Hurley knows big brother is watching
Bobby still has Wagner coach Danny's back, two decades after life-altering assist
As a ballhandler and a defender attacked each other between rows of orange cones, twisting and turning at video game speed, Danny Hurley shouted above the squeaking sounds of their high-tops. On a hill in Staten Island, the basketball coach was filling the dimly lit gym with the clichéd commands of his craft.
Move your feet. ... Keep him in front of you. ... Beat him to the spot.
One Wagner College player committed the not-so-venial sin of fumbling the ball in a rebounding drill, and Hurley barked, "You're fighting for your life." He kept wincing as he dug his hands into the gray stubble of his scalp, looking and sounding like any one of a thousand overcaffeinated lifers who confuse practice with a military exercise in the heat of a cold war.
Only Hurley isn't just another 39-year-old face in that crowd. He's the son of Bob Sr., living legend at St. Anthony in Jersey City, N.J., one of three high school coaches inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Of greater consequence, Danny's the kid brother of Bobby, former lottery pick of the Sacramento Kings, two-time national champion at Duke, maybe the best pure point guard college basketball has ever seen.
Bobby was observing these drills in relative silence, assuming the subservient role of right-hand man. Suddenly the little brother has emerged as the family star, the Eli of the Hurleys, and the big brother has taken Peyton's place in the background.
Now 22-4 at Wagner two years after rescuing Mike Deane's 5-26 team, Danny is responsible for the most improbable New York basketball story this side of Jeremy Lin. Bobby is a first-time assistant learning the Northeast Conference trade from a figure inspiring enough to lead the Seahawks to a road victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers, then the 15th-ranked owners of a 70-0 record against Wagner's league.
Danny likes to tell a story from that Christmastime trip, if only to level off a relationship flipped upside down in his favor. He was feeling a rush of adrenaline after the postgame presser, imagining his own place among the "SportsCenter" highlights, when he spotted some fans waiting near the Wagner bus.
Danny began flexing his left hand for the autograph requests to come, and then the fans pushed past him and called out a familiar name. "Bobby," Danny said. "They wanted him to sign his Sports Illustrated stuff from Duke. I thought I was some big deal, and not one of them asked for me. Not one."
Truth is, Danny gave Bobby a second career in the gym. In the years after he lost his shot at NBA stardom in a near-fatal car crash, Bobby was searching for a purpose, a fresh calling. He dabbled in scouting. He got into the horse game, and suffered the indignity of losing his failing stable to a bank.
If Bobby wasn't drowning, he was adrift at sea. "Looking for a life preserver," Bob Sr. said. Danny threw him one. He left his own prep dynasty at St. Benedict's of Newark, took the challenge of a rebuild in the underbelly of Division I, and offered Bobby a job.
Danny owed him one anyway, a huge one, because Bobby once threw him a life preserver that pulled his little brother from the depths of a depression that nearly destroyed Danny's love for the sport, if not Danny himself.
Little brother was a struggling ballplayer at Seton Hall, a point guard who could no longer stomach the comparisons to Bobby, the seventh overall pick of the 1993 draft. They had something called Hurley Day at Madison Square Garden that December, Bobby's Kings against the New York Knicks in the afternoon, Danny's Pirates against St. John's at night, and neither one had played worth a damn.
But Bobby was only a handful of games into a promising NBA career, and Danny had already completed two low-impact seasons before starting his junior year 2-for-17 from the field, including an 0-for-6 against St. John's as Bobby watched from the stands. "The Hurley Day debacle," Danny would call it. Little brother was hurting, and big brother made a mistake that night he still regrets 18 years later.
Bobby didn't visit Danny in the locker room, and headed out with friends instead. Hours later, when the Hurleys finally met up in a Greenwich Village restaurant, Danny was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The fans, the expectations, P.J. Carlesimo's confining system -- they were all crashing down on him. Danny wanted to quit. He needed to quit. And yet there was this one small problem:
Hurleys aren't allowed to quit.
So Danny asked his older brother for permission to walk away. "And if Bobby said to me, 'Dan, you've got to dust yourself off and get back in there,' I would have done it," Danny said. "I would've gone back to practice that next day, and it would've gotten worse. I would've continued down a dangerous path for me personally, because I was in a very dark place dealing with some very dark thoughts."
The ball was in Bobby's court. His old man was a Jersey City probation officer, a volatile coach who confronted the drug dealers harassing his players, a cop's son who sent his own sons to the roughest neighborhoods to find the roughest playground games. Bob Hurley Sr. wouldn't go on to win 26 state titles and more than 1,000 games over 40 years at St. Anthony by letting a little adversity get the best of his boys.
So over a late-night beer, only eight days away from his own life-shattering event, Bobby had to assess the damage and make a call. Wrap a warm blanket around Danny, or kick him in the ass.
The most prolific passer in NCAA history was about to deliver his most critical assist.
The Hurley boys were living a "Truman Show" existence before they could walk. Bob Sr. would put them in courtside cribs or on courtside blankets while he conducted practice, and Bobby and Danny took it from there.
They were 5 or 6 when they started entertaining high school crowds at halftime and during timeouts by swiping balls off the rack and draining jump shots from all over. Ferris High, Dickinson, the Jersey City Armory -- it didn't matter where. If Bobby, 18 months older, made a 15-footer on one end, Danny would absorb the crowd's cheer, peek down the floor, and make sure his next J came from 16 feet or beyond.
"Everything we did was in public," Danny said. "We were Bob Hurley's sons, so nothing was anonymous in our lives." They ran a 10K race as 7- and 8-year-olds, and just like that, they ended up on the Jersey Journal's front page.
Bobby was a righty, Danny a lefty, and they grew up wanting to be Mandy Johnson, David Rivers and Kenny Wilson, Bob Sr.'s big-time guards. They did hard time at White Eagle Hall, the bingo parlor that doubled as the Hurley practice gym, dribbling around nails emerging from the battered wood floor and setting up the bingo tables and chairs when Bob Sr.'s whistle said so.
Bobby was 32-0 as a St. Anthony senior, the state's player of the year, and a national champ on a team that included Jerry Walker and Terry Dehere, bound for Seton Hall. Bob Sr. had been brutal on Bobby, showing his Friars there would be no favoritism for his first-born.
Bobby was once forced to run laps for an hour and 45 minutes for failing to mentally engage in practice. "Many times Bobby just wanted to run away and not come back," Walker said. "I had to chase after him a lot. I always had to counsel Bobby and tell him, 'Your dad just wants you to be great.'"
On his way off the floor in his final high school game, on his way to a scholarship at Mike Krzyzewski's Duke, Bobby stopped the sophomore subbing for him, Danny, who had missed most of the season with a broken finger. Hurley mythology includes various accounts of their exchange, but the brothers agree that Bobby told Danny something like this:
"It's all on you now."
As it turned out, Bob Sr. didn't coach Danny quite like he'd coached Bobby. "We ran more stuff for Danny," the father said, "asked him to look for his offense more than Bobby did."
Bob Sr. also did a better job caging his temper with his younger son. "It wasn't even close," Walker said. "I'd go back to St. Anthony games, and I'd see Danny joking around in warmups. That would never, ever be allowed with Bobby."
At 6-foot-1, Danny was a little bigger than Bobby, a little better from the perimeter. He averaged 22.8 points as senior on a 32-1 team and, like Bobby, was named the state's player of the year. Scholarship offers poured in, and Danny figured he could replicate his St. Anthony experience at Seton Hall, share the ball with Walker and Dehere and play for another in-your-face coach.
Only Carlesimo's system called for its quarterback to be a game manager, not a runner and gunner, and Bobby had already claimed one national title and two Final Four appearances under the less restrictive approach applied by Coach K.
Seton Hall was loaded with talent. "And the missing piece was a stabilizing point guard," Danny said. "I was really immature at the time, not ready to handle the freedom you have socially in college, and just not ready to be what P.J. needed me to be."
He partied too much, slept too little, and practiced too casually. By the time Seton Hall met Duke in the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia, the stress left Danny with fever sores covering his lips. "My freshman year was already a disaster," he said, "and playing my brother in the City of Brotherly Love, that whole angle, it was the last thing I needed. I knew I was going to be dreadful."
Danny figured Bobby would be dreadful, too, if only because Carlesimo planned on giving his erratic freshman more than his usual 12 minutes of playing time, on using Danny as a human can of mace to spray into Bobby's eyes.
The Duke point guard normally prepared himself for battle by imagining his opposing point guard as a slacker. "I would make myself not like that person because he didn't put in the time shooting and running that I had," Bobby said, "and that would make me mad, give me a mental edge."
But big brother couldn't get that edge on little brother. Bobby knew Danny was right there with him in the oppressive heat of a Jersey City summer, right there with him on those raw mornings of winter and early spring, shoveling the slush off the playground courts and running the drills Bob Sr. had mapped out for them.
So they were miserable together in the Spectrum. "Our Her-lee's be-tter," Duke students would end up chanting. When an official warned Danny to stop hand-checking Bobby, he told the ref, "He's my brother. I'll do whatever I want." Bobby finished with more turnovers (six) than points (four), and Danny went scoreless in 18 minutes. Duke won the game, beat Kentucky on Christian Laettner's miracle shot, and landed Bobby national title No. 2.
Danny played credibly as a sophomore, starting 16 games and averaging 6.1 points. But he was booed by Seton Hall fans who wanted more, who wanted what Bobby was giving Duke.
Danny's mother, Chris, and sister, Melissa, would sometimes change their seats or leave the building; before games Chris took to announcing her identity to nearby fans. If her husband was in the crowd he would sternly remind hecklers that they were attending a home game. "And if it continued," Bob Sr. said, "the Jersey City in me would come out."
The road crowds were worse. "I heard 'Hurley's a f--' and 'Bobby's better' and 'Danny sucks,' all those things," Danny said. Seton Hall routed Syracuse for the Big East Tournament title, anyway, and became a popular pick to reach the Final Four before Western Kentucky busted everyone's bracket in the second round.
So Danny was already suffering before the first two games of his junior year, the last two he'd play for Carlesimo. He'd always been too hard on himself; as a 10-year-old trying to impress James Worthy and Dean Smith at a North Carolina camp, he punched a wall after missing a layup, breaking three bones in his right hand.
All these years later, Danny believed a mature, more focused playmaker would've led the Hall to the Final Four. "I thought everyone saw me as a failure," he said, "as someone who didn't play up to the Hurley level."
Carlesimo was a card-carrying screamer who had been all over him, but then again, Walker and Dehere had weathered P.J.'s storms just fine. The system? That was a more pressing problem for Danny than the volume.
"Bobby went to a school where the coach once wanted to be Bobby as a player," Bob Sr. said, "and so [Krzyzewski] gave him a lot of freedom. P.J. was a control freak with his point guards; he didn't want them to cross the foul line on the break. If Krzyzewski had that rule, after college Bobby would've been back working for me at St. Anthony."
But Bobby was in the pros, signed to a $16.2 million contact, on the night Danny need him most. Little brother capped Hurley Day at the Garden by scoring one point, and he couldn't take it anymore. Danny felt alone and naked out there.
"We did the same exact things, the same drills, played for the same coach, played in the same parks, had the same DNA," Danny said. "We lived in the same basement room together, and slept so close together I could reach over and hit him on the head.
"At some point I said, 'What the hell? He's living a fairy tale life, on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I'm proud of him, but at the same time, where is my Sports Illustrated cover?'"
From the Garden stands, Bobby saw a beaten man in the Seton Hall backcourt. Danny often projected a hangdog-ish vibe on the floor, but this was different.
Basketball had become the enemy. "I suffered through depression, extreme loneliness, a feeling of not having a lot of worth," Danny said. "Not to the point that anyone considered putting me on medication, but it was bad, crippling, something nobody should go through."
So little brother said what he said in that Greenwich Village restaurant, and waited for big brother's response. The Hurleys had to figure it out among themselves, which was fitting: Danny and Bobby were always on their own in Jersey City, the only white kids from the Country Village part of Greenville who were jumping face-first into pickup games at the Booker T. Washington projects.
Bobby didn't hesitate to liberate Danny from his burden. He told him it was OK to quit.
"I cared a lot more about Dan the person than Dan the player," Bobby said.
"Once we had that conversation," Danny said, "I didn't need to talk to another person on the planet."
Danny gave Carlesimo the news, and holed up in his room for a day or two. The school said he missed the Connecticut game with the flu, then came clean before the St. Bonaventure game, announcing that Danny had taken a leave for personal reasons.
The following day, the long-distance call came in from Sacramento. Bobby was the broken Hurley this time, and he needed much more than a brother's reassurance to save him.
The minute Danny saw Bobby in the hospital bed, tubes snaking in and out of him, welts and gashes everywhere, he was struck by an overwhelming sense of guilt.
"I'm the loser," he thought to himself. "Bobby doesn't deserve this. I'm the one who should be in that bed."
Driving home from a game in his Toyota 4Runner, Bobby was making a left about a mile from Arco Arena when he was broadsided by a Buick station wagon driven by a local house painter, Daniel Wieland, traveling without headlights. Bobby wasn't wearing a seatbelt, and the impact propelled him from the truck and landed him in a drainage ditch, where he was aided by several motorists, including teammate Mike Peplowski.
"Am I going to die, Pep?" Bobby kept asking him. He had two collapsed lungs, a fractured left shoulder blade, five broken ribs, a small compression fracture in his back, a torn ACL in his right knee, a fractured right fibula, and a sprained wrist. The trachea had been severed from his left lung, and that alone nearly killed Bobby. Asked for statistics on surviving these injuries, the surgeon, William Blaisdell, would say, "Those are coroner statistics."
Bobby gained 15 pounds of water weight, his body so swollen that his father barely recognized the patient in the corner room inside the University of California-Davis Medical Center's surgical intensive care unit. Bobby, Blaisdell said "was blown up like the Michelin Man."
When Danny was through wishing he was the one in the crushed 4Runner, he had an epiphany. "Seeing my brother in that condition, looking barely alive," Danny said, "I finally, selfishly found perspective and balance."
Life was too short, too fragile, to sweat any 0-for-6. Bobby mounted an incredible physical recovery -- of course he did -- and Danny went about repairing his own spirit. He attended counseling sessions with a Seton Hall psychologist, Sister Catherine Waters, who reminded Danny that he couldn't use a box score to gauge his worth as a human being, that he needed to see himself as a son, a brother, a student, a Christian and a friend.
Danny told Sister Catherine he was a Pat Riley fan, and she bought him a copy of Riley's book, "The Winner Within." Danny could tell her things about his insecurities he couldn't tell his dad. "Danny's struggle was a very private journey he had to take," Sister Catherine said. "He just needed a place where he could say anything he wanted to say."
Danny started hitting the books, attending church, even working out. Soon enough a frail Bobby was out of the hospital and back in Jersey, 20 pounds thinner and looking for his best friend to take him to his rehab sessions. Danny would drive him to physical therapy, push him through the grueling exercises.
Bobby met a Seton Hall girl named Leslie, his future wife, and she was his personal rebounder as he fired jumper after jumper and demanded perfection on the feeds. "Bad pass," Bobby would bark at her, "bad shot." Meanwhile, Danny was slowly rediscovering his passion for the game. He'd been helping out his father at St. Anthony, and playing pickup games on the side. Some two months after quitting, Danny asked if he could return to Seton Hall practices, and Carlesimo welcomed him back.
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Danny didn't suit up for the Pirates' remaining games; he wasn't ready for that kind of commitment. Carlesimo left to coach the Portland Trail Blazers, the mild-mannered George Blaney replaced him, and Danny returned as a different player in a different system, one allowing the point guard more room to breathe.
He dropped 25 on Wagner two days after undergoing a double root canal. He made a three at the regulation buzzer to help beat St. John's in the Garden, and finished up his career averaging 14 points, crossing the 1,000-point line, and even wearing an occasional smile on the way there.
While Bobby struggled in his return to the Kings, Danny actually scored enough for Blaney to earn a berth to the Portsmouth Invitational, a tournament for potential NBA prospects. He trained and trained for it, fielded calls from agents ready to place him in Europe if he didn't make the cut, and prepared to play as a pro somewhere.
Danny even proposed to his wife-to-be, Andrea, another Seton Hall girl, on the expectation they'd live together overseas. But on the day his flight to Portsmouth, Va. was leaving Newark International, Danny surrendered to an inner voice he couldn't mute. He remained in his South Orange, N.J. apartment, and ignored calls from the Portsmouth officials wondering why he didn't board his plane.
Without a single tape recorder or notebook in sight, Danny retired on the spot. "I just want to be a coach," he told his fiancée.
Danny was done chasing his brother. Now it was time to chase his old man.
Danny Hurley was 223-21 over nine years at St. Benedict's when he got the call from Wagner. He'd worked under his father, spent four years as a Rutgers assistant, and coached J.R. Smith and scores of major college players at St. Benedict's, but taking the job at Wagner meant making the move Bob Sr. never made.
Bob Sr. had rejected many Division I advances, costing himself millions of dollars by devoting his life to a tiny school that would surely shut down without him. Danny had different financial considerations. During his time at Rutgers he lost his house to a fire, leaving him tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Pittsburgh offered to triple his St. Benedict's wage to be Jamie Dixon's assistant, and Danny resisted before Marist offered him its head job.
Danny, Andrea, and their two sons were halfway to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. before Andrea -- whose father had died of cancer -- broke down in tears over the prospect of leaving her mom in Freehold, N.J. But Wagner? The commute to Staten Island was doable for all concerned.
And then there was Bobby. "He was bothering me a lot," Danny said. Bobby thought little brother would be selling himself short if he didn't try to climb the coaching ladder their father had ignored.
Bobby had played his final NBA game with the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1998, the accident robbing him of the All-Star career Larry Bird had predicted for him. Bobby had shredded the 1992 Dream Team in a pre-Olympic run, earning Michael Jordan's seal of approval. Magic Johnson was so impressed with the Duke quarterback, he flew to Maui the following season just to watch him play.
But the devastating injuries stripped Bobby of some of his athleticism, and most of the strength in his left hand. Haunted by what might've been, Bobby took off on a search for a new arena. He poured his money into the horse game, and one of the thoroughbreds from his Devil Eleven Farm in Ocala, Fla., Songandaprayer, won the 2001 Fountain of Youth Stakes and finished 13th at the Kentucky Derby.
Basketball tugged at him here and there. Without any coaching experience, Bobby tried and failed to land the Columbia University job. Bobby did some scouting for the Philadelphia 76ers, but felt too detached from the winning and losing he experienced as a player.
Suddenly Bobby was out of place at family gatherings. "Danny and I would be talking about our teams," Bob Sr. said, "and Bobby would just be sitting there. He might start talking about the horses, but neither of us knew anything about them."
Only Hurley and the horses became headline news in 2009, when PNC Bank sued Bobby and Devil Eleven for defaulting on a loan. The bank later foreclosed on the 140-acre property and pursued $3.3 million in restitution and fees before reportedly reaching a settlement with Bobby and selling the farm.
"It was more the timing of the economy than anything else," Bobby said. "It was handled, and a lot of it was me taking care of that financially. The obligation was met."
Danny didn't feel an obligation to hire Bobby at Wagner, but a need. Little brother needed someone he could trust. He knew he had so much talent at St. Benedict's that he had to coach five out of 30 games, tops. Wagner scared him. The 5-26 scared him. Bob Sr. watched that team scrimmage, and told his sons the Seahawks would have a hard time beating St. Anthony.
Danny figured he could rebuild the holdovers, and figured Bobby could land him some recruits. They took the jump together, and promised to never look back.
In his 21st victory this season, Danny again honored his pledge to never humiliate a player during a game. Even as Wagner got off to an indifferent start in what would be a blowout of Mount St. Mary's, Danny kept his cool. He calmly subbed out four starters and that was that.
Danny does his screaming in practice, and it's already widely assumed that no Division I team in America practices harder than Wagner. On grit, defense and some talent on the perimeter, Danny managed a 13-17 record in Year 1 before giving the Seahawks a shot to win the NEC tournament and an automatic NCAA bid in Year 2.
Sister Catherine, the psychologist, has watched from afar; she made it out to Danny's first Wagner game and told him she was proud of the man he'd become. P.J. Carlesimo, now a New Jersey Nets assistant, has his own rooting interests. A Wagner coach and athletic director in a different life, Carlesimo recommended Danny to the current AD and football coach he once hired, Walt Hameline.
It's true that Danny doesn't berate players in games partly because of the way Carlesimo coached him. "I know there's no worse feeling for a player than to be afraid to make mistakes," he said.
And yet Danny expresses a deep respect for Carlesimo; his wife said he brings up his old coach every other week. In fact, Danny has apologized to P.J. for failing him as a point guard. "Danny was a hell of a player," Carlesimo said, "and I could've done a better job getting more out of him. ... But I think Danny took an awful lot more out of that whole experience than most guys would have. He's an incredible coach, and there's no limit to where he can take this."
Bob Sr. gets to Wagner games when he can, and enjoys monitoring the growth of Danny's leading players, Latif Rivers, Tyler Murray, Jonathon Williams and Kenneth Ortiz. Bob Sr. also enjoys watching as a visiting head coach inevitably turns to the confused aide assigned to scout Wagner, a sure sign that Danny is making adjustments his opponents aren't ready for.
But when asked if Danny has a chance to become a better coach than he is, Bob Sr. offered a meandering response that touched on the differences between high school and college ball, and on a father's natural desire to want his children to have more than he had. The one thing Bob Sr. didn't say to the question of whether Danny might someday surpass him was this:
The Hurleys don't give away an inch, even to their own, a truth that brings everyone back to Danny, the head coach who has his own office, and to Bobby, the assistant who shares one. Recruits are shuffled into Bobby's half-office to see his pictures with Magic, Jordan and David Stern, but there's no mystery surrounding the Hurley depth chart at Wagner.
Bobby is the one seated during games, the one occasionally rising to whisper suggestions -- not orders -- into Danny's ear. "It's good for me," Bobby said. "That's how it should be. I wanted Danny to have it all as a player, because we were in the trenches together growing up, and I thought it was unfair that he never had those experiences.
"But to see that Danny was able to pick himself up and do what he's doing now, I'm so proud of him. All I want to do is learn from him and help him win games."
On his wall Danny still keeps a photo of Bobby covering him in the Sweet 16. Many of his Seton Hall mementos -- Big East rings, NCAA watches -- were stolen from his home in a November burglary, but the memories remain untouched.
Including one piece of late-night coaching Danny won't ever forget.
"Bobby empowered me to walk away from basketball," his little brother said, "and that's a moment that ultimately brought me here."
To Wagner, where Danny is the star, the winner, the Hurleys' leading scorer. If it comes as a bit of a surprise, this footnote does not:
Bobby found a calling in feeding him the ball.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.