JERSEY CITY, N.J. – The legendary court is gone now, pulled from the floor of White Eagle Hall and converted into the gleaming, polished bar tops lining the side walls. The lines that once dictated the basketball lives of the kids who were brave, lucky or just plain crazy enough to pass through the double doors on Newark Avenue are gone too, erased across the years since Bob Hurley and his St. Anthony Friars used to walk the 20 or 25 blocks from school for basketball practice, faded in the days since players from all corners of the tri-state area would make their way downtown to get a run in Hurley’s famous open gym.
“It’s so different,” Dan Hurley is saying, scanning the beautiful new lobby of the now-refurbished bingo hall, remembering the dingy, dirty bathroom he used to visit, recalling the heated, sweaty games he used to play. “I’m just trying to process it all.”
He isn’t alone. The emotional path toward the imminent end of St. Anthony High School, slated to close its doors at the conclusion of this school year, has already put alums on a similar journey. But for the public at large, the difficult part to accept is the accompanying end of one of the most storied, successful and dominant high school programs in history, the 28-time state champion team coached by the Hall of Fame inductee Hurley. And so much of that history was built on the floor of White Eagle Hall, back in the days when it served the community in various ways, hosting church luncheons, card parties, communions, weddings, and, of course, bingo and basketball.
From the after-school structure of St. Anthony’s official team practices to the wild runs of off-season and summertime open gym sessions, the players who got to hone their skills at White Eagle never forgot it. It became part of them, teaching them to play hard or go home, because no fouls were going to be called. Teaching them to play smart or go home, because the court was so cramped and tiny you had to be in control. Teaching them to play by the rules or go home, because Hurley was legendary at kicking anyone out who crossed him. Teaching them to be careful or go home, because the walls, stage and stairwells were all in play.
Had their dad seen him, he would have been tossed, forced to hang out in the dingy, cramped lobby and wait till practice ended, banished from participating until the next morning, when all slates were wiped clean. In old man Hurley’s world, there were too many tossable transgressions to count, from making a face to letting out a yawn, from talking back to losing eye contact, from not playing hard to, God forbid, rolling your eyes.
“Everybody has a White Eagle story,” Bob says, laughing as he sits inside a gym at a charter school around the corner from St. Anthony, where his team finally got a court of its own a few years back, where said court has long been named after Hurley himself. “Being able to play here made them all better players.”
“I tell people all the time there was nothing like it,” said Don Wilson, a 1984 St. Anthony grad who returned to help Hurley coach. “The runs here in this place were unbelieveable. The gym was so hot, it’s a brick building. We’d be so hot, going into the bathroom to wash our hands between games, drinking from the same faucet. I remember seeing blood, but guys always came back and played. You didn’t want to give up your spot.
“The place is gone, but what’s in us is never gone.”
The school will be gone soon too, taking with it one of the best chapters of high school basketball we’ve ever known. The weeks since that announcement became official, shocking so many who thought it could never happen to them, never thought it could happen to Hurley, kicked off a chapter of sadness over the loss. But here, inside the walls of White Eagle, it was time to celebrate too, to remember the finish line isn’t what matters when the race was so damn good.