Bobby Hurley looks to manufacture his own paradise in Tempe
ASU basketball season preview
The kids were all packed up and shipped off to Disney World with the grandparents for a few days, and Bobby Hurley could finally sit back and kick his shoes off. Clap twice, the strawberry daiquiris would come, and the sparkling waters off the beaches of Aruba would beckon.
This, man, this was the life. The first trip away from the kids, the world, the court, in several years. For Bobby and his wife, Leslie, it was a chance to reconnect, relax, recline.
The phone rang as Bobby lay on the beach. Leslie picked up the phone; it was Bobby’s agent.
“She said he needed to talk to me,” Hurley said, “and that was it.”
Arizona State was calling, offering, praying. When the Pac-12 calls, you pick up, even if you’re on a beach smack in the middle of paradise.
They’ve been through this before.
“We were both enjoying our stay — college basketball, it wears you out, so just to get away, not to be on a practice court, it was important for us,” Hurley said. “But at the same time, (Leslie) understands what this is all about; she was with me in my NBA years, with the travel, being traded, and that’s carried over into the coaching profession.”
So, vacation over.
Hurley had a program to build.
He had another program to build.
The first was at Wagner, where he joined his brother Dan in taking the Seahawks from five wins the year before their arrival to 25 wins in Year 2. Then it was Rhode Island for a year in 2012-13, helping big brother set the foundation for what has become a 15-game improvement in three seasons.
Hurley wasn’t there to see it, as he embarked on his own construction project with Buffalo, where he won 42 games the past two seasons as a head coach. He took the Bulls to the NCAA tournament last season.
This is nothing new to Hurley.
After getting that fateful phone call, Hurley had a tough decision to make. He talked it over with his wife, and with Dan.
At Buffalo, Hurley was building what had the opportunity to become a mid-major power. The Bulls were coming off a breakout season, with the program’s first NCAA tournament trip and first regular-season and MAC tournament titles. Almost the entire roster would be coming back, and Hurley said, “we recruited some other guys who could make us better.”
“This was one I couldn’t pass up,” he said.
In Arizona State, Hurley found what he believes is a sleeping giant, a program that despite natural recruiting advantages and solid NBA exposure has not been able to consistently field a tournament contender. Herb Sendek, fired in March after nine seasons, led the Sun Devils to two NCAA tournaments. He won 25 games in 2008-09 with superstar James Harden at the helm. But after winning 21-plus games in consecutive seasons, the team slipped to 18 wins last year.
Hurley, the former Duke two-time national champion, was familiar with Phoenix because of his NBA experience. He scoped out the Sun Devils’ facilities last November, when the Bulls — facing a road game at Grand Canyon — were invited to practice at ASU.
Hurley on a practice floor is something to behold: His father, legendary New Jersey prep coach Bob Hurley, is known for his grueling practices, a custom his sons have carried forward. Bobby Hurley believes that his system, combined with some of the Sun Devils’ recruiting advantages, could be a potent package.
“I believe in what we do on the floor, day to day, to help provide an environment that helps players get better on the court,” he said. “But with a move like this, continuing the process, you add in the weather, the campus, the school itself, the social element, the league, the exposure — it’s a great package.
“I don’t want to mess it up, because I really believe it can be special here.”
After arriving back stateside, Hurley went to work.
First order of business: assembling a coaching staff. He retained assistant Stan Johnson in April, but in a rare twist — and one you could say was Sean Miller’s first win in the rivalry — Johnson was hired by Marquette after Miller plucked assistant Mark Phelps away from the Golden Eagles to take over for Damon Stoudamire. So in late May, Hurley named Brian Merritt to a staff that includes Levi Watkins, a former assistant of Hurley’s at Buffalo, and Rashon Burno, a former Florida assistant coach who played his high school ball in New Jersey for Hurley’s father at St. Anthony.
Staff in place, Hurley focused his immediate attention on recruiting.
“From a player’s perspective — being a part of championship teams as a player — you know the value of talent,” Hurley said. “That was the first priority, seeing who was available in the late signing period, starting to identify players in a variety of classes moving forward.”
Simultaneously, Hurley said, he started building relationships with Arizona State’s current roster, which returns four starters and three seniors. Forward Savon Goodman, who averaged 11.2 points and 7.6 rebounds last season, is back for his junior year, as are senior guard Gerry Blakes (11.1 ppg) and forward Eric Jacobsen (8.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg). Manning the point will be Tra Holder, who averaged 7.0 points and 3.6 assists as a freshman.
“This group of guys will never be together again, and I’m not gonna short-change them,” Hurley said. “I’m going to give them everything I have this year to make this the best.”
He has some experience with this.
“I was a little more patient at Buffalo the first year, and I didn’t have my foot on the gas as early,” he said. “I learned from that. That’s part of the reason our team started the season mediocre — we ended up 19-10 but at one point, we were 4-5 — and I don’t want to wait 10 games in to start it. I’ve done more on the floor with this team than I did my first year at Buffalo.”
Added Blakes: “He’s more in tune with what we’re doing, how we’re feeling, chopping it up with us. He’s involved in drills, he’s very hands on, which is something we love.”
Blakes, born in 1993, is just now learning exactly how good his coach once was as a player. When Hurley was hired, Blakes admits he had to Google him. He watched an ESPN “30-for-30” documentary on Christian Laettner that prominently featured his new coach.
Instant street cred.
“As a player, you want to do the things he’s done, individually and collectively as a team,” Blakes said. “In high school, he won four state championships; in college, won two national championships; NBA, went high in the lottery, played five years. Those are things to be inspired by.”
Though the chaos of the college basketball season is set to begin, things have settled down a bit for the Hurleys.
By June, he said, he had the lay of the land.
Hurley met with fans and alums in the building and throughout the city, and by then, the whole family had joined him — oldest daughter, Cameron, a sophomore in college, returned to join Leslie, sister Sydney, a senior in high school, and brother Bobby, a seventh-grader.
“I feel bad for them,” he says. “I justify it by saying I’m preparing them for a world that’s rapidly changing. But it wasn’t always fair for them to have to build new friendships. That being said, we’ve stayed pretty tight together, and they love supporting what I’m doing.”
As he begins to build a life in Tempe, Hurley can finally sit back and breathe.
It’s not Aruba, but it will do.
Gerry Blakes picks up the phone, and the first thing he says, after he’s asked the simple opener of “How are you?” is “Blessed, man. I’m blessed,” and you know it’s going to be one of those interviews.
The questions he’s about to be asked — about a dead sister and a dead mother, a new coach, and oh, some fluff about playing for a college basketball legend — are decidedly heavy.
You’re taken aback.
“Blessed, man, I’m blessed,” is not the reaction you expect from a young man who has just lost two of the people closest to him in the world.
When Blakes writes the story of his life, the summer of 2015 will be remembered as a bittersweet time.
His first year at Arizona State had been a success. The San Bernardino Valley College transfer averaged 11.1 points as a junior, including 20-plus points in back-to-back games. In April, he found out he’d have a new coach in former Buffalo coach and once-Duke legend Bobby Hurley. These are good things, exciting things.
There have been other things, too. Not so good things.
He lost his sister, Dawn, to lupus in July. His mother, Bobetta, who suffered the same disease, died in September.
Dawn fought a seven-year battle with lupus, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation, swelling, pain and damage throughout the body. Bobetta had a recurrence of the disease and, Gerry said, died relatively suddenly.
Their deaths weigh on him.
“It’s definitely a daily thing,” he says. “I haven’t fully processed it.”
How does he cope?
“The best answer is God has kept me,” he said. “I don’t know another way to describe it.”
Basketball has not been Blakes’ salvation — he already has that — but it has been his outlet, his release, his church and his counselor.
“He’s said it to me personally, and that’s the beauty of basketball,” Hurley said. “Whatever it was as a player — if I wasn’t doing well in the classroom, or had a minor argument with my girlfriend — when you get on the court, you transform, you’re a different guy.
“It is your sanctuary.”
When Hurley was hired by Arizona State in April, he became a lot of things to a lot of people. Brand ambassador, general manager, coach, teacher, fundraiser, pep rally leader, father, friend.
In their initial meetings together, Blakes mainly talked to Hurley about his goals, his aspirations, where he hoped basketball would take him. He needed Hurley to further tap into Blakes’ potential, and when Hurley challenged him on the court — this is Bobby Hurley, after all — he loved it.
The tenor of their discussions changed midsummer, as you could imagine.
Hurley made sure to keep an open door.
“He’s dealing with things that very few people have to go through, especially someone at his age,” Hurley said. “The responsibility he’s had to assume … it’s been remarkable how he’s handled himself. We want to provide a support system, an open door, to let him discuss what he’s feeling as he goes through what he goes through. We’ve also given him time to be with his family, to grieve, to go through that process.”
When Blakes accompanied Hurley to mid-October’s Pac-12 media days in San Francisco, you could tell the bond was fresh, yet palpable.
“When I have things going on in my life, (Hurley) tended to it properly,” Blakes said. “He handled it well. For him, it’s not all about basketball.”
Added Hurley: “The guys who I’m coaching this year, who are paying the price, day in and day out, sacrificing and working the way they work, they are my No. 1 priority,” Hurley said. “I am the caretaker of what goes on here. To me, the priority is the player who has a personal issue. That trumps a recruiting call.”
For Blakes, right now is all about basketball.
He has a path to follow, one that Bobetta set him on since he was a boy.
“I feel like it’s always been a part of me, since I was younger,” he said. “It’s gotten me to where I am, it’s changed my life. It’s something I’m very passionate about, and I love it. It’s almost a religion for me.”
He pushes himself so that he can improve his circumstances, which, he said, has always been his motivation. He enters his senior year motivated like never before, both internally and externally.
“He’s a great kid, a great leader for us, and he’s done it by how hard he plays, and with communication,” Hurley said. “Usually it’s one or the other. He does it with both. He’s really on a mission this year to have a great season, the best possible season, and I don’t think anyone deserves to have a great year more than him.”
There are times emotions creep in, especially when he’s told what Hurley had just said.
“Hearing that for me is the biggest compliment,” he said. “It’s a weird feeling, because you can really get nervous about it, be so caught up in how every single game goes, every possession goes. Essentially, in the end, it’s not the end all and be all.”
This is a kid who has perspective. You hear it from the very first thing he says on the phone.
All the way to the last thing he says.
“Do you have a constant reminder of your family, your mother and your sister? Is that something that just kind of never goes away?”
“Yeah,” he says, “That’s sort of like automatic. That feeling is my everyday life. I always tune into that. I feel like I am my sister and my mom. We’re still living. That’s how I look at it.”