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St. Anthony’s Unanswered Prayer

Over 45 years, Bob Hurley turned his Jersey City basketball program into an unlikely national power. Now, after 28 state titles and decades of staving off closure, St. Anthony is shutting its doors, and the Friars family is trying to cope with running out of miracles.

A few minutes before 7 on a warm May night in Jersey City, New Jersey, the first of 200 or so guests arrive for what one event organizer calls "the final celebration of life" for the fabled St. Anthony High School basketball team. They climb up the brownstone steps to White Eagle Hall, the old gym about a mile from the school itself, where head coach Bob Hurley’s Friars, who never had a home gym of their own, practiced for the better part of three decades until 2003. As the attendees pull open the mahogany doors and walk into the main hall, they mostly gasp. They remember White Eagle as a dingy, cramped gym, but a $6 million renovation that began in 2012 and concluded this spring has produced an ornate concert venue. During the renovation, a crew wiping away grime on the ceiling discovered two handcrafted, stained-glass murals, and they ripped up the basketball court and refashioned it as bar counters and balcony flooring. Now, the onstage guitarist, sensitive to the occasion, plays only slow, acoustic jazz and blues.

"Well," a woman says to her friends as they enter the hall, "they turned the temple of basketball into a whorehouse."

Hurley, red-faced and beaming, hovers near the entrance and greets seemingly all of the former players, parents, boosters, and fans attending the program’s last supper with a deep-throated, "Look what the cat dragged in," or, "Good to see you," and a clap on the back or a hug. "We have so many memories in this place," the Hall of Famer Hurley exclaims when a longtime St. Anthony booster hands him a wooden-framed, black-and-white photo of a former Friars team.

Inside, guests share their favorite stories about the basketball coach and team that transcended the school’s size and location to become one of the nation’s preeminent hoops powerhouses. They wistfully discuss ways they could’ve saved the school, which, after decades seemingly on the precipice of closing due to lack of funds or enrollment, had finally run out of time. On April 5, the Archdiocese of Newark announced that it would close St. Anthony on June 30, marking the third parochial high school to shutter in Jersey City in the last decade and making the Friars a high-profile parable for the nationwide trend of vanishing inner-city Catholic schools. Knowing it’s now too late to fend off the school’s extinction, the dinner attendees resort to gallows humor.

"We should’ve sent in the Italians," a man says.

"We should’ve sent someone on a United flight and used the settlement," says another.

Onstage, Hurley takes the microphone in his Merrells, blue jeans, and trademark sweater-vest. During his 45-year, one-school career, he never had a home gym, yet he won 1,184 games and 28 state titles — a national record for a high school hoops program. Hurley loved the White Eagle days because he thought beating everyone after practicing in a converted bingo hall that lacked heat in the winter symbolized his squad. He says as much onstage, and the crowd thunders with applause as Hurley remarks on fan-favorite players and coaches, the eight Friars teams that went undefeated, and the four that won a national championship.

(Sam Fortier)
(Sam Fortier)

Hurley thanks everyone for coming to the dinner. He asks for a standing ovation for the St. Anthony teachers in attendance and ambles offstage. He doesn’t go two steps before a line forms in front of him, each person waiting his or her turn to talk with the man who turned their hometown team into a national fixture.

"We did everything we could."

"This was bigger than ball for a lot of us."

"I guess we finally found a game we couldn’t win."

As the guests depart, their handshakes with Hurley last just a little longer than normal. No one wants to let go. In the 107 years since White Eagle Hall’s creation as a meeting place and beacon for Polish immigrants, it has held dances, dinners, graduations, social clubs, concerts, battles of the bands, theatrical productions, and basketball practices. It has held weddings. Never before has it held a wake.

Prayers to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, have gone unanswered.

The day before the last supper at White Eagle, in the hallway outside of his St. Anthony High School office, Hurley plucks a wooden trophy off a shelf. He furrows his brow. Athletic director Buddy Matthews and assistant basketball coach Dan Murphy are there to help Hurley pack up the trophies, and Hurley reads the inscription aloud to them: "2000–01 North Parochial B Sectional Champion." It’s unseasonably hot, and the school’s open windows do little to lighten air, thick with dust swirling off the trophies as Hurley moves them. A slow, somber piano melody floats into the hall from a boombox in a nearby classroom. Hurley looks up.

"Oh," Hurley says, smiling at Murphy and Matthews as the trophy triggers a memory. "Right. ’01 was Juan Baquero, and that team won the state championship after we lost eight games the year before."

As Hurley walks back to his office and sets the trophy down next to 36 others, the two shake their heads and chuckle in at how well he remembers his teams. Throughout the day, he’s picked up each trophy and recited each team’s key players, narratives, and records. Without a team to coach, he’s not sure what he’ll do. He’s not worried about the summer because he’ll run basketball clinics like normal, but the plans for this fall and beyond are hazy. Now, he sets down the last one and jots on a Post-it Note where to send each item. Hurley had started clearing the trophy shelf because a few coaches had heard rumors that students might loot the now-finite supply for keepsakes, and he thought it was only right that each trophy end up with a player or coach who’d helped earn it.

More than 150 of Hurley’s Friars went on to play Division I college basketball. Six — Rodrick Rhodes, Roshown McLeod, David Rivers, Kyle Anderson, Terry Dehere, and Hurley’s son, Bobby — became first-round NBA draft picks. Other former Friars balled in D-II, D-III, or junior college. For many players, Hurley’s coaching has meant a path to scholarships and a college education. For college programs, his steady hand meant a pipeline of hard-working players who’d soaked up their coach’s renowned basketball IQ.

Now, that pipeline is turning off. Since Catholic-school enrollment peaked in the early 1960s with 5.2 million students nationwide, enrollment has suffered a steep decline. The shrinking student bodies have most affected the church’s 20 largest U.S. dioceses, where in the last decade alone, Catholic school enrollment has decreased by about 30 percent.

"The moment he stopped coaching, [St. Anthony] would have closed, and that’s why he continued," says Tom Konchalski, a high school basketball analyst. "This was saving lives. These are kids who, if they didn’t go to St. Anthony, they would then go to public school and been swallowed up by the streets."

St. Anthony most recently charged its ever-dwindling student body — more than half of whom received some type of financial aid and about eight in 10 of whom were eligible for a free or reduced-cost lunch, according to the school’s principal — $6,150 in tuition. Each student cost the school $14,000, but rather than see St. Anthony raise tuition like other area Catholic schools, Hurley spearheaded fundraising over the past two decades to cover the annual difference. "We did better than almost every Catholic school in the state," Hurley says. "But eventually it was going to catch up to us."

Donor exhaustion piled up on top of everything else that had begun crushing inner-city Catholic schools: Tuition-free charter schools sapped away students. Enrollment fell under 200, which nationally signaled the beginning of what one Catholic education expert calls "a nearly inescapable death spiral." The archdiocese slowly decreased its subsidies. Staff salaries rose as laity replaced a decreasing number of available sisters and brothers. The crumbling one-building school with a few annexes needed repairs while the booming downtown’s surrounding real estate market made the property valuable. And many families struggled to afford tuition, even though St. Anthony had the lowest Catholic high school fees in the county. Entering the 2016–17 school year, there were just 119 inner-city Catholic secondary schools left in the United States. A majority of the Catholic base that once fueled the spending had moved to the suburbs long ago.

Hurley never considered leaving his hometown. He grew up in Jersey City and stayed home to attend St. Peter’s College, where, as a freshman, the Irish Catholic boy started dating a high school senior, a Polish Catholic girl named Christine, whom he calls Chris. It was the first and only relationship for both of them, and they married in 1970. The young couple moved into the back apartment at Hurley’s parents’ house, and Hurley worked as a probation officer during the day and filled the St. Anthony JV coaching vacancy at night. In 1972, he was promoted to varsity head coach, and Chris became the scorekeeper shortly after. The couple raised three children in industrializing Jersey City and, as Hurley walked to the same parks and gyms with a ball under his arm on a mission to find and educate ballplayers, the city morphed into one of the nation’s most diverse areas.

"My dad still makes most of his decisions based on being in Jersey City," says Melissa Ursic, Hurley’s daughter and a Jersey City public-school teacher.

St. Anthony’s eventual closure shocked the national basketball community but long appeared inevitable to locals because of the wider trend facing inner-city Catholic schools. Hurley delayed the demise by donating most of his speaking-engagement money, instructing youth clinics wherever and whenever he could even though he doesn’t like to travel, and forfeiting his salary as St. Anthony president to help pay students’ tuition. For years, his wins, proximity to the New York City market, and the profiles of his sons Dan and Bobby as nationally recognized Division I college coaches (and, in Bobby’s case, a former Duke star) had combined to provide unprecedented publicity for this kind of small high school. Adrian Wojnarowski, soon joining ESPN and then with the Bergen Record, chronicled the team’s 2003–04 season in a best-selling book, The Miracle of St. Anthony.

That publicity fueled the St. Anthony paradox: The visibility via winning keyed donor acquisition, but also perpetuated the perception that St. Anthony was a basketball factory. Yet since 1993, every St. Anthony graduate has been accepted to college.

"Basketball was a double-edged sword," says trustee Jack Chimento. "But if the school didn’t have Hurley, it would’ve been closed years ago. You probably got another 500 to 750 kids a college education because of [basketball]."

Now, Hurley wants to soak up the last day before the last supper; everything is about to end, but nothing has yet. He’s enjoying predicting what former players will say at the send-off event.

"Everybody will have a story that they’ve embellished to make me seem like I’m even more intense than I actually am," Hurley says, grinning. "They don’t even have to embellish the stories, but that’s a part of it. I’m fine with hyperbole, exaggeration, folk stories, embellishment. I’m fine with it.

"I think everyone would like it to be like Parris Island."

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A few hours before the last supper, at the city’s Community Education Recreation Center, about a dozen blocks from St. Anthony, a newspaper reporter asks Hurley a question and the coach’s mouth curls into a smile. The pair are sitting in metal chairs next to the court named in Hurley’s honor as nine former players spanning generations shoot on six baskets around the room. Hurley, former players, and a few dedicated fans are here for a final St. Anthony pick-up game of sorts, organized by Danny Hurley. St. Anthony has practiced and played games here for the last several years, and the rec center provided a distraction from reality for players, many of whom came from single-parent homes, or the city projects of Curries Woods, Booker T. Washington, and Hudson Gardens. "They was tough projects," says Marcus Williams, class of 2004, who is from Curries Woods. "You had to worry about just getting home OK growing up." Today, the gym provided that distraction again.

Rashon Burno, a former Friar and current assistant at Arizona State, says the school’s closing robs Jersey City residents of one of their biggest sources of pride, and that it weakens the credibility of all New Jersey ballplayers living in the shadow of New York City basketball. "You almost got a rite of passage going to St. Anthony," Burno says. "Once you got there, you were guaranteed an opportunity to go to college. Sometimes that gets lost in the wins."

Hurley raises his voice slightly to turn the reporter’s question on the room. The players know he needs their attention and freeze. "I’m taking a poll," Hurley says. "Who here hasn’t been kicked out of practice?"

Everyone, including Hurley, guffaws. Everyone, of course, had been booted from practice as the coach screamed things like, "You are so unathletic," or "Good luck playing after high school," or, "You should quit basketball and get a part-time job."

Hurley says he views overreaction as his responsibility, and that he prides himself on being the most demanding person his players have ever met.

"Me coming to St. Anthony," says Williams, "that was the only thing keeping me on the right path. I’d be selling drugs or in jail otherwise."

"You realize he’s yelling at you because it’s bigger than basketball," says Shyquan Gibbs, class of 2016.

Players didn’t complain when they became the postgame piñata because Hurley’s method obviously got results: No player, Hurley says, ever left St. Anthony without a state championship. Many of those players wear their rings as they filter back into the gym. There are about three dozen by 5 p.m. and they pair off by era to play five-on-five pickup.

Robert Cole, a local coach for an eighth-grade-and-under summer team, sits next to the court and watches his son R.J., the school’s last point guard, cross over Williams. Robert nods somberly. To the parents and fans sitting on the sideline and many in Jersey City, St. Anthony’s closure won’t feel final until the first week of September, when school would normally start. The new reality will set in on them as the leaves change, the temperature drops, and shoes squeak in other gyms across the state.

"How do you put the words together to say there’s no St. Anthony?" Robert says. "I can’t. It’s hard. It’s going to be truly missed."

Hurley rubs his eyes and looks across the gym to the right corner, where Gabe, his grandson, shoots jumpers on an 8-foot hoop. Hurley had screwed that rim into the wall so the 8-year-old could develop proper form. Gabe wears a burgundy T-shirt with white lettering that reads "STRAIGHT OUTTA WHITE EAGLE" even though he wasn’t alive when the team last used that building. St. Anthony never played actual games in White Eagle, because the court was 29 feet short of regulation, so they settled for practice drills, like "Don’t Come in Here With Any Weak Shit."

Joe Paglia, a team strength coach, leans back in his chair on the sideline and looks at Hurley looking at Gabe. Hurley briefly puts his head in his hands.

"It’s very sad," Paglia says, gesturing across the gym. "Just the look in the kid’s face these days. He won’t ever have the opportunity. … I was really surprised when we couldn’t find a way this time. I guess we ran out of miracles."

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

On the morning of April 5, trustee Rosemary McFadden and Hurley drove together from Jersey City to the archdiocese in Newark. At about 1:30 p.m., they walked into a room filled with more than a dozen other people, including other board members, representatives from the archdiocese’s financial and schools offices, and at least one appointee of the cardinal. It was solemn. The school and the archdiocese had shared difficult conversations in this room many times before, but this would be the final one.

In September 2016, after approaching the archdiocese, the St. Anthony board issued a statement saying it needed to raise $10 million to $20 million for an endowment, or the school might close. In the previous five to six years, McFadden says, the board had felt strained as it fell a few hundred thousand dollars short on fundraising. "Of course, there is no school that can raise ten to twenty million dollars in one year," says head of school Chad Broussard. The announcement was a flare, searching for someone willing to write a big check.

The board never found that person. By January, the board abandoned its original plan and refocused fundraising just to try to cover its budget enough to remain open for the next school year. In response to the board’s shift, the archdiocese gave St. Anthony a list of nine enrollment- and revenue-driven requirements to remain open. Then, throughout the spring, the archdiocese raised the hoop, requiring St. Anthony to fundraise about $1 million more than the board previously thought, as well as develop a three-year plan to pay off the school’s nearly $2 million debt to the archdiocese, which the archdiocese said it could no longer support. It was all due by July 1, 2017. The archdiocese also raised the 2017–18 enrollment requirement from about 165 students to 200, according to Hurley and two board members.

"We couldn’t make those requirements at that point if we were giving it away," says trustee Bill Reilly. "Some of [the board] felt the archdiocese purposely raised those requirements to close the school."

At least three board members felt that way, but when asked if he thought the assessment was fair, archdiocese spokesman Jim Goodness says: "That doesn’t even deserve an answer." The most popular theory regarding the archdiocese’s motives, held by several in the St. Anthony community, is that it wants to sell the land. The archdiocese has not discussed what to do with the property yet, Goodness says.

The night before Hurley and McFadden drove to the meeting, the archdiocese sent the board a draft of the school-shuttering press release. It did not mention the requirements and said the board alone decided to close St. Anthony.

"Let me just be clear," Chimento, a board member, says. "The board did not want to see the school close. It was not our recommendation to close. … [The archdiocese] had the final say."

Hurley and McFadden drove back to Jersey City for a 4 p.m. press conference at St. Anthony. After some back-and-forth between the archdiocese and board, the two sides had agreed on the final version of the press release: St. Anthony closed because "it would not be possible for the School to meet the prescribed requirements of the Archdiocese."

"Wherever you want to put the blame," Hurley says, "we were at a point where it just wasn’t working."

In the days leading up to April 5, Hurley told friends and colleagues he knew the school would close. But he still clung to an impossible hope, still refused to accept the school’s closure. On the night of April 4 at a scholarship dinner for St. Anthony students in New York City, Hurley told Bob Zito, his friend and the scholarship program’s founder, what would happen the next day. Zito was stunned. Within a week, he called Hurley to say that he had assembled a three-person team willing to donate $750,000, and Zito volunteered to fundraise the final quarter to fulfill the school’s new financial obligation to the archdiocese. Hurley appreciated the gesture, but the school had also failed to meet the enrollment requirement, and the closing had already been announced.

"It’s loss," Hurley says, shaking his head. "You go through the stages of grief."

A little before 7 p.m. on April 5, after speaking to the faculty, media, and his players, Hurley and his wife, Chris, drove to a restaurant close to home, Mathew’s Food and Drink. It was Hurley’s first time in the place, but Francis Roman, a waiter there, had served the Hurleys at various Jersey City restaurants for more than 15 years. The Hurleys sat at table 112, a wooden booth painted white with two blue cushions on the benches. Hurley smiled. His voice sounded steady. "He was very upset," Roman says. "I could tell from his eyes."

Throughout the night, Hurley drank three rum-and–Diet Cokes.

Years ago, he and Chris had visited Monsignor Leo Farley at Jersey City’s Our Lady of Mercy as a young, married couple after their 10-day-old son, Sean, died. The parents asked the priest why, but there were no answers. After a long time, Chris left the room. Hurley remembers Farley leaning in to tell him, "The best thing you can do is have a couple drinks to help you go to sleep."

Sitting in Mathew’s with Chris, Hurley heard the pastor’s words again. His high-definition memory flickered. He doesn’t remember ordering the lamb. He doesn’t remember the chef, who once attended a Hurley basketball camp, coming out to commiserate. He doesn’t remember, upon returning home, if they tried to watch Designated Survivor or if the Yankees were even on. He remembered the drinks.

"I wanted to anesthetize myself," Hurley says.

He awoke the next morning, sober, with the same great sadness in his chest.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It’s growing late at White Eagle Hall. The crowd begins to thin. Ben Gamble, a former player, looks over at the line of people in front of Hurley; it moves but never seems to get any shorter. After graduation, Gamble became a St. Anthony assistant coach and a probation officer, just like Hurley. Gamble sent his three daughters to St. Anthony too. He is now the head hoops coach at Mater Dei Prep in Middletown, New Jersey.

"I was really reluctant to come tonight, because I know this is final," Gamble says. "I didn’t want to come in here and say, ‘Man, this is the last time.’ … I was hoping maybe there’s another day."

It’s nearly a quarter to 10 when Chris tells her husband once, and then again, that they should go. The event was scheduled to end at 9 p.m. Across the room, Hurley’s son Dan, who nearly coached Rhode Island to the Sweet 16 two months prior, slowly spins in place. He drinks in all of White Eagle. As a toddler, day care meant sitting on winter coats by the stage with his brother Bobby as they watched their father’s team practice. In elementary school, Dan, still known as Danny around town, painted crooked lines when the 3-pointer first became part of basketball. In high school, he longed to live up to the legends of his father and brother. In June 2003, after the archdiocese let the lease lapse on White Eagle, he returned to the hall to say goodbye alone, as a man with his own wife and son. For the Hurleys, coaching basketball had always been an "and Sons" business, but Bobby and Dan are now in the business alone, not because of their father’s retirement or death, but from an unwanted exit for a man certain he had more to give. Dan stops spinning and dabs his right eye under his glasses.

"What helps a lot is that you keep seeing people who mean a lot to you," Dan says. "You keep having conversations about great moments and funny moments. You don’t have a chance to quietly reflect on it all being no longer."

Hurley is still reflecting with the guests. Chris returns a third, fourth, and fifth time to try to get her husband to leave. The sixth time, she has her bag.

Hurley still has stories to tell, but he ends up traipsing behind her through the party’s aftermath. At 10:25 p.m., he swings open the doors and walks into the cool night air.

He sits down on the steps.

"Where did you park?" Chris asks.

"Do you know how many times I sat on these steps?" Hurley says, to no one in particular.

Chris takes the keys and walks to the car as Hurley quietly tells stories to about a dozen partiers now sitting on the brownstone. After about 15 minutes that feel much longer, Hurley starts walking down the sidewalk, and five former players follow. They make small talk down the block and peel off one by one until there’s one former player, Dan, left with his dad. Chris, having retrieved the car, pulls into the side street in front of Dan and Hurley. She moves to the backseat, and Danny gets in the passenger side.

"The hardest part tonight was making sure it’s a celebration," Hurley says. "Not getting too emotional about it. The young kids at the gym this afternoon, or the young alums who were here today, they look to you to see how you respond to something. If I’m not in control of my emotions, if I’m not trying to reflect on the great things that happened … it needs to be a celebration.

"You can be pulled down by the loss, or you can celebrate the life."

The next morning, as he readies to leave his apartment, Bob Hurley looks outside to see that the heavens have opened. Rain gushes down on the Jersey City sidewalks as he rushes to his car. He drives north with Chris to St. Anthony church in Union City for Gabe’s first communion. His grandson looks grown-up in a tie. Hurley thinks about the night before. There had been so many people, so many stories, and too many more glossed over. And Bob Hurley wishes for just a little more time.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Ben Gamble was head coach of Mater Dei High School in California; he coaches at Mater Dei Prep in Middletown, New Jersey. Due to a production error, St. Anthony strength coach Joe Paglia was initially referred to as Steve Paglia.

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