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Catholic Hoop Dreams (4114)

25 State Championships, 901 Career Victories, Hundreds of Lives Changed

03/30/2010 Comments (2)

Coach Bob Hurley Sr., gathers the St. Anthony basketball team in a huddle during the state championship game against rival St. Patrick High School.

A rousing new documentary about a Catholic high-school basketball team might prompt some viewers to get involved in the school-voucher movement — if only to save one amazing inner-city school from extinction.

It seems fitting that the film, The Street Stops Here, premieres on many PBS stations on Wednesday of Holy Week. (Check local listings.) It profiles St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, N.J., and its legendary basketball coach, Bob Hurley Sr., a former corrections officer. He is shown leading the Friars to a record-setting 25th state championship in the 2007-2008 season.

St. Anthony’s record would be no small feat even under the best of circumstances. But the inner-city school doesn’t even have its own gym, let alone a weight room or other amenities found at schools with top-ranked sports programs.

Yet Coach Hurley — who posted career victory No. 901 this past year — accomplishes real miracles with a no-frills program that attracts teenagers desperate for a chance to get off the streets with an athletic scholarship.

At the start of the season, the team is composed of a talented but unsteady group of players who tolerate Hurley’s exhortations and hectoring, but seem confused by the purpose and doubtful of the efficacy of his coaching style.

You get the distinct impression that most of these boys are not used to this level of concentrated attention by a male authority figure. Still, hungry for success, they permit Hurley to enforce his demanding regimen of practice, team-building and personal achievement.

NCAA fans, high on the rush toward the Final Four and national championship in early April, will get a closer look at the 2007 teammates who have gained national recognition in college basketball — Mike Rosario (Rutgers), Tyshawn Taylor (Kansas), Travon Woodall (Pittsburgh), Jo Fontan (USC) and Dominic Cheek (Villanova). They represent the cream of the crop for the documented season, but they aren’t the only St. Anthony alums to make it big and draw the interest of leading college basketball programs.

The documentary includes interviews with top NCAA coaches, including Mike Krzyzewski, coach of both Duke and the 2008 gold-medal Olympic team, and others who have been inspired by Coach Hurley’s singular achievement.

But not all the action in The Street Stops Here takes place on the court. The camera moves to local neighborhoods, where Coach Hurley checks up on his players. He has sent all but two of his players to college during his 36-year career. We also visit the school’s development office, where the head of fund-raising furiously networks to locate generous local businessmen with an interest in basketball.

Coach Hurley does his best to reach out to students with absentee parents and who are facing other issues endemic to impoverished urban areas. But he shows the special power of effective coaching when he yanks the boys up to real-world standards, seeing little need to prop up their self-esteem after a bad game.

It’s hard not to pay attention to Coach Hurley. You can see the boys gradually wake up as the season moves forward. Surly behavior shifts to taut, responsive reaction as he barks out commands and conducts a postmortem after a game. Slowly the boys begin to acknowledge that the coach is offering them a blueprint for future success in life. It’s not just about basketball.

St. Anthony’s stripped-down ethos is a reminder that the staying power of such schools resides in the commitment of the staff and continuity of the Church’s presence in the neighborhood. Facilities come and go, but the best teachers and coaches live on forever in the hearts and minds of the young people they have served.

The tragedy, of course, is that teachers and coaches have to work some place, and the documentary reveals that St. Anthony’s — like the many hundreds of Catholic schools that close each year — could lose its fight for survival. The sister who serves as the school’s longtime director of development lands a top Wall Street honcho to headline the annual fund-raiser. But he gets sucked into a financial scandal, and only a handful of attendees bother to show up for the event.

It’s not entirely clear why St. Anthony alums who have found success on the court can’t offer financial help, but there’s the faint suggestion that most are helping their own families and have little remaining cash for their old school.

Chicago-based TeamWorks Media, producers of The Street Stops Here, received full access to school authorities and Coach Hurley partly because St. Anthony’s administrators hoped the show could become an effective fund-raising vehicle.

“Inviting TeamWorks Media to go behind the scenes for this documentary will show people how hard our kids and our staff work not just at winning basketball games, but at finding ways to succeed in life,” said Coach Hurley in a statement issued for the film’s premiere.

It’s hard to believe that Coach Hurley and his colleagues at St. Anthony’s haven’t found a benefactor prepared to secure their hard work and commitment for another generation of young men. At one point in the film, it’s noted that Hurley’s success made him a viable candidate for prestigious coaching jobs, but he chose to remain at a school where he could make the biggest difference in the lives of his players.

If the film has a significant limitation, it’s that the school’s Catholic roots are given little attention. There is more of a residual legacy of institutional Catholicism than anything else on display. But Coach Hurley’s deep sense of hope, which inspires the boys on the court to make something of themselves and keeps St. Anthony’s doors open for another championship season, goes a long way toward making up for that deficit.

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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