, there’s a small cafeteria that doubles as a classroom, weight room and locker room.
And yet, despite having drawn interest from numerous collegiate programs throughout the last four decades at St. Anthony, Hurley, who only earns a salary of $8,500 as head coach of the program, has continuously opted to stay put at the small Jersey City school. At the end of the day, that’s where he’s been most needed and that’s where he’s changed lives.
The St. Anthony 2020 campaign will utilize an array of digital media components to tell the stories of St. Anthony and its students, as well as collect donations from interested supporters. Among the rewards for donating to the cause include a St. Anthony basketball jersey, sitting in on a St. Anthony basketball practice, being Hurley’s assistant coach for a game, having Hurley record your outgoing voicemail message, having a scholarship named after you and receiving a two-hour private clinic from coach Hurley.
Shaquille O’Neal, a New Jersey native that hails from the neighboring city of Newark, has committed to helping the campaign and will be supporting the cause in a variety of ways. In the second video on the gallery above, Shaq recently visited the renowned school for the very first time. Having heard of the program and of its success for years, he was taken aback by the modest (if you want to call it that) facilities the school holds. “I thought this place was 100,000 square feet and brand new facilities,” said O’Neal. “He told me that they have to rent a gym. This man has 250 championship balls back there and they have to rent a gym.” Telling Hurley later on in disbelief, “Come on, coach. Seriously? This ain’t your high school.”
Below is an exclusive interview with the legendary coach, as he opens up about his years at St. Anthony and the 2020 campaign. If you’d like to impact the lives of our youth and help break the cycle of poverty, visit stanthony2020.com for more information on how you can contribute. You won’t just be keeping alive a historic program that has already impacted the lives of thousands, you’ll be investing in the future.
SLAM: How did the idea for this campaign come about?
Bob Hurley: I’d like to coach for five to ten years but we just don’t know that the school is in a position where we know the school will be open unless we get involved in a very aggressive fundraising campaign. So with that in mind, we decided to engage the company that made the film, TeamWorks Media. They’re now involved in running this one-year fundraising campaign using stories, running events, doing auctions, raffles – just a variety of things to raise money and spread the word about stories about the kids, who we are, what we’re trying to do, our success rate, etc.
SLAM: Can you sum up the financial situation that Catholic schools are currently facing, which has ultimately led to the closing of so many schools in recent years?
BH: Originally, the diocese that the schools came from used to subsidize the school with some financial help because you’re operating on a deficit in the difference between what you charge for tuition and what it costs you to educate the kids. So now with escalating prices on everything, we wind up having our tuition under $6,000 but it’s costing us nearly $13,000 to educate a kid. So we have to subsidize about $7,000 per kid times 230 kids, and now all of a sudden you have a deficit of a million and a half or more on a yearly basis. For a period of time, we have been trying to just do it year by year, and now we just need to do something aggressive to ensure that the school will be open till 2020. We’re trying to put together in the next year a very aggressive campaign to raise ten million dollars. At ten million dollars, it will mean we can run the school through 2020 and continue to service kids in the inner-city.
SLAM: For those who aren’t aware of life in the inner-city, can you take us through some of the challenges and obstacles that the kids who attend St. Anthony face on the daily basis?
BH: It’s a world that’s very different from anyone that lives in the suburbs. Many of the kids that come to school are being raised by single parents or a grandmother. Their families are sacrificing a great deal because they’re looking at the opportunities the child has at a small school. A school that’s value-based with a religious structure versus being in a bigger public school in the neighborhood where the kids live. We offer a safe atmosphere; a place where a child can go into school and leave everything else behind them. When you walk up the steps into the school, the sign reads, “This is a safe environment and the street stops here.” When you’re coming into the school, you’re leaving behind anything that has been bothering you or holding you back. When you come into the building, you are going to try to be the best you can be. You’re allowed to ask questions in class. It’s not something where kids are going to make fun of you because you’re engaged in the class and asking the teacher. You’re allowed to join drama and be involved in a play. You can feel comfortable in the things you’re involved in. People know about our basketball kids but what people don’t know is that for 20 years in a row we’ve had a 100% college acceptance. So every kid in senior class for 20 years has been accepted to college. We compare that to Jersey City high schools, where slightly over 50% of the kids are graduating high school. I don’t know the numbers of kids that are going on to college, but if only half are graduating high school then there can’t be a tremendous number of kids that are attending college. That means the future isn’t going to be as bright because you’re not affording yourself those other options.
SLAM: You’ve had a lot of memorable seasons and it’s probably difficult to pick one as your favorite, but is there one that stands out from the rest?
BH: Probably one of the most challenging years was the 2004 team. Adrian Wojnarowski wrote the book about “The Miracle at St. Anthony,” and it really covered a situation where most of the kids on the team were struggling with the whole concept to fight every night. They were coming from difficult situations at home — no male influence in their lives. They were coming into school and struggling with the discipline, and academic and athletic demands that we expect from them. They went from being compared to a group of kids we weren’t really happy with, to graduating and being undefeated as seniors, all getting accepted to colleges and with almost all having graduated from college and now they’re out in the world. It was a very rewarding thing because the struggle was getting them to the finish line. It was never easy until they finally went out the door. But we’re proud of where they were able to go to because they kept fighting and ultimately changed the direction they were going.
SLAM: You’re essentially playing two major roles at St. Anthony right now. You’re a coach/mentor to the players and you’re the face of fundraising for the school. How do you juggle the different responsibilities?
BH: The funny thing is I don’t know any better because it’s the only place I’ve ever coached. I just know that the school doesn’t have a gym. So we could always complaint that we don’t have a gym and ‘how are we supposed to compete?’ but we rent a gym and we’re fine with that. I think we learned a long time ago to do the best with what you have and don’t make excuses. So whether it’s me having to help them with fundraising — it’s a little bit out of my personality to ask people for help but I’m not asking for me — we’re looking at kids that are deserving of the opportunity to finish high school and go on to college. We’re developing kids that are going to be productive as they get older. Our statistics show that it’s working and we’ll just like the chance to keep on doing this with the kids, not just the basketball players.
SLAM: Throughout the years, you’ve had a lot of kids come into your program and defy the odds. Is there one particular player who stood out to you the most because of how much he had to overcome?
BH: I think the one we always talk about is Rashon Burno. Rashon’s story is utterly spectacular. He graduated from St. Anthony in 2007. When he came to high school both of his parents had recently passed away. He had a grandmother who was his guardian. She developed Alzheimer’s when he was in high school. She was hospitalized quite a bit, so in essence, by the time he was a sophomore in high school, he pretty much began raising himself. He got a job in a hardware store. After he graduated from St. Anthony he went on to become a three-year captain at DePaul. After graduating from DePaul he was a financial planner in Chicago. After a couple of years of doing that, he called me and said: “I feel unfulfilled. I’d really like to get into coaching.” So he started coaching at a prep school in suburban Chicago and worked there for two seasons. And then he said to me, “I know this is crazy but I’d like to coach in college. What do you think?’ So we talked about it and he reached out to Pat Kennedy, who was at that time the head coach at Towson. Pat had been his college coach at DePaul, and he was hired. He worked there for a year and then he went to Manhattan for a year. And now for the last two years, he’s been the assistant at Florida with Billy Donovan. He helped and mentored Mike Rosario, who was also a St. Anthony graduate in 2008, and who amazingly came from the same housing project in Jersey City, the A. Harry Moore projects. The two kids grew up in a very rough atmosphere. Both ended up at Florida for the last two years. Those stories and kids make you want to continue to work because if anyone of them is giving the proper guidance, who knows what potential they may have.
SLAM: As you’ve said earlier, you’re starting to prepare your exit from coaching. Looking back at your career, do you remember a time when collegiate programs were calling and you seriously considered leaving St. Anthony for the next level?
BH: I love college basketball. There isn’t a night that I don’t watch college basketball. I watch two or three games and flip through the iPad to get box scores. It has been a very long time, decades, since I really felt like I wanted to coach at the college level. I’ve been very comfortable at St. Anthony. I’m a Jersey City guy, you know. I worked as a probation officer for 30 years, so I know what happens when guys make bad decisions. I did adult supervision and the guys would constantly talk about if they could go back in time to when they were 12 or 14 years old, and change the decisions that affected them for the rest of their lives. So when we get these kids into high school, we try to do a lot of stuff in the community, run camps in the summer to mentor local kids and bring back former players to tell stories of growing up here. So when a kid comes to high school, he has a very good chance to move up the ranks here and do all the right things. Coaching at the college level, you just never get that same level of satisfaction. You recruit players that fit into your system and spend four years with them, but it’s nothing like the relationship you could have with your high school coach because you are at a different point in your life.
SLAM: Having coached throughout multiple decades, what would you say is the biggest difference between today’s kids and the ones you coached in your early years, in terms of their approach to the game and the culture?
BH: The potential of the kids now is just tremendous. The kids now are just bigger, stronger and more athletic. They start playing high-level basketball at a much younger age. They have all these opportunities for them, such as camps and strength work. There’s so much available for them to use, it’s almost hard to compare the kids I started in the 70s with what’s going on now. But the hunger that the kids had in the 70s and 80s to just play everyday has been replaced somewhat by kids that are brought to places by others to work them out. I think some of the hungriness that some kids used to have — they know how to take a ball and go out to play — while the modern kid is almost waiting for someone to go take him some place to work him out. Not that there is anything wrong with that but sometimes your individual toughness isn’t quite the same when you get assisted by others quite a bit to develop as a player. The biggest thing in life is when there’s an obstacle in your path, your character shows who you are when you have to respond to that obstacle. When you have done a lot of stuff yourself, you’re self motivated, whereas if people are constantly doing things for you, you sometimes aren’t tough enough to handle an obstacle yourself. You’re just not tough enough to do that.