Bobby's back in the game

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- This was one of those mornings when Bob Hurley sat mesmerized on the bottom row of the bleachers, believing it was just a matter of time until his son found his way into the family business. With a basketball under his arm and the St. Anthony High School coaching clinic under the spell of his words, the uneasiness of public speaking had worn away for Bobby Hurley and was replaced with presence.

It had been a long, long time, but nobody could take his eyes off Bobby again. He was back on the basketball court, compelling and captivating, a clear descendent of his future Hall of Fame father and brother to Danny, the rising star coach.

"He's going to be a coach," Bob Sr. said, and that was that.

Even with the passing of 10 years now, with Bobby starting out as a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers this season, there is still a hesitation to thrust himself back into basketball. It is good to be back in the gymnasium this way now, court-side studying NBA rosters at the Meadowlands and Madison Square Garden to find the players that have slipped through the system, un-mined gems lost on benches.

That was the way his own playing career ended in 1999, when the Grizzlies released him, when Bobby Hurley hadn't been Bobby Hurley since that fateful night 10 years ago on the corners of Del Paso and El Centro Road, about a mile from Arco Arena in Sacramento. It happened on Dec. 12, 1993, an hour or so after the 19th game of his NBA career with the Kings, when a station wagon sped through a red light, crashed into his Toyota 4Runner and ejected him some 75 feet into a drainage ditch.

With a crushed trachea tube, two collapsed lungs and multiple rib fractures, the doctors declared it a miracle that he survived the trip to the hospital and the emergency surgery. The doctor called his chart of injuries "coroners' statistics."

All his life, he had beaten the odds. He wouldn't be good enough to play for his father at St. Anthony. He wouldn't get a scholarship. He wouldn't play for Duke. He wouldn't be good enough to get the Blue Devils to the Final Four or a national championship. He wouldn't be able to hang with John Stockton in the Dream Team practices.

He wouldn't be a first-round pick. Every step of the way, Bobby beat the odds. He deserves to be remembered as one of the great college basketball players in history, a two-time national champion and all-time NCAA assists leader. He was the everyman at 6-foot and 170 pounds, a living testament to the hardscrabble streets of Jersey City, to his tenacity to honor his father's lessons of hard work and fundamentals.

Always, Bobby pushed harder. And harder. And maybe his greatest victory was surviving surgery, finding his way back to the NBA when the doctors wouldn't have believed it possible. Still, Hurley doesn't get over the way his career ended, with his body broken down and with his swagger snuffed out. This has been a long, hard journey for Bobby, because he's struggled to think too much about what never was after the accident, instead of marveling over what had been before it.

Now, he's back in basketball again. What he wants out of it now, well, he's trying to find out -- even if everyone else already sees that it's to be a coach. He loves his job with the 76ers. It gets him back into the gym, back into the game and that's the best part of all now. "I don't know where my niche is yet and I'm not sure how I'm going to get there," Hurley said. "I'm trying to find something that I feel passionate about.

"I've just come back to basketball because this is what I know the best. I want to see if scouting is something that's going to inspire me to want to do something again."

Which was why the horse racing business so appealed to him these past few years, why he had plucked down $1 million for Songandaprayer and raced the colt to the Kentucky Derby. He's grooming his own horses at DevilEleven Stables near his Jersey Shore home, but ultimately, he was lured back to the family business. His younger brother, Danny, was a well-regarded assistant at Rutgers before turning St. Benedict's Prep in Newark into a national powerhouse. St. Anthony is still St. Anthony under his father: The greatest high school basketball dynasty in America, 23 state championships, two national titles, five NBA first-round picks and still, even now, no gymnasium.

Trying to decide what he wants out of life, out of basketball, is still a strangely surreal circumstance for him. He was the eighth grader, at 5-1 and 90 pounds, telling a teacher that he was going to play for his father at St. Anthony, earn a scholarship and play point guard for the Boston Celtics. And as they laughed at him that day, Bobby took a whirl around the classroom, committed the faces to memory and used them as fuel for his ferocity.

"If my career didn't take a certain path, it would be easy now," Hurley said. "Maybe coaching would heal me a little bit. But when your career went like mine did, where I had built up all these expectations, put in so much work, and then just everything falls apart ... it was tough. And it still is. I'm not saying I was on the way to being an All-Star, or a Hall of Fame career, but I know there could still be a job in that league for me.

"... The way it ended, it's never really going to resolve itself for me."

Last spring, the Columbia University coaching job opened and Bobby tried hard to get it. Even with no official coaching experience, he sold himself as a student of the two of the best ever, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and his father, Bob, Sr. He won an interview, but not the job. Columbia's athletic director never called his references.

"The Columbia situation was something that I felt passionate about wanting to do. ... The obstacles trying to overcome a team that was bad for so many years fired me up. Maybe I didn't have the experience and the necessary tools to back that up, but I see guys all the time that are getting NBA jobs just coming off the basketball court."

For now, Bobby Hurley is working his games, filing his reports to Sixers general manager Billy King and creeping closer and closer to the inevitable: A return to the family business. "I think he's going to coach," Bob Hurley Sr. said, and he's right. It's just a matter of time. This is the family business, his son's calling back to basketball.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Bob Hurley and Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty," is scheduled for release in March 2005. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.