Twenty years after an accident brought an end to a promising NBA career, Duke product Bobby Hurley is beginning an equally promising new one.
by Max DelSignore / @maxd83
Between squeaking sneakers and dribbles, a subtle, yet authoritative voice rises up in a cavernous practice gym.
The voice was originally developed in Jersey City, NJ. His first adolescent words evoked characteristics of determination and commitment. It is a voice synonymous with Final Fours and Championships at Duke University. On a muggy June afternoon, the voice carries a presence demanding everyone’s attention.
Close your eyes for a few moments, and you can hear Bobby Hurley.
The Hurley name has been synonymous with basketball for more than four decades. Bob Hurley Sr has manicured a Hall of Fame career centered on 26 state championships at St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City. And Bobby’s younger brother, Dan, has ascended in the coaching profession from prep school power St. Benedict’s (NJ) to the University of Rhode Island. Their voices are unmistakable on the sidelines.
Still, the sport felt incomplete without Bobby in a leading role. After three years serving as the top assistant and close confidant to Dan at Wagner College and URI, the University at Buffalo chose Bobby to be its face and voice for the program this past March.
“I think we’re in a great sports town,” Bobby says. “I’d like us to carve our niche in Buffalo. We want people to get behind the team and the program and see the type of effort our players put into it. The product on the floor is something the community should be proud of.”
The buzz over basketball in Buffalo faded when the NBA’s Buffalo Braves left for San Diego in 1978. Western New York has produced and showcased a number of pro players. Bob Lanier, a Buffalo native and St. Bonaventure graduate, averaged 20.1 ppg during his Hall of Fame career. Fellow NBA luminary Bob McAdoo galvanized the Braves in the franchise’s early years with his devastating scoring prowess. And then there’s Christian Laettner—an All-American lightning rod in college basketball—who grew up in nearby Angola, starred with Hurley at Duke and lasted 13 seasons in the NBA.
In a city desperately needing a basketball renaissance, Hurley can be the voice to fill the void. Count his players at Buffalo as believers. Bulls sophomore guard Jarryn Skeete remembered what Hurley said when the coach met the team for the first time.
“No more losing,” Skeete recalls. “We are going to win championships. He came from a winning background. He’s going to bring that into our program.”
Words from proven winners are generally embraced as gospel. Will a new voice result in more victories? It is hard to argue with Hurley’s pedigree, going back to high school.
Bill Parcels once, as Hurley Sr frequently quotes, said, “There is winning and there is misery.” With Bobby as his starting point guard at St. Anthony’s, Sr was rarely disappointed.
Bobby helped orchestrate a run of four consecutive New Jersey state titles for the Friars from 1985-89. In Bobby’s senior year, St. Anthony’s went 32-0 and claimed the title as the top high school basketball team in the country. Of the handful of losses in Hurley’s high school career, Sr said two of the games were played at 4 pm, just after the school day concluded.
Foes may have dismissed Bobby’s pedestrian 6-foot and 165-pound frame, but few disrespected his game. Hurley impressed coaches with his poise at the point as he managed the game’s tempo on offense and defense. He would seduce defenders with fearless drives into the lane, setting up teammates for easier buckets or a shot of his own. Between the baselines, Hurley was cunning and in control.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was also mesmerized by Hurley’s abilities. While recruiting Hurley, he saw more than just a foundational player for his budding program.
“He was the guy that I wanted to be like,” says Krzyzewski, a former PG himself at West Point. “He’s the only player I’ve coached where I was one with this kid.”
Entering the 1990s, the Blue Devils were on the verge of becoming an annual National Championship contender. Krzyzewski knew Hurley was a vital piece to what he was building in Durham. It was during defensive drills in an early-season practice where Coach K and former Duke assistant coach Tommy Amaker realized the determination in their freshman point guard.
“I looked at Tommy and I said, Am I nuts, or is this guy working harder than anyone?” Krzyzewski says.
How hard was Hurley going? One of the unmentioned footnotes in Hurley’s legacy at Duke was his dominance on the StairMaster. Krzyzewski remembers that after practice Hurley would hit the StairMaster for a half hour to 45 minutes. The coaching staff would walk past the fitness center and see their tireless starter drenched in sweat. Hurley kept track of his steps.
“He’d leave a note on it telling his teammates what his personal record was,” Krzyzewski says. “He basically said, ‘Let’s see if you knuckleheads can beat it.’ No one ever did.”
Hurley was the facilitator as a freshman on a balanced Blue Devils squad that won 29 games and advanced to the national title game. But UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels dismantled Duke with a 30-point blowout win for the championship. Hurley did not make a single field goal and was forced into 5 turnovers. It was the culmination of a psychologically draining year—one which Hurley refused to repeat.
“I was a perfectionist,” Hurley says. “I was easily frustrated by turnovers, or if one of my teammates was in position where he shouldn’t be or missed a pass, I would have terrible body language. I had a tendency to get rattled in away games with the crowd and get taken out of my game because I would lose focus. I would imagine coaching me was a roller coaster.”
The triumvirate of Hurley, Laettner and star forward Grant Hill made sure the Blue Devils would avenge their defeat. Duke returned to the Final Four in ’91 and upset UNLV in the national semifinals. Hurley played all 40 minutes, contributing 12 points and a game-high 7 assists. Two days later, Hurley added 12 points and 9 assists as Duke topped Kansas to win its first National Championship.
After their redemption, the Blue Devils ran a season-long repeat. Duke went 34-2 the following season and dropped Big Ten heavyweight Indiana and Michigan’s Fab Five to secure back-to-back titles. Hurley was selected as the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
As a senior, Hurley averaged career highs in points (17) and assists (8.2) and earned First-Team All-America status. He cemented his stature as one of college basketball’s backcourt savants after setting the NCAA record for career assists with 1,076. It’s a mark that still stands 20 years later.
“He’s one of the greatest guards to play college basketball,” Krzyzewski says. “He’s very accomplished. If there was a get together of all the greats, he would be in a small room with the rest of those guys.”
Entering the ’93 NBA Draft, Hurley was a Lottery lock. Outside of the championships and personal accolades, there was still chatter about the slight point guard dissecting the original Dream Team in a scrimmage the summer before.
The Sacramento Kings had faith in Hurley, taking him No. 7 overall (the first PG to go off the board). Starting the season’s first 19 games and endorsing signature kicks (search ITZ shoes on YouTube), Hurley’s career was building to a crescendo. He was right where he was supposed to be. Until he wasn’t.
A horrifying car accident ultimately halted Hurley’s NBA career. He was ejected from his truck in the crash that happened 20 years ago this month. His body was broken. Astonishingly, the gritty Jersey guard was able to recover well enough from two collapsed lungs and a fracture in his back to return the following season and he even played a few more. But he never averaged more than 4 points and 3 assists after dodging death. He retired in ’98, and the game gradually left him behind.
“I felt sorry for myself, and I’d get mad thinking about how I let [the accident] affect me,” Hurley says. “I let it take me down and not want to be as big a part of basketball as I wanted to be.”
More than a decade passed and Bobby missed the game. The feeling was mutual. Player and sport weren’t expected to separate this way. When Dan was appointed head coach of Wagner College three years ago, it was time to reunite Bobby with basketball as an assistant coach.
“It’s a family business,” Dan says. “It’s that simple. It’s what we live. It’s what we’ve been exposed to our whole lives. It’s what we know the most about.”
By the summer of 2010, Dan and Bobby Hurley needed direction. They were cruising around New York City and had no idea how to start a Division I program.
The brothers drove through the boroughs for a few hours. They didn’t know which gyms to go to. They had no clue what players they should see. All Dan and Bobby could do was laugh. Wagner won five games the season prior to their arrival. The program needed more than rebuilding. “We eventually went to a restaurant and regrouped,” Dan says. “We put together a recruiting class that would get us to 25 wins.”
Bobby assisted Dan in every manner possible. Together, they set up travel arrangements, created practice and game schedules, ran drills, shagged rebounds and filled water bottles. One time, Bobby even had the unenviable task of telling his younger brother that the team’s 11th man dunked in warm-ups, which earned the team a technical before the game started.
“They banged a three on the opening possession and we were down 5-0 before we touched the ball,” Dan says.
Rhode Island was so impressed with Dan’s head coaching abilities that they hired him after two years at Wagner. Bobby was named associate head coach and aspirations of making the NCAA Tournament together took shape. Their families shared meals and went on vacations to destinations like the Dominican Republic. The Hurleys were inseparable year-round.
Bobby was impressed with his younger brother’s knowledge of the game and leadership with his players. It came as no surprise. Last season at Rhode Island, Bobby began envisioning himself as a head coach.
“I knew I was ready to take control and maybe run my own team,” Bobby says. “I needed more of the experience of running a team, practices and all the stuff away from the court. I got a chance to see all that with Danny.”
When the University at
Buffalo courted Bobby last spring, he didn’t commit to the head coaching position right away. He needed to consult his closest peers.
“What we put together was great,” Dan says. “He owed me nothing. I did play a role in convincing him to stay together and do it at a higher level (at Rhode Island). I didn’t want to do that again. He gave me three backbreaking years.”
To make the decision final, Bobby needed to hear from another familiar voice. He made the call to one of his biggest supporters, who was preparing for the Sweet 16.
“The very first thing I said was that he was ready to do this,” Krzyzewski says. “He paid his dues as an assistant. I told him he was exceptional and people believe that. I also told him to pack some heavier clothing. They get more snow there than in Jersey City.”
A couple days later, Bobby Hurley touched down in Buffalo. His hiring would announce his official return to college basketball, right where he was supposed to be.
Jarryn Skeete was speechless. Moments before he was announced as Buffalo’s new head coach, Hurley offered a few opening words to his team. Skeete was a toddler when Hurley was guiding Duke to consecutive Final Fours. But he knew about his coach’s legacy.
“I was shocked,” Skeete says. “I knew who he was right away, and I was excited to get to work with him.”
Fast forward to that work on a June afternoon. Hurley pushed Skeete through 30 minutes of intense and precise skill work. Hurley wants his team to maintain an uptempo pace at both ends this year. Skeete’s sweat-soaked tee was evidence of that philosophy, changing from light to charcoal gray by the conclusion of the workout.
“I feel great about the players’ commitment up to this point and where we’re headed,” Bobby says.
Hurley Sr expects his oldest son to find his personal niche in coaching. Dad isn’t focused solely on having two sons as Division I head coaches, though. Actually, he’s more fascinated with the lives of his grandchildren.
“Bobby and Danny are using their basketball experience to coach and are comfortable with it,” Bob says. “They’ve found they were good at it. I never really thought [being Division I head coaches] was going to happen. It is surprising.”
What isn’t surprising is Bobby finding his way back to college basketball. It is where he experienced his greatest achievements. Coaching at UB also completes the family’s marriage with the game. Now, it is three voices in three different gyms. Perhaps that is the greatest victory of all.