Many US sports fans have heard of the Archdiocese of Newark’s Jersey City basketball powerhouse St. Anthony's High School, which closed in 2017. It was opened by the Felician Sisters in 1952 for what was then a Polish-American neighborhood.
I recently sat down with Bob Hurley Sr., the architect of the St Anthony's hoops success, to talk about his background, experiences, and Catholic faith—much of which stemmed from his longtime membership at St. Paul's Catholic Church in the same city.
It's both his childhood (and current) parish, and its school is where he first started coaching, later becoming athletic director and remaining until the late 60s.
"The Vietnam war was all around me, so kids were getting drafted. I just knew that I would figure out a way to keep coaching at St. Paul’s," he said.
"If I continued to do that I would be replacing the men that coached me."
While he is nationally recognized for his career after leaving St. Paul's—including the revitalization of Jersey City basketball and city recreation—he is known locally for his long stint at another job: as a probation officer for over 30 years.
What started as a recommendation from his father eventually afforded him a daytime career—given that he was never a teacher at St Anthony's—and an opportunity to serve his community.
Hurley’s activism was highlighted in the 2010 documentary The Street Stops Here, and in my chat with him he detailed the importance of promoting educational attainment in the community he served.
He noted that "90% [of his probationers]" told him that their lives changed for the worse once they "lost interest in school... and started hanging out with people who had also lost interest in school."
As such, in his duties in the civil, educational, and spiritual realms, he acted on a long-standing belief that he could help change his community for the better—in a similar way as coach Morgan Wooten (of Dematha Catholic fame).
One thing he certainly changed was boys' basketball at St Anthony's.
Hurley still stands as the all-time winningest HS coach in New Jersey basketball history. In 39 years, he coached his teams to 26 state championships. He is one of 17 HS coaches in US history to win 1,000 games. He also coached five undefeated seasons—one which was documented in a book by Catholic NBA insider and sports historian Adrian "Woj" Wojnarowski.
Unsurprisingly, Hurley is one of just three high school coaches in the Naismith Hall of Fame, and over 200 of Hurley's players went on to play collegiate basketball, 8 of whom played in the NBA and 6 who were first-round draft picks (including his son Bobby).
R.J. Cole, the starting point guard and salutatorian for St. Anthony in its closing year, is one of the few active college players from the final years of St Anthony’s dominance. An African-American, he embodied the "White Flight" of school population change at St Anthony's over the years, and the questions and controversy surrounding it.
"We went from a school where basically every kid had a Polish last name," Hurley said, "to, by the time school closed in 2017... we were Black and Brown—probably 90 to 95% of the school."
The Cole era of St Anthony's, its swan song, was a long time coming. The school’s mostly non-existent endowment plagued it for years. After a certain point, Hurley managed both the school presidency and its basketball program.
Eventually the board of trustees was left with a decision, and ultimately they and the archdiocese decided not to choose for St Anthony's the same fate as its former Catholic rival, the Patrick School—formerly St. Patrick’s, until its closure and reopening as an independent private school.
"David Tepper offered to walk us through the process to become a charter school," Hurley said.
"[But the board of trustees] decided if we couldn’t maintain our religious connection, we were just going to go as long as we could and if it wasn't meant to be, it wasn't meant to be. And that's how it went out."
Today, Hurley Sr. and his wife Christine continue serving the community through the Hurley Family Foundation, which runs free basketball programs for K-12 students in Jersey City.
In the absence of St Anthony's, the Hurleys are also active with the school at the former Sacred Heart parish nearby, where Christine grew up.
"We're getting more and more involved there," Hurley said, noting that he and his wife are actually covering tuition for one of the students.
"Sacred Heart reminds me so much of St Anthony's."