Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Review - Miracle at St. Anthony

  I just finished a book called ‘The Miracle of St. Anthony’, which I got for $1.49 at the Marshalltown Goodwill store. The book chronicles a year in the life of Jersey City’s St. Anthony Friars basketball team. The team is coached by one of the winningest high school basketball coaches of all time, Bob Hurley, who won over 20 New Jersey state basketball championships in his first 35 years on the job. The school is run by 2 Franciscan nuns, has an enrollment of around 250 students, is not funded by the church, and most of the students come from families below the poverty line. Hurley tirelessly appears at basketball coaching seminars and gives dinner speeches with all the proceeds going to St. Anthony’s. Hurley (a probation officer by day), his basketball team, and the notoriety their success brings to the school is likely the only reason the school is able to find the funding to avoid bankruptcy that is threatened on a yearly basis.

  The book portrays Hurley as a tough customer who constantly curses at his players and berates them for being lazy, not dedicated to basketball and school, and one step away from a life in the streets or in jail. And the team never loses a game. It also shows how former players of Hurley come back to praise his tough tactics (even though they didn’t like it at the time) and insist their kids play for him at St. Anthony. Hurley does manage to get scholarships for almost all of his players to play college basketball due to his connections and the reputation he has of churning disciplined players out of his basketball program.

  I wonder if Hurley was comfortable with author Adrian Wojnarowski’s using his voluminous tirades and profanity towards his players (I have the reviewer copy so perhaps a lot of the cursing and abusive behaviour I read didn't make it to the final edition). The player that was most under Hurley’s scrutiny was his own son, Bobby Hurley, who was a 2 time national champion at Duke and was on his way to a lengthy NBA career until it was cut short by a devastating car accident. The book mentions that some of Hurley’s rival coaches don’t curse nearly as much, but left unsaid is that they don’t win nearly as much either.

  Hurley’s methods seem to be an American version of the methods outlined in Amy Chua’s ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ that I wrote about last year in a post called 'High Achievement' , in which Chua describes not allowing her daughter to go to the bathroom until her piano assignment was played to perfection and passing on the tradition of calling her daughter ‘garbage’ as she was called by her own mother when achievements do not live up to her lofty expectations.

  Wojnarowski’s book makes special mention of how revered Hurley is by college basketball people, but I wonder if he hasn’t also spawned a generation of wannabees just waiting for the chance to have a basketball team of their own to heap verbal abuse on in the name of ‘character building’. Greg McDermott had a successful run as the head basketball coach at the mid-major University of Northern Iowa. He bypassed bigger jobs to take the Iowa State basketball head coaching assignment because his wife had cancer and by staying in the state, she could keep the same doctors. As a coach in a BCS conference school, McDermott’s players kept transferring to other schools after a year or two, chafing under the same abrasive style that made the less talented UNI players run through walls for him. After 5 losing seasons with the Cyclones, McDermott landed on his feet by taking the head coaching job at another mid-major school, Omaha’s Creighton. He even got his son Doug (co-star of 2 Ames High School championship teams) released from his commitment to attend UNI in order to play for his father. Creighton had a good year last season, going 23-16, was ranked 12th this year and Doug McDermott became a candidate for Player of the Year. But Creighton hit a rough stretch and lost 3 straight games over the past 2 weeks, culminating in a 20 point loss to conference rival Wichita State during which McDermott had a very public meltdown with his son Doug the target of his rage. I can only imagine what happens behind closed doors at practices.

  If the Creighton Blue Jays can right their ship and make it to the NCAA tournament, McDermott’s meltdowns will likely be tolerated and he may even get a contract extension. But a disappointing season to go along with being an embarrassment to his school will probably lead to his dismissal as soon as his All-American son’s eligibility runs out. ‘Bully’ coaches are generally tolerated as long as they are winning but previously ignored grounds for dismissal take on new importance when the won-loss records take a turn for the worse. Kansas football coach Mark Mangino’s pattern of abuse towards his players and staff and penchant for NCAA violations were ignored as long as the perennially loser Jayhawk program was nationally ranked and going to bowls, but when they went 5-7 in 2009, an investigation into Mangino’s boorish and abusive behavior was launched and he was forced to resign in short order. A similar investigation in 2007 found no cause for dismissal, possibly due to the Jayhawks top 10 ranking and Orange Bowl victory.

  I’d like to think that a coach can succeed without launching curse laden tirades and humiliating their charges on a regular basis. Bill Walsh was a 3-time Super Bowl winning coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He was regarded as a cerebral coach, but he was an accomplished collegiate boxer and his teams were very physical despite their emphasis on the short passing game. I’ve read some of Walsh’s motivational writings and I am convinced that despite his ‘cerebral genius’ persona he was a killer in a competitive environment, yet there are few examples of Walsh belittling or abusing his players while coaching the 49ers or in his 2 stints as the head coach at Stanford University.

  I have no doubt that Hurley is a positive force on his basketball players, but the book disturbed me a lot and left me more depressed than inspired despite the successes of the team and players. I’m sure that there are millions of people making similar impact on people without the histrionics, but without the championship banners, there is no one to write books about them because no one will buy the books.

  I found myself waiting in line at the Subway in the Des Moines Skywalk today wondering if the workers were being yelled at and cursed at by some frustrated would-be basketball coach of a manager and if they weren't, would I get through the line quicker if they had one? I pulled out my trusty iPod and started taking video (which seemed to magically speed up the line). I knew that the manager wouldn’t be cursing and screaming at the employees in front of the customers, but since I didn’t see a manager around I asked a few of the employees. None of them admitted to it, but the lady taking my money got very defensive when she thought I was intimating she forgot to ask me if I wanted the combo meal. As soon as I turned off my iPod, I thought I heard someone screaming at me, yelling “DO YOU CALL THAT A @&^#%$ VIDEO. YOU HAD YOUR THUMB OVER THE LENS AT LEAST TWICE!!” I walked away as fast as I could and didn’t look back.

I'm sure glad no one's shooting video of me when I'm working!