Off the Fadeaway

Written by Craig Morgan Category: People Issue: October 2015
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PHM1015PFPPL01aAfter a tragic accident derailed his NBA career, former Duke hoops star Bobby Hurley courts redemption as the new coach of ASU men’s basketball.

Bobby Hurley’s basketball life has come full circle. The game that initially inspired him – then nearly destroyed him – has finally redeemed him.

“It’s impossible to prepare yourself to go through something like I went through, but I feel fortunate I made it,” says Hurley, 44, in his first season as men’s basketball coach at Arizona State following Herb Sendek’s firing last spring. “Things had always gone well for me and then I really had to dig myself out of the abyss after my car accident. It made me reach deep and it humbled me; made me appreciate life a little more.”

A fearless, blue-collar kid from Jersey City, N.J., Hurley had the perfect hoops pedigree: a coaching legend for a dad. Bob Hurley Sr. has won 27 state championships, posted five undefeated seasons and won more than 1,000 games in 43 years as coach at St. Anthony High School.

Family expectations rode shotgun with that success. While other kids swam with friends on hot summer days, Bobby spent hours on a playground court, practicing fundamentals. Hurley Sr. instilled a work ethic, competitiveness and pride in his boys, Bobby and Dan. But he also engaged with them. “I was never the guy who instructed them with a belly hanging over my shorts and a cigar in my mouth,” he says. “We would play basketball together. We played baseball together and we always ran races together.”

When he arrived at St. Anthony’s as a freshman, Bobby was 5-foot-1 and “weighed 90 pounds,” his dad says. He was still the best player on the court and shared his dad’s drive, even if the two didn’t always see eye to eye. “It was hard for me because I couldn’t separate the dad from the coach,” Bobby says. “On top of that, he had to show everyone on the team I wasn’t going to get favoritism, so he was harder on me. There were times if I didn’t practice hard enough that I just ran the whole practice. There were times when I got thrown out of practice and had to take the bus home.”

Hurley caught the eye of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was looking to push the Blue Devils over the hump after six Final Fours in the previous 25 years without a national title. Hurley took Duke to three Final Fours, won back-to-back national championships (1991, 1992) and become the NCAA’s all-time assists leader (1,076) – a record he still owns.

“Coach K didn’t bottle him up and make him play like a robot. He trusted him and we really went off of Bobby’s instincts,” says Duke teammate Grant Hill, who spent five seasons with the Phoenix Suns. “He was the heart of our defense, the best on-ball defender in college basketball and he was always pushing the ball in transition. He was fearless.”

One season after UNLV destroyed Duke in the national championship game, 103-73, the two teams met again in the 1991 Final Four in Indianapolis. UNLV grabbed a five-point lead late in the game as it eyed a return trip to the final. Hurley had other designs.

PHM1015PFPPL02“Bobby races up the court for a long three-pointer that he makes and instantly, we cut that lead to two and the momentum comes back in our favor,” Hill says, of the 79-77 Duke win. “Coach K has called that the biggest shot in Duke basketball history. That shot kept us in the game and eventually we got redemption against UNLV and we finally broke through and won a championship.”

By this time, Hurley had sprouted to a solid 6-feet tall – still undersized by NBA standards but adequate for a nimble, pass-first point guard. The Sacramento Kings selected him with the seventh pick in the 1993 NBA Draft and the next chapter of the fairy tale began. It lasted just 19 games.

An hour after the Kings lost to the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 12, Hurley was involved in a high-speed collision with a Buick station wagon. He was thrown 100 feet from his Toyota 4-Runner truck into a drainage ditch, suffering broken ribs, collapsed lungs, a severed trachea tube, a fractured shoulder blade, a torn ACL in his right knee and many lesser injuries. “I was so afraid I was going to die that night,” says Hurley, who was incoherent when passersby including teammate Mike Peplowski arrived to help. After hours of surgery at UC Davis Medical Center, Hurley’s condition stabilized.

“When I saw him in the hospital I knew he would never be the same player,” Dan Hurley says. “For him to go up against something that was totally beyond his control, something he couldn’t beat, was hard, but I knew it was important to him to at least get back out there.”

Hurley came back to the court the next season, but had lost parts of his game, including his ability to use his left arm fully. After six more seasons, he called it quits and began a nomadic period of trying to replace a core piece of his life. “I never could come to grips with how my career ended,” he says. “When you’re 10 years old playing on the playground, your dream is always to get to the NBA. I was just starting that dream when it ended. The frustration left a bad taste in my mouth and I felt like I had squeezed the lemon dry as far as what I had put into the game. I felt like I needed some time away.”

He tried his hand in the thoroughbred industry. He did some scouting for his brother – then head coach at Wagner College in Staten Island – and the Philadelphia 76ers. When Dan offered him a job as an assistant coach at Wagner, he jumped at the chance and the two spent three years coaching together – both at Wagner and the University of Rhode Island. In a flash, basketball and family, the two things that had defined his life, were back in lockstep. “Losing basketball was difficult for me, but the coaching part of it has made me forget about it,” he says. “I guess you could say it’s basketball that has healed me.”

In 2013, Hurley was named head coach at the University at Buffalo, and took UB to its first NCAA Tournament appearance last season. With just two years of coaching under his belt, Hurley took the job in Tempe in April.

ASU has made just five NCAA Tournaments over the past 33 seasons and has never won the postseason conference tournament, but that doesn’t worry Hurley and it didn’t concern the man who hired him. “It doesn’t take very long spending time with Bobby Hurley to know that you’re in the presence of somebody who has got some really special character traits,” ASU athletic director Ray Anderson says. “I didn’t need a 100 percent guarantee or certainty on anything. You don’t get that in life, but I have heard from enough folks and I have seen enough to know that... I am very, very comfortable with Bobby Hurley.”