On the Fourth of July, Bobby Hurley invited his players to his new home in Amherst for a family gathering and a history lesson of sorts. He wanted to become more acquainted with them as he prepared for his first season as basketball coach at the University at Buffalo. He also felt it was important that they saw his expansive trophy case.
It wasn’t about him, actually. It was about them.
Hurley shared memorabilia from his career at Duke because it was evidence of what could be accomplished with enough hard work and commitment. He wanted his players to understand that the UB could make its own history. He was planting the idea that they could look back someday and be proud of their careers.
Coming from him, it all made sense.
Hurley isn’t much different than most people you see walking down the street. He has a slender 6-foot frame. His hair grows grayer by the day. Give him a nice pair of pants and dress shoes, and he looks more like a banker these days than a basketball lifer.
What stood out most about Hurley during his career at Duke were qualities nobody could see if he were on a street corner. He wasn’t the biggest or most athletic player at Duke, but he was among the most competitive players of his era. He was a tireless point guard whose vision, intelligence and leadership matched his desire to win. He was relentless and selfless and fearless and tough.
Hurley just looked ordinary, which made him appealing to average basketball fans who felt like they identified with him. For all of the success he had during his career at Duke, before a car accident nearly killed him and all but killed his NBA career, he was actually underrated as a player. His intangibles were immeasurable yet often overlooked by the naked eye.
You know Hurley’s story by now, how he and Angola native Christian Laettner led Duke to two national titles and three Final Fours in their three years together. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski turned over the offense to Hurley as a freshman on the first day of practice, a first in school history and a fact that irked Laettner throughout their time together.
But Laettner would tell you there was no player he enjoyed playing with more than he did Bobby Hurley. And when UB needed a coach to replace popular Reggie Witherspoon, it could not have found a better basketball mind than Bobby Hurley. He’s looking to guide UB to the NCAA tournament for the first time since it returned to Division I. And that’s why he showed them his trophy case.
“They get a chance to see the basketballs with the national championship, the basketballs where I set the all-time assist record in college basketball," Hurley said Monday during Big 4 media day at First Niagara Center. “They see that stuff, and it gets them excited about what they want to accomplish.
“Basketball has changed. The landscape has changed. Now, a mid-major program has a lot more competitive chance to make their mark. Anything is possible.”
Hurley’s trophy case and name recognition isn’t going to win any games at UB, but let’s not pretend it doesn’t exist. Witherspoon took over under difficult circumstances and made the program relevant. Witherspoon was a good coach, but ultimately he didn’t win enough in the Mid-American Conference and never reached the NCAA Tournament. He was gone after finishing 14-20 last season.
It was sad for many to see Witherspoon get fired, but Hurley was an easy sell. Athletic director Danny White, whose father has the same position at Duke, had a direct connection to Hurley. He arrived in Buffalo with instant credibility even though he had never been a head coach at any level. His lack of experience was easy to overlook because, well, it was Bobby Hurley.
And that mattered.
“When I recruit kids, I spend a lot more time recruiting parents and coaches because they can identify with me from when I played,” Hurley said. “The kids now, they weren’t even born when I was playing. I have to direct them to YouTube and Internet to find stuff on me.”
You can safely assume he picked up a few tips from some of the best coaches in history. His father, Bob, remains a legend at St. Anthony. Bobby grew up breaking down and setting up tables for bingo games in between practices, and he spent games breaking down opposing defenses and setting up teammates for easy baskets. Nobody saw the floor as well as he did.
Let’s be honest, UB doesn’t have a point guard with the same drive and vision Hurley had when he was in college. If there was one, he wouldn’t be playing for UB. He would be playing for Duke or North Carolina or some other big-time school. Hurley isn’t trying to teach what can’t be taught. They don’t need his vision. They need to understand his message.
“I don’t want them to see it through my eyes," he said. “I have to examine my team and look at my players and be flexible to their strengths. I have to find imaginative ways to use my players and put them into positions to be successful. We have a good feel for our players. It’s a continual work in progress. I have a good idea where we need to go, where the ball needs to go, with the group we have."
It was something he learned from his father and Krzyzewski, who is one of the best basketball coaches in history at any level. If Coach K had enough confidence in Hurley to turn over his team to him as a freshman, certainly White could muster the same faith in him as a coach. Krzyzewski called Hurley practically every other day, encouraging him to take the Buffalo job.
Hurley signed a five-year contract, and now he’s here. It’s funny, but we came to know him on a 25-inch television screen. He was small on the court but larger than life when he played for Duke. His history should help him, but this is about the future. We’ll see where UB goes and how Hurley fares as the new face, voice and leader of the program.
He seemed like a good fit for Buffalo. You know he was a fierce competitor, but he was friendly, engaging and grounded Monday. He has quickly come to appreciate our local delicacies. He found Duff’s for wings, Sinatra’s for Italian food and Grover’s for a good burger and a beer. And, of course, let’s not forget the 15-minute commute to work, 20 minutes to anywhere else in town.
His family has settled into the community, too. He has two teenage daughters, Cameron and Sydney, and a 10-year-old son. Cameron is named after Cameron Indoor Stadium, where her father made history.
Now, he’s looking to make his mark in coaching. He’s looking forward to a time when his playing career is no longer the story.
“I love basketball,” Hurley said. “I want to put a great product on the court that we can be proud of, our university can be proud of and our community can get behind. I’ve always been a low-key person. I feel like I’ll connect well with the community and have no time fitting in.
“I want to see the attention and the spotlight go to Javon McCrea and Will Regan. There’s going to come a point real soon where it’s not going to be about me. It’s one thing I learned from Coack K. He always made it about his players. I’d prefer it was more about them.”