The National Catholic Review
Stephen Martin
Why I still root for Bobby Hurley
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Bobby Hurley nearly ran over me last week with his Jeep!” the cute co-ed chirped as we stepped out of class into a bright September afternoon. She actually seemed a little sorry she hadn’t ended up on the hood, because then he might have noticed her. And back in the fall of 1991 few things meant more to students at Duke University than a glance from Bobby Hurley.

As the school’s sensational point guard, Hurley had led Duke’s basketball team to its first national championship just five months before. By April of the following year, he would be a full-fledged celebrity—Sports Illustrated’s cover boy, Most Valuable Player of the Final Four, the spark behind the Blue Devils’ second straight N.C.A.A. title.

I didn’t even know the guy and had never seen him in his Jeep. But during my freshman year at Duke, there was no one I envied more than Bobby Hurley.

My jealousy wasn’t new, either. In fact, it was in full flower before I’d even set foot on campus. When I was a third-string distance runner on my high school track team, Hurley, fresh off a legendary career at St. Anthony’s High in Jersey City, was already a “star in the making” at Duke. Here was a guy who had everything I didn’t have—athletic prowess, fame and (judging by the reports leaking out from campus) all the women he could handle. He also apparently had the one thing I did have, book smarts. A basketball magazine I had leafed through once mentioned something about his stellar grade-point average.

When my uncle, a Capuchin priest from Pittsburgh, stopped by the house one night for dinner, I greeted him with a plateful of teenage grievances. Why, I demanded, still smarting from the humiliation of the previous year’s biweekly acne treatments, did God give one guy so much? Why couldn’t I be like Hurley?

My uncle, calm and thoughtful as ever, nodded slowly. “Hmm,” he said. “The distribution of talent. That’s a difficult one.”

“The distribution of what?” I nearly shouted in the midst of my outrage. “Must the Catholic Church have a theological construct for everything?”

My uncle proceeded with an answer that, from the distance of 20 years and possibly some additional maturity on my part, made complete sense. Snared as I was, however, in the clutches of Albert Camus, self-pity and yearning for several girls I was too shy to ask out, I nodded, dismissed his advice out of hand and continued on my bitter way.

All these years later, I do take solace in this: there was a good reason to be jealous of Bobby Hurley. He did have something I didn’t have. But it wasn’t any of the things I thought it was.

Lessons of Adult Life

It has taken me most of my adult life to figure that out. It was my Capuchin uncle who put me on the scent. Chatting at a family reunion several years ago, we touched on the shortage of priests. Vocations were still out there, my uncle told me, but our culture had gotten noisy and distracting, which made it harder and harder for people to hear the call. And it wasn’t just potential priests who were missing out. Increasingly, people in general couldn’t get a grip on who they were supposed to be. Even the simple notion of a calling, emanating from deep within and filling our day-to-day lives with meaning, seemed foreign to many.

He’s right. And only recently have I understood that when you strip away the highlight reels and the championship trophies and the chants from adoring students, that was Hurley’s greatest blessing: he had a vocation. When Hurley stepped on the court, he knew exactly who he was supposed to be, and he didn’t want to be anyone else. He was an artist, the author of stunning no-look passes and daring drives down jam-packed lanes, uncannily threading the ball through a thicket of flailing arms and legs. That kind of self-knowledge is very rare. It is actually worthy of envy. What happened next, though, was not.

Only a few months into his pro career, Hurley got broadsided one night at a Sacramento intersection. Not wearing a seatbelt, he flew 100 feet into a ditch. His injuries were staggering: two collapsed lungs, a fractured shoulder blade, broken ribs, a damaged knee and, most seriously, a torn windpipe. He very nearly died at the scene. His grueling recovery and return to pro basketball made great headlines. But his body and his game were never the same. He was out of the N.B.A. within five years.

The time that followed wasn’t easy. I would see articles now and then about Hurley. They said he lamented his lost skills. His focus had drifted. He had found some peace in training and breeding racehorses. But he still felt awkward outside the gym, one of the few spots where he had always felt comfortable and happy. That was pretty much all I knew about him, mortgage payments and deadlines having long ago crowded out my capacity for schoolboy jealousy. Then one Saturday afternoon, not long ago, Hurley seized my imagination once again.

Glancing up at the television I saw a promotional clip for March Madness. It showed footage of Hurley, skinny and jubilant, celebrating Duke’s shocking upset of undefeated U.N.L.V. in the 1991 Final Four. The clip faded and suddenly there, in the center of the screen, stood the present-day, middle-aged Bobby Hurley, his dark hair thinner and his body considerably thicker. “No way!” I thought. “That’s Bobby Hurley? How did he get so old?” And then moments later: “How did I?”

We finally did have something in common, though no one would envy it—a receding hairline. And that wasn’t all. Poking around the Internet for hints of what Hurley was up to now, I came across a story from a Duke sports magazine, one of those “Whatever Happened to That Guy?” stories about ex-jocks, the kind that often don’t end well. But this was different.

Hurley, the story said, is Catholic. He doesn’t like to think too much about the accident that put him at death’s door and stole his career. It was, he said, “a tough deal.” But he also said: “I can’t complain. I believe God brought me back for a reason.” The reason, it seems, is his wife and three young children—his new and biggest source of passion and inspiration. That, of course, is the same thing a lot of people say, especially when something else, like a very promising career, hasn’t panned out. In this case, though, I believe him.

With two small kids of my own, I know something about parenthood too—its pressures and payoffs and frightening stakes, the sense of hurtling headlong into chaos, improvising madly through sleepless nights and summer camps, reports from teachers that make your heart sink one day and your hopes rise the next, meltdowns and hugs you never see coming. Creativity and fearlessness are mandatory. Who better to navigate it all than a wily point guard? And who better to root for than Hurley, a Catholic guy who found his purpose and lost it and found it again? It turns out I still want to be like him, but this time, finally, for the right reasons.

Stephen Martin has written for America, Commonweal and U.S. News & World Report.

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