ASU Expects Explosive Bobby Hurley to Turn Sun Devils Basketball Team Into National Power

Bobby Hurley
Bobby Hurley
Murphy Bannerman

As he lay in an irrigation ditch in excruciating pain, the shot clock seemed to be running out for the final time for Bobby Hurley.

A legendary college basketball player, Hurley had just finished playing his 19th NBA game for the Sacramento Kings. He had been broadsided by the driver of a station wagon who hadn't bothered to turn on his headlights.

Hurley suffered massive injuries. Somehow, probably because of his superb conditioning, he survived. His playing career, though, was all but over.

Eventually, he moved into coaching, a natural career path because of his savvy as a player, which he learned from his father, one of the nation's most successful high school coaches.

Hurley excelled in this role, too, and attracted the attention of Ray Anderson, the relatively new athletic director at Arizona State University. Last year, Anderson hired him to energize the Sun Devils' long-slumbering men's basketball program.

So far, Hurley's results at ASU have been intriguing.

With the Pac-12 season just getting started, the Sun Devils have run up a surprising 10-4 record, good enough for a top 40 RPI (based on wins, losses, and strength of schedule) that — if decisions were made now — would put the team in contention for an NCAA tournament berth.

Watching the fiery, blue-collar Hurley nearly jump out of his shoes in reaction to calls by Pac-12 officials — he was ejected in ASU's recent home loss to Arizona — is worth the price of admission.

But in the long run, the Sun Devils will need to attract big-time prep players, the kind ASU mostly has missed out on.

"It's going to start with Coach Hurley," says key ASU recruiter Rashon Burno. "We have to do a good job of selling him, his NBA experience, and his winning two [college] national championships.

"His basketball credentials speak for themselves."

ASU hired away Burno from Nebraska this past offseason because of his lifetime loyalty to the Hurley family.

As a grade-schooler, Burno lost his parents. Hurley's father allowed Rashon to hang around the gym and practice; eventually, he played for the coach and got to know Bobby.

"When I got the phone call from Bobby, it was a no-brainer," Burno says. "It was an honor to help get this thing going just because of our personal relationship."

The new regime is off to a good start landing talent: Two prospects who made top 100 high school lists — big man Jethro Tshisumpa from Virginia and wing player Sam Cunliffe from Seattle — have committed to ASU.

To compete at the elite level in the years to come, the Devils will need many more coveted players, and ASU wants Hurley make it happen.

Hurley huddles with the team at practice.
Hurley huddles with the team at practice.
Murphy Bannerman

Many believe there's no good way for a father to coach a son. Either he ends up too hard on the boy or too soft.

Bobby Hurley remembers full well which way his father leaned as the coach of St. Anthony of Jersey City, New Jersey, which boasted one of the top prep programs in the East:

"I wanted to be as good as the players he had. I took it upon myself to do that. Once I became a player in his program, then it became really difficult. I think he had to show the other players that I wasn't going to have an easy go. I was targeted more than other guys for criticism."

Hurley remembers the start of one practice particularly:

"He didn't feel I was ready for practice [in the first five minutes]. I felt it was maybe hard to determine that in five minutes. But he saw something he didn't like so I just was running [laps] the entire practice.

"I never got back into a drill. I just tried to avoid him because I knew he was mad at me.

"There were other times I was thrown out of practice whether it was because I wasn't playing well or [because] the entire team was flat. He [would] throw me out to get everyone else's attention."

Bob Hurley, who still coaches at St. Anthony, chimes in: "Remember this, too, though. This is the recollection of an adolescent. When Bobby was in high school, we won four straight state championships. We won two national championships. We won 66 games in a row. We won every major national tournament for four years.

"I don't know how many bad days he really had. When you're young and maybe your buddies are playing video games and you're actually practicing, maybe your life is harder. That part is true."

Bobby acknowledges, "I couldn't really separate at times the father, the guy that spends time in the living room with me watching television, and the coach who is all over me on the floor.

"I took things too personal . . . It was a tough situation. But having gone through his coaching made everything else I encountered as a player not as difficult.

"Even going to Duke, our practices didn't seem as hard. The way Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] coached me, I could stand up to because of having gone through what I did at St. Anthony."

Krzyzewski agrees, saying that he recruited Hurley because he knew he could have an impact:

"He was coached at the highest level by his dad, who was one of the great coaches of all time at any level. He was also coached hard. So he knew tough. He already was tough."

In 1989, Hurley came to a much different Duke University than the fabled program of today, which fans across the country often boo because of the school's basketball dominance — five national titles and 16 trips to the Final Four.

But when Bobby Hurley arrived, the Blue Devils still were trying to win their first NCAA title.

The team made it to the championship game in 1990 but got beaten by the much flashier Runnin' Rebels of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. A rematch against UNLV came in the semifinal game the next year in Indianapolis, where Hurley took what Coach K called the biggest shot ever by a Duke player.

 "It was a critical point in the game," Hurley says. "They had just tipped the ball in to go up five with about 2:30 left. They had seized the momentum. You felt like if we didn't score in that next possession we were in trouble.

"I was going down [the floor] with the idea that if I was open, I was going to let it go. I just felt like I had put the work in. I trusted I could make the shot. That's where my mind was."

Hurley saw an opening: "And I was able to get it off. I knew as soon as it left my hand that it was going in."

At the time, Duke was a "heavy underdog," Hurley remembers.

"You could sense the shift in the crowd, knowing the majority wanted to see [us] win."

And that's what happened. Duke finally got over the hump.

Before he was finished, Hurley helped lead Duke to one more NCAA title, thanks to the most memorable college play ever.

The foe was Kentucky, which led by one in the closing seconds of overtime in the 1992 East regional finals, when Devils small forward Grant Hill threw a length-of-the-court pass to power forward Christian Laettner.

"I was the second option," Hurley says. "The ball literally sailed over my head. I was right at half court. I had a great look at Christian catching the ball, shrugging his shoulders either way and putting it on the floor. Dribbled once, shot it from 17 or 18 feet . . . and won the game as time expired, 104-103".

Laettner, Hurley says, "had such an incredible will to win. And so much confidence in his ability. He wanted the ball . . . He played with so much swagger that I think it rubbed off on everyone."

And thus Duke, which went on to win the title game, became the team college basketball fans came to know — and often hate.

Despite Laettner's clutch shot, Hurley was named that NCAA tournament's most outstanding player.

But the maestro of it all was Coach K, a protégé of Bobby Knight's when Knight began his career coaching at Army. Krzyzewski became known in college hoops as Bobby Knight lite, a foul-tongued coach who just didn't hit anybody.

"His practices were very hard," Hurley says of Krzyzewski. "He was very demanding. And then the film study. He could be critical."

Hurley recalls getting dinged by Krzyzewski for letting a turnover or a coach's call affect him through the next several plays of a game.

"I was kind of a perfectionist. I watched film of myself reacting to bad things happening on the court. Just seeing it visually and listening to coach telling me, 'You can't do this anymore. You've got to be more poker-faced with how you play. If you have a fire, it's got to burn inside. You don't show anyone how you feel,'"

Looking back, Krzyzewski says, "I truly loved coaching Bobby. Bobby was who I wanted to be [as a player]. He was instinctive. So I gave him a lot of freedom. But it was freedom earned.

"I don't think anyone played more daring at point guard maybe in the history of the game."

Until the two national championships at Duke, Hurley and his family hadn't given much thought to life in the NBA. In fact, Hurley says, this may be the single biggest difference between players then and now.

"For me, the end game was going to college and playing four years and hoping you could play in a Final Four. That's what I grew up with. I grew up watching Magic and Bird in the '79 Final. I watched Jordan hit the shot in '82. Upsets by Villanova and NC State.

"All I wanted to do was play college basketball at the highest level."

Hurley says college players of his generation may have dreamed of playing in the NBA, but they didn't try to do it as quickly as players today:

"Even Shaquille O'Neal stayed [in college] two years."

The quick transition to the NBA by such superstars as Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett (both turned pro after high school) changed the thinking of many big-time prospects, Hurley says.

"It's different. Not that it's bad. It's just how it's gone."

Hurley's father recalls that as Bobby's college days came to a close, many called him to say his son was destined to be a "lead point guard" in the NBA.

Even though Hurley's focus wasn't on making millions of dollars as a pro, he was drafted seventh in the first round of the 1993 NBA draft by the Kings.

Whether this lofty draft status might have proved justified never will be known.

Hurley coaches guard Kodi Justice (center).
Hurley coaches guard Kodi Justice (center).
Murphy Bannerman

Most NBA arenas are in conveniently accessible urban cores. But not the Sacramento Kings' edifice, built in a largely undeveloped area north of the California capital near the airport.

"It was so dark," says Hurley's father. "It was a flat, agricultural area. When you went to the Arco Arena, it was like you were dropped on another planet."

This was the setting for Hurley after he played his 19th NBA game at home against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday night, December 12, 1993.

"For my rookie year, I wanted to stay close to Arco. It was probably 15 minutes from the arena to my apartment. I had two ways that I went home. I went home on the interstate, or I went home on a back road.

"I decided to go the back road that night."

Hurley stopped at an intersection with a stop sign (no traffic signal) and started to turn left.

A vehicle coming the other way suddenly appeared going through the intersection with no headlights on.

"The vehicle was right on top of me . . . I had no time to do anything about it."

Hurley, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, apparently was ejected through the driver's door, which came open, and into an irrigation ditch. He remembers getting revived in that ditch.

"I knew it was really bad. I had never experienced that type of pain. I knew it was probably not going to end well. I thought everything was going to end."

He might have drowned in the ditch, had the accident not been seen by others, including one of his teammates, who was among the first to arrive.

The driver of the car without lights suffered a broken leg and could not get out of his vehicle. Hurley had collapsed lungs and many broken bones, including a shoulder blade.

"The doctors couldn't even give us numbers on how many people [had] survived all the injuries he had that night," his father says.

Though he returned to the NBA from the horrific accident, the injuries precluded him from regaining his old form. (His left shoulder, which took much of the impact, still isn't quite right.)

Hurley could have settled for an insurance claim and never played again, his father says:

"But he wanted to come back and honor the contract, because he had worked his whole life to get to that spot."

He had started to amass good assist totals, but it's unclear what he might have become.

"That's a hard one," Hurley says. "I knew that I'd played a lot of good players in college, guys who were in the league.

He ended up staying for four more mostly inconsequential NBA seasons.

The driver who robbed him of his star potential eventually was sentenced to three years' probation and fined $300. In 2012, 19 years later, he apologized to Hurley.

There are notions about ASU basketball that haven't helped the program:

It operates in the shadow of the University of Arizona, a national powerhouse. It's nearly last on local fans' minds because metro Phoenix has such a crowded sports menu.

The belief among a host of sports fans is that ASU basketball is doomed to mediocrity.

But this gloomy view isn't entirely borne out by history.

From the late 1950s through the mid-'60s, Sun Devil Gym (now a physical education building just east of Memorial Union) was rocking. Twice during this period, the Sun Devils made the Elite Eight, one win short of the Final Four.

In fact, an ASU basketball ticket often was the hottest sports item in the state, with Jumpin' Joe Caldwell leading an exciting team that attracted national attention.

Had ASU used this success to build a new arena, perhaps its basketball fortunes would have improved. Instead, conservative administrators dithered, the program faltered, and a new building wasn't ready to go until 1974. In the year of Watergate, the Sun Devils opened the sparkling University Activity Center against Southern California's Whittier Poets, Richard Nixon's alma mater.

By this time, longtime coach Ned Wulk was putting together what would become a stellar season. He got the Phoenix area's two best prep players, Scott Lloyd and Rudy White, and combined them with Las Vegas' Lionel Hollins (all three would make the NBA) for a dramatic run to the Elite Eight in 1975.

After a few more solid seasons, a trio of future NBA mainstays, Byron Scott, Fat Lever, and Alton Lister led the Sun Devils to a top 10 finish in the final regular-season polls in 1981, capped by a blowout of top-ranked, undefeated Oregon State.

Next came a so-so season in which Scott sat out for personal reasons, and Wulk was fired — even though he had dominated rival Arizona, 37-13.

The bigger problem was, ASU had no suitable replacement ready to go, and the program slid into obscurity.

Since this mistake, ASU has made the tournament only five times in the past 34 years, twice under Bill Frieder and once under Rob Evans, who recruited Ike Diogu, a skilled big man. But Evans couldn't follow up by surrounding Diogu with talented teammates so ASU turned to Herb Sendek.

Like Evans, Sendek ran a squeaky-clean, academically oriented program while keeping his teams more competitive than Evans had. Twice in nine years, Sendek's teams made the NCAA tournament.

The highlight came when Sendek landed James Harden out of Southern California. The bearded one led the Devils to two straight winning seasons, the second resulting in an NCAA tournament berth in 2009 (where the team won a single game).

Then the greatest ASU player ever was off to the NBA, where he's become a superstar.

Like Evans with Diogu, Sendek had a hard time following up with consistent first-rate talent and was sent packing after the 2014-15 season.

The search for a replacement at first focused on Jeff Capel, a former Duke standout, head coach at Oklahoma, and now Krzyzewski's top assistant at Duke. But Capel didn't come aboard so attention shifted to another former Duke star, but with an even bigger name: Bobby Hurley.

Hurley's coaching résumé was thin, but he had turned around a non-storied State University of New York at Buffalo team, getting the mid-major-level Bulls to a first-ever NCAA tournament in just two years.

But what set him apart to ASU was his status as one of the most significant players in college basketball history. The feeling was: Even if recruits are only dimly aware of his past fame, their parents will remember Hurley well.

Buffalo's AD's bungled negotiations to keep the coach may have helped ASU athletic director Ray Anderson land him.

A report in the Buffalo News suggested that had Hurley's annual salary been doubled from about $300,000 to $600,000, he might have stayed. But he was offered $551,000, the report stated, just barely enough to make him the highest-paid coach in the Mid-American Conference.

"In our discussions with Bobby Hurley, it became very clear to us that he's a gym rat," Anderson says. "He just loved the game. Loved the coaching part. Loved the teaching part of it. Loved the competitive part of it.

"[When] you put that together with his history and legacy, his Duke experience, his dad's experience [you're going to get] blue-collar, down-in-the-weeds leadership."

Hurley accepted a five-year deal that starts at $1.2 million this season.

During the Sun Devils' thrilling win at Creighton in December, not one TV (out of about 20) at a prominent restaurant/bar just east of the ASU campus was tuned to the game.

But the most significant group possible has bought into the team this season: Hurley's players.

They rave about their coach's intensity, passionate pregame speeches, and ability to devise plays in the heat of a close game.

"He can pull a play out of nowhere," says point guard Kodi Justice, noting Hurley's drawing up one that resulted in a last-minute, game-tying 3-pointer from the left corner against the University of California at Santa Barbara. The Sun Devils ended up winning at the buzzer.

"He's real good at picking up what the [opponent's] defense is doing and how to score . . . He knows the game."

Point guard Tra Holder says Hurley "instills a lot of confidence in all the players. That's what makes us eager to play hard for him. We know if we make a mistake, he's not going to try to take us out. He'll let us play through it."

Agrees forward Willie Atwood: "You gotta have players to make plays . . . without looking over our shoulders every time we mess up."

And then there are those pregame speeches, which perhaps are fueled by "a slight Diet Coke addiction," center Eric Jacobsen says.

"He tells us what kind of advantages we have against the opponent," Holder says. "Usually, coaches try to say, 'Fight hard,' something vague and basic. He tells us the other team isn't better than us . . . to make us feel like we're the superior team."

Indeed, high energy is the theme of media ads in which AD Anderson is shown introducing Hurley as the coach, using such words as "passion" and "fire."

Yet this first season under the energetic, heralded new coach started with a pratfall.

The season opener, at home against small-time Sacramento State University showed dramatically just where the program has been. Atwood took the season's first shot, an 18-footer that fell maybe three feet short.

The Sun Devils managed to grab a couple of double-digit leads but stalled both times. Then after a series of missed free throws and fumble-fingered possessions, Sac State hit a couple of big shots late to pull away.

"An embarrassing loss," an ashen-faced Hurley said at his postgame news conference. He was stunned that his team missed 12 free throws.

(He obviously hadn't seen much ASU basketball over the years, when missing 15 free throws in a game has been part of the landscape.)

"I thought we played nervous for some reason," Hurley says. "It became infectious."

Players' nerves calmed in a couple of low-profile wins. Then came a potential breakthrough: ASU led late at Marquette in Milwaukee, but a couple of botched possessions in the closing seconds led to a second defeat.

During the seesaw game at Creighton, before a sold-out crowd of 16,000 at Omaha, Hurley asked his team in a late timeout huddle, "We having fun?"

In the closing moments, Jacobsen drew a charging foul, Holder came up with a big steal and a basket, and Creighton missed big free throws.

Hurley's group had its first big win.

The Devils finally drew a lively, engaged crowd in a Saturday night home game against nationally ranked Texas A&M. They responded, playing excellent defense, rebounding aggressively, and moving the ball crisply enough to overcome mediocre shooting.

Jogging to the locker room, players celebrated the big win shouting: "From start to finish!"

At Hurley's postgame news conference, an important fan looked on approvingly, then emerged from the press room to say, "A fun game." ASU President Michael Crow then grinned and said: "Our project [to improve ASU basketball] is working."

Comparing Hurley to his predecessor, Jacobsen says, "Sendek was very Xs and Os [but] Hurley gives us more freedom offensively for guys to make plays."

Off-guard Gerry Blakes says Hurley is "a little more hands-on" than Sendek.

To be sure, during a 21/2-hour practice before a big game at Kentucky, which had been ranked first in the nation early in the season, Hurley managed virtually every detail.

He had his players take heavily contested shots, telling them that elite teams such as Kentucky always get back on defense.

At one point, he questioned whether his players knew what was at stake. If they didn't execute details, he said, they would get thoroughly embarrassed in Lexington.

To get his players' attention, he demonstrated excellent punting skills by kicking a basketball across the Weatherup practice facility off Rural Road.

He did all this using the sort of off-color language that those who played under his coaching forebears, Knight and Coach K, would have found familiar.

The result: In an impressive first half, the Devils hung with Kentucky, trailing 32-31, before a packed house of 23,000 fans. But Kentucky got almost every close call, and with ASU's continued shooting problems, the Wildcats pulled away in the second half.

Later, Hurley's Devils showed grit in overcoming a 12-point halftime deficit at UNLV, the first time in more than 20 years that an ASU team had come from so far back at halftime on the road.

But at other times, the team's shortcomings have been startling.

With their best big man, Savon Goodman, continuing to sit out for personal reasons, they've had no inside game. This went along with their frequent troubles shooting from the perimeter in a harrowing win last week over Cal State-Bakersfield.

Still, they were 10-3 heading into their Pac-12 opener Sunday at home against rival Arizona. The Sun Devils got off to a great start but ultimately couldn't match the size of the top 10 Wildcats.

After Hurley exploded repeatedly at officials and was escorted off the court and into the locker room following his second technical foul, a TV commentator declared: "The rivalry [between the Devils and the 'Cats] has been renewed!"

Indeed, there's a buzz about ASU basketball again.

Now what Hurley must do to turn ASU into a basketball power like rival Arizona is attract more big-time athletes.

If he achieves a superior record to go along with his legacy as arguably the best point guard in college hoops history, Tempe restaurants and bars certainly will be tuned in to every Devils game.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >