At New Jersey’s St. Anthony High School there are no athletic facilities. The “locker room” is the cafeteria. The “weight room” is a storage closet, plus some dumbbells. The gym is down the street from the brick schoolhouse—a schoolhouse that is in perpetual financial danger of becoming shuttered and empty.
But when the school’s basketball team takes the court Dec. 21 for its season opener, the St. Anthony players will be wearing new Reebok sneakers—as they have for the last 17 season openers. It’s all thanks to an unlikely partnership forged in the mid-'90s between the sneaker company and the inner-city school.
“We truly appreciate that [Reebok] respects this long-term relationship, and that they continue to be aware of the school that St. Anthony is: a poor inner-city school,” head coach Bob Hurley says. “I understand that it’s just high school.”
But Hurley is selling his program short: saying St. Anthony is “just high school” is like saying The Odyssey is just a poem. St. Anthony has won four national championships and 27 state titles—more than any other high school in the country. Five St. Anthony graduates have been picked in the first round of the NBA draft—and that number could jump to six when 6-9 sophomore Kyle Anderson leaves UCLA.
It’s “the most improbable dynasty in basketball,” Adrian Wojnarowski writes in his 2006 book The Miracle of St. Anthony. This record of success is improbable because the small Catholic school in Jersey City has spent nearly as much time teetering on the brink of financial collapse as its basketball team has atop the New Jersey standings.
Back in 1981, perhaps as a result of a shifting demographic in the neighborhood, the St. Anthony parish stopped providing financial support, leaving the school to fend for itself. Ever since, St. Anthony has faced a yearly battle to make ends meet.
Back in the ’80s, Hurley’s team reflected the school’s financial struggles. The coach would use his paycheck to buy reversible shirts for practice. The shirts were usually blue on one side and yellow on the other—never mind that St. Anthony’s school colors are maroon and gold; those were the shirts the team could afford.
It didn’t hinder the Friars’ performance on the court. In 1989, Hurley fielded a team with three future NBA first-round picks including his son, Bobby Hurley. Along with Rodrick Rhodes and Terry Dehere, Bobby led St. Anthony to an undefeated record and the school’s first national title.
Rhodes eventually went on to Kentucky, Dehere eventually went on to Seton Hall, Hurley went on to Duke, and the Friars went on to win four of the next six state championships.
Then, in 1995, Coach Hurley travelled to Washington, D.C., to speak at a clinic for Morgan Wootten—the former Hall of Fame coach at DeMatha. At the clinic, Hurley fell into conversation with Larry Brady, a Reebok representative with roots in Jersey City. Hurley invited Brady to attend a St. Anthony practice, and the two institutions have been linked ever since. Reebok, which at the time was sponsoring about 20 high schools around the country, began supplying equipment to St. Anthony.
“Reebok adopted us,” Hurley says.
The days of the blue-and-yellow practice shirts were over.
“There were a lot of years of ‘you just make due with what you have,’ and then all of a sudden you saw the light at the end of the tunnel,” Hurley says. “We’re always prepared to tell people about their commitment to our school, which we think has been extraordinary.”
But you don’t have to take his word for it.
In one memorable scene recounted in Wojnarowski’s book, Hurley reprimands two players who forget to bring their Reeboks to a practice. One of the players tries to explain that he had driven in all the way from Connecticut and hadn’t had time to pick up his sneakers.
Hurley wouldn’t hear it.
“Part of being a high school coach is you’re teaching kids about values that they’re supposed to take with them in life,” Hurley says. “And one of the things is you need to be loyal to someone who has been good to you.”
Growing up in Jersey City, Hurley, now 66, didn’t have much more than his current players.
“When I was a high school kid, I got a pair of sneakers and wore them the whole season,” he says. “It was just the way it was. You did know that there were teams like DeMatha or maybe Archbishop Molloy over in New York City—their resources were just different than ours. So you could always dream.”
The look of his team’s shoes may have changed over the years, but St. Anthony’s success did not. In 1996, Josh Moore, Delvon Arrington, Rashon Burno, and Anthony Perry pushed St. Anthony to its second national title. The team tacked on two more in 2008 and 2011.
With a young-but-talented frontcourt and an experienced backcourt, Hurley and his current team will begin their quest for their fifth national and 28th state title against Cardinal McCarrick High School (South Amboy, N.J.) When St. Anthony takes the court, it will be one of just three high schools in the country wearing the Q96—one of Reebok Basketball’s latest sneakers. The Q96 draws its design from the Question Mid, Allen Iverson’s first signature shoe.
“Having been one of the most popular models over time, the Question has had a tremendous impact on Reebok Basketball, as well as the culture in general,” says Brian Lee, Global Director of Reebok Basketball. “Celebrating Reebok’s heritage is a big part of who we are.”
It feels like a perfect match—the storied basketball program wearing the iconic sneaker.
“It’s a very special relationship that we’ve had over the years,” adds Lee. “From a basketball perspective, being associated with the best high school coach in the country and one of the top high school programs every year only adds credibility to Reebok Basketball.”
On Nov. 1, Hurley brought St. Anthony captains Tarin Smith and Chedti Mosley to the Q96 launch party at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. They watched the Nets play the Heat from a luxury box, and the captains met the Reebok legend himself—A.I.—along with rappers Fabolous and Jadakiss.
“These older kids are spoiled,” Hurley quips. “It was a very unusual night for a high school kid.”
In addition to the sneakers, Reebok has equipped St. Anthony with warm-ups and practice jerseys—in maroon and gold.
“When my former players come in the gym now and they see how the kids dress, how they look, they see what they wear, they’re so jealous because we look like a college team,” Hurley says.
Even so, the school’s financial difficulties remain. In November, the school launched a media campaign to raise $10 million, enough to keep St. Anthony open through 2020.
On the subject of the current campaign, Hurley professes innocence: “It’s lost on me because it’s a media-driven thing,” he says.
In fact, the Hall of Fame coach is playing a critical role in the drive. Donors of $46,000 (the cost of one student’s tuition for four years) receive a two-hour private clinic from Hurley. Donors of $500 get to watch Hurley lead a St. Anthony practice.
For his practices this season, Coach hopes to see many new faces in the stands.
“Who knows how long I’m going to coach? Is it going to be the amount of time school’s open? Is it going to be five or 10 years? There’s really no way of knowing,” he says. “We’ve been very successful in basketball. I think one of the best things I could possibly do at this point in my life is to help to sustain the school while I’m still there.”
If Hurley gets his wish, St. Anthony players will still be sporting the latest Reeboks for many more season openers to come.