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.