By David J. Hill
The life of Bobby Hurley reads like a Hollywood screenplay in the making. The son of legendary high school coach Bobby Hurley Sr., he excelled as a player in high school, led Duke to two national championships and joined the Sacramento Kings as a first-round draft pick. Then, a few months into his rookie year, his car was sideswiped by a truck and his life turned inside out. There was rehab, then protracted injuries, pain and disillusionment as he struggled through four more seasons, finally stepping away from basketball altogether.
Thirteen years later, or, if you will, Act II: His younger brother, Dan, becomes a head coach at Wagner College and invites Bobby, now 42, to be his assistant. Together, the brothers engineer Wagner’s best season ever. After two years, they move on to Rhode Island to do the same, when fate intervenes again. Danny White calls, offering Bobby the job of head coach at UB. His mandate: Lead the Bulls to their first-ever NCAA tournament.
In a candid interview, Hurley opens up about a life in basketball.
What was it like being the coach’s son?
It was tough. Almost every guy that played for my dad would say it’s hard when you’re going through his program, but for me it was magnified even more. He was harder on me than any other guy on the team.
Did that affect your relationship growing up?
It was a struggle for me as a young person. It was hard to make the separation between father and coach. When he would yell at me, I would take things real personal. There were times that I wasn’t at my best and my dad would say, “You’re outta practice,” and I’d get bus money and head home and then I’d go into hiding in the basement.
Now you have a 10-year-old son, Bobby. Does he have the basketball gene?
He likes basketball a lot. I would never force-feed it to him though. It’s his decision. If he shows me that’s the direction he wants to go in, then I’ll help him with it. But I know my path was really hard. I just want him to have a great experience in life, whatever it is for him that he loves.
Your path was unusually hard, particularly having a car accident derail your career when you were 22 years old.
It was a huge setback. Everything had been like a fairy tale: a high school state championship, two NCAA championships, first-round draft pick in the NBA. I didn’t have a ton of adversity. After the accident, I had to learn to maximize whatever I could get out of the talent I had left. And I went through a number of years where I was the 11th man, 10th man on the team, where my whole life I’d had a leading role. I had to learn to have some failure and still be a good teammate and practice hard.
You moved back home to New Jersey to recover after the accident, which must have been tough. But that’s when you met your wife, right?
Yes. My brother Dan was going to Seton Hall at the time. I would drive up to see him a couple times a week, and that’s how I met Leslie, who was a student there too. It’s funny how things turn out. If I hadn’t had that accident, I might have still been out in California playing. But it gave me my family. As bad as it was for my basketball career and as painful as it was to go through, something good came out of it.
You took a fairly long break from basketball after retiring in 2000. How did you decide to come back as a coach?
I always knew that was the direction I should go with my post-playing career. But I felt burned out. I was 29 years old and dealing with not living up to my own personal expectations, with having injuries … I had to just get away from the game. So I took a breather. Then I got into scouting in 2004, and that began generating my interest again. But I wasn’t working with people. I wasn’t sharing my experiences in basketball and what I learned.
It all came together when my brother was presented the opportunity to be head coach and I could go work with him. He was someone I believed in, and it was great for me to get involved at the college level. That’s where I had my best experiences in basketball.
How do you look back now on your playing career?
You know, I still remember my first camp. It was the night before and I had my whole outfit on, including my socks and my sneakers tied, and that’s how I went to sleep. That’s how excited I was about basketball. I loved it. I lived the dream to be able to take it so far.
Now you’re going to be a head coach for the first time. Do you feel ready for this chapter of your life?
I think if my only experience was as a college athlete at Duke, it would be unrealistic to think I could have the perspective to do this job at the highest level. But I started at Wagner, which didn’t have great resources, so I really had a chance to work in all areas of running a program. I booked travel and set up team meals. There were days I was bringing balls out. You take a lot from those experiences. Also, my brother’s a hell of a coach. To see how he ran his program for three years really prepared me for this.
How is Buffalo treating you so far?
I’m 10 minutes from campus, which is a blessing. The pace of life is good for me here. The people are very friendly. I think it’s a great place to raise kids. And you can see the passion for sports. It’s a part of the community, how much people love the Bills and stay behind the Bills. We see it on Sunday morning at the supermarket—all the Bills jerseys. I hope that we can build something here that people will get behind like that.
We do too, Bobby.