Bobby Hurley and MeEssays, Sports — By Matthew Bingham on July 4, 2012 at 7:04 am
If he passed you on the street, you probably wouldn’t have looked twice at him as he was such an average-looking kid. Pale, thin, with somewhat sunken eyes, he was listed as being 6’0” and 150 pounds, though there are those who would have would say that was being generous. Yet, the moment he stepped onto a basketball court, he would run the show like few point guards before him or since in college basketball.
Bobby Hurley may have looked ordinary, but his vision, leadership, and ability to deliver in the clutch made him the finest point guard of his generation and arguably the best in NCAA history, where he remains the all-time leader in assists with 1076. When he entered the NBA his star shone bright and there were high hopes for him, but tragedy struck and a promising career was cut short. However, Bobby Hurley was a pretty seminal figure in my life; this unassuming-looking native of Jersey City, New Jersey was my first true sports hero, the first athlete with whom I truly identified, and his influence cast a long shadow over my youth and has begun to over my adult life as well.
Canada has one official religion at whose altar the majority of its citizens worship: hockey. Here, names like Howe, Orr, Lemieux, Crosby, and The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, are uttered with the same reverence accorded popes and saints. And growing up in a hockey-loving family and culture for my entire life, I have been no exception to this. Yet, as a kid, I couldn’t identify with these giants of winter. Hockey is an exciting but highly physical sport, and being very slight I didn’t have the physique to play competitively, not to mention the temperament nor the money. However, my parents put a basketball in my hands at a young age and a bit later pulled the money together to mount a hoop in the driveway, one of the best gifts they ever gave me. I spent hours outside learning to dribble and shoot with very little help from anyone else.
One Saturday afternoon in early 1990, I was watching college basketball with my father and suddenly there was Bobby Hurley, this short and scrawny kid (just like me!) and he had me mesmerized: the ball seemed glued to his hand as he directed his team with authority and precision, making passes and draining shots I could only dream of at the time. I began to follow Bobby Hurley from that day forward. I had never heard of Duke University, being 11 years old at the time, so I had no idea that they were essentially the number one ranked team in the NCAA and also the most hated. All I knew is that I loved to watch them play and a huge part of that was the craft and heart of Bobby Hurley.
I watched Duke as much as possible for the remainder of his freshman year as he led them to the first of three straight championship game appearances, where they were blown out by 30 points by the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. Hurley failed to control the game in his characteristic way and the Blue Devils were torn apart by Jerry Tarkanian’s team. I subsequently read that he was gutted by the loss and that it served as a motivator for him the next year during his sophomore season, which I followed even more closely. I marveled at his drive, his tenacity at both ends of the court, and his passionate desire to win, which he did with great regularity. However, to me he was the ultimate underdog and that is one of the things I loved most about him; people constantly told him he wasn’t big enough and he wasn’t fast enough, yet, he consistently proved his critics wrong. An unselfish player and a masterful distributor of the ball, Hurley always seemed to make the correct pass; he had a knack for finding shooters in their rhythm and in the right spot to shoot. Off the dribble he was deceptively quick and defensively he could stay with anyone. As I watched him, I soaked up as much as I could to apply to my own game. No other player ever influenced the way I played any sport as much as Bobby Hurley did the way I played basketball. I used to pretend to be him out on my home court, burning imaginary defenders off the dribble, shooting threes, and finding Christian Laettner and Grant Hill for alley oops. Leading his team back to the NCAA Final Four in each of the next two years and winning back-to-back national championships, Hurley continued to grow in stature as a player, the consummate court general that made all the players around him better. In his senior year, 1993, he was a First Team All-American–I was so proud you would have thought we were family! The NBA was beckoning and the Sacramento Kings took Bobby seventh overall in the 1993 draft. I was stoked and ready to be a Kings fan…
I can’t remember exactly how I heard the news about the accident, either from my father or on the news. Nineteen games into his season, driving home from a game at Arco Arena, the rookie point guard was involved in a horrific car crash, sustaining life-threatening injuries after being thrown from his truck. What I do remember in the aftermath was being completely stunned, then very sad and praying that Bobby Hurley wouldn’t die, let alone ever step on a basketball court again. The fact that the latter came true is a small miracle in itself. Only later did I learn of the sheer guts it took to overcome the odds and return to playing professional basketball, especially when there were those who wondered if he’d ever even walk again. He returned to the Kings for the 1994-95 season, playing in 68 games, 62 of those coming off the bench.
My support of him never wavered or faltered. I even bought an official Sacramento Kings jersey that must have been five sizes too large for my scrawny frame, with Hurley’s name and number on the back. Kids at school had often given me a lot of stick for idolizing him, so when he turned pro and then had the accident, that only increased. He and I were the butt of a lot of taunting and cruel jokes, but I still wore my jersey faithfully and refused to admit anything other than that Bobby Hurley was one of the greatest point guards to ever touch a basketball, period. However, I could see that after the accident he wasn’t the same player as before. If that was difficult for me to admit that, as one of his biggest fans, I cannot even imagine what it must have been like for him as he struggled to regain his form. He had worked incredibly hard to rehabilitate and get back on the court, showing the dogged determination and underdog spirit that had characterized his playing.
On February 18, 1998, Bobby was traded to the Vancouver Grizzlies and I rejoiced because he was playing a ferry ride away, but I never got to see him play live. By the end of the 1997-98 season, he retired from professional basketball and I lost track of him completely as he mostly fell out of the public eye and I entered my 20s. Occasionally, I would wonder what my old hero was up to, but those moments grew increasingly rare as I finished my education, got married, and started a family.
Last October, right before the NCAA basketball season was about to get under way, I was surfing the web and came across the movie trailer for The Street Stops Here, a documentary portrait of the St. Anthony’s Friars high school basketball team, which has been coached by Bob Hurley Sr. for the past 40 years and for which Bobby himself starred as a high school player. After watching the trailer, I searched YouTube for Bobby Hurley in the hopes of seeing footage of some of his games with Duke, which I quickly found and pored over. Surprisingly though, the two results that initially caught my eye were his Duke Sports Hall of Fame induction speech as well as a behind-the-scenes look at his “Dove Men’s Care” commercial. I first watched the speech and was excited to see him being inducted along with Coach K, who had obviously been such a vitaI figure to him.
As I began to watch the behind-the-scenes footage, I found myself getting a bit emotional as it showed footage of a now-married Hurley hanging out with his wife and three kids, speaking of their importance to him and his love of being a husband and father. It set me to thinking about redemption, that out of the tragedy and frustration of a career cut short by circumstance came joy and contentment. As of this writing, the former Duke legend is now an assistant coach to his brother Danny at Wagner College in Staten Island, New York; I can’t imagine a better job for him. Along with his high level knowledge of the game, who better to teach young men the importance of leadership, character, and perseverance than a man who was the embodiment of all three characteristics both on and off the court.
Reconnecting with Bobby Hurley and his career (he recently tweeted me!) has been significant for me on a number of levels. I have been rediscovering my love of basketball (and Duke), reliving some of my favorite childhood sports moments as I watch and re-watch any footage of him I can find, and spending a lot of time thinking about what kind of father I want to be to my little boy. So often our heroes are prima donna multimillionaires who are completely detached from reality and at times I’ve been no different regarding the people I’ve chosen to exalt and revere.
The example of Bobby Hurley, as both a young college player and as a 40 year old husband and father of three, has taught me about the value of perseverance, about the will to fight, and about the power of redemption. These are integral lessons I hope to pass on to my son as he grows into a boy and then a young man. I want to thank Bobby Hurley for the wonderful memories, especially from his time at Duke, and for helping inspire in me a love of the game of basketball. More importantly, I wish to thank him for his inspiring form off the court, where I would argue he has a made a more lasting impact on me and continues to be one of my biggest heroes.