Ordinarily, the closing of an inner-city high school with an enrollment hovering around 200 doesn’t make national headlines.
St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, New Jersey is no ordinary high school. The school is located smack in the middle of one of the poorest areas in New Jersey, and almost all of the students live below the poverty line. It was there, at the corner of 8th and Marin, where Bob Hurley decided to plant his roots and build one of the most successful high school basketball programs in the country.
Hurley took over as head coach at St. Anthony in 1972. Since then, he has won over 1,000 games, 28 state championships, and four national championships. He has been named the USA Today National Coach of the Year three times and he is one of only three high school coaches enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Hurley’s accomplishments over the course of his 45-year career at St. Anthony are bountiful, but there is one stat that he is more proud of than any of them. Over 150 of Hurley’s players have gone on to receive Division I basketball scholarships and, more importantly, a chance at the kind of life that the streets of Jersey City could never offer them. The impact he’s made on the lives of his former players will last long after all of his banners are torn down.
One of those players is Wichita State forward Markis McDuffie. When he got the news that his alma mater was closing its doors, he was devastated.
“For years now I’ve heard a lot about it,” he said. “I was nervous every year in case it closed down because I didn’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for St. Anthony.”
Talking to McDuffie, it became clear that St. Anthony was more than just a school for him.
“Everything they did for me, as special of a school as it was, for it just to close down with all the history behind it, it’s just heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s like if LeBron James lost all of his talent, that’s how heartbreaking it is.”
McDuffie arrived at St. Anthony as a freshman in the fall of 2011.
“I didn’t know much about St. Anthony,” he admits, “but I knew guys like Kyle Anderson and Myles Mack. They’re from where I’m from. They played there, they won a national championship and a state championship there, so that kind of influenced me to go there.”
When McDuffie first showed up at St. Anthony, you would not have pegged him as a future ESPN 100 recruit. The Friars’ varsity squad went 33-0 and won their fourth national championship during his freshman year, but McDuffie spent the year paying his dues on the freshman team. The next year wasn’t much better for him as he spent almost the entire year on JV.
“I stayed there all four years,” McDuffie said. “A lot of people, if they play on the freshman or JV team, they transfer. My freshman team went undefeated, best freshman team ever at St. Anthony. Only two or three of us were left by the end of my senior year.”
While many of his teammates decided to go elsewhere to find more playing time, McDuffie never waivered.
“That just shows how loyal I was to St. Anthony, how I trusted the process,” he said.
That process was bigger than basketball. He credits Hurley with teaching him more than just how to shoot or box out.
“It’s more than just basketball, he teaches you the whole package,” McDuffie said of his former coach. “A lot of guys come there from a lot of tough families, a lot of people don’t have parents, a lot of people struggle. Just for them to change their lives going into that school, it’s amazing.”
For McDuffie and countless other players who have played under Hurley over the last 45 years, 175 8th Street was home.
“Outside of school it’s different, but once you enter St. Anthony High School, you feel like you’re at home,” McDuffie said. “You feel like everyone cares about you and everything, and that’s the amazing part about it.”
That’s what kept him coming back year after year. More than a few times over the last four decades, Hurley has gotten offers to coach at the Division I level. Each time, his answer has been the same.
The average salary of the 68 coaches in the NCAA Tournament this year was over $1.5 million a year. Bob Hurley’s salary for the past few years has been $0. He’s refused to take a salary for his role as principal and head basketball coach in an effort to save the school enough money to stay open. He’s also donated over 80 percent of the money he’s made from speaking engagements to the school.
When asked why he thought Hurley stayed at St. Anthony all these years, you could hear the emotion in McDuffie’s voice.
“It’s all about the kids,” he said. “You know, developing kids from young to old and preparing them for the real world. I think Coach Hurley is big on that. When you’re doing something for so long and you’re enjoying it, you become loyal to it, you don’t want to go nowhere else.”
Unfortunately, Hurley’s loyalty and efforts ultimately weren’t enough to keep St. Anthony open. The school will long be remembered as a basketball powerhouse, but Hurley made it so much more than that. He took in kids off the streets and gave them a future many of them never dreamed was possible. Now, the 69-year-old Hurley is forced to watched his beloved school close down.
“I don’t even know what Jersey City is without St. Anthony,” McDuffie said.