SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – We don’t celebrate the achievements of coach Steve Smith up here in these parts, not as much as we should anyway, because his nationally ranked Oak Hill Academy basketball team is tucked away in the rural hills of southern Virginia.
The picturesque boarding school is miles from civilization, a good drive from any type of restaurant or movie theater, but that seclusion has helped maintain the focus of over 150 Division I hoops players, 23 McDonald’s All-Americans and 17 NBA players who call it their alma mater.
Smith has recorded over 850 wins, compared to about just 50 losses, in 27 years at Oak Hill Academy – the former high school of Carmelo Anthony, Brandon Jennings, Rajon Rondo and numerous other professional stars. Those credentials warrant future discussions of the heralded leader one day entering the pearly gates of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Yet, when asked about St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley, however, this legend spoke like a man stationed several tiers below the 2010 Hall inductee.
“He’s done as much as anyone, probably more, for high school basketball in this country,” said Smith, whose Warriors are ranked No. 1 in the USA Today national poll. “He’s been there for so many years, so he’s that program’s heart and soul. I’m sure he’s had opportunities to move on, too, but he never did.”
After watching Oak Hill topple No. 12 Prestonwood Christian of Texas, 85-55, at the 2012 Spalding Hoophall Classic on Saturday evening at Blake Arena on the campus of Springfield College – just three miles from the Hall of Fame – Smith continued to offer nothing but sterling compliments for Hurley.
“He’s set the barrier and the standard for all high school basketball coaches and programs in the nation,” he uttered with a southern drawl.
“I have the utmost respect for him and I hope he respects me and what we’re doing down there. But we’ve never really had the chance to become friends. Whenever we do talk, though, it’s been very cordial. I know his sons very well, though.”
Along with getting to know Hurley’s oldest son Bobby, a former St. Anthony High School and Duke University All-American who went on to become a lottery pick in the 1993 NBA Draft, Smith had coached the youngest son, Danny, at a national All-Star tournament in Pittsburgh in his senior year before the point guard moved on to star at Seton Hall University.
That’s the extent of Smith’s close ties with the Hurley family, oddly enough. Why? Because Oak Hill Academy and St. Anthony, arguably the top two hoops schools in America over the last two decades, have never met for a showdown.
“We’ve never actually played against each other,” Smith shrugged. “I really don’t know how come. I do know, though, it’d be tough because we’d never come to New Jersey for one game and they could never come down to us because we have a small gym that seats no more than 400 people.”
Would he enjoy coaching on a sideline opposite of Hurley, who has collected over 1,000 wins, four national titles and more state championships than any United States basketball team?
“Definitely,” he gushed. “I’d love it.”
Smith admitted he always enjoys visiting Springfield, the birthplace of basketball, mostly because his program has a special place in the Hall’s High School corridor.
“For us to come to the Hall of Fame, to see the kids’ faces when they see our little locker behind the glass, with Oak Hill on it, it’s great,” Smith said. “The kids know the tradition of our school. I actually didn’t even tell them where it was.”
Hurley, the ultimate drill sergeant, though, takes a different approach. When he brought the Friars, who eventually captured the mythical national title last winter, to the museum with their coach’s picture plastered in between those of the 1960 Olympic team and Maciel Periera, the son of Jersey City became bashful.
"It's weird. Last year I exited stage left as we were doing it because it was too weird,” Hurley said. “Kids were up there last summer for the Hall of Fame ceremony, but it was still weird. I might get ahead of them and do something else while they're checking out the thing.”
A tour through the Hall of Fame’s hallways is nothing but a brief break from a business trip at the annual Hoophall Classic, which features the top teams from around the country. This year’s contest against Miller Grove of Georgia on Monday is no different.
"To be honest, we've got a game. This is business,” Hurley said. “We're up there, we'll let the clock tick. We'll be on the bus watching a video on Miller Grove. We'll be in the moment. We'll escape a little bit, but we'll be thinking about the game."
That’s the Hurley way. Focus spawns a certain attitude. Attitude breeds success. Such success is similar to what Smith continues to aspire.
“Hey, maybe one day I’ll get 1,000 wins like coach Bob Hurley,” Smith shook his head while wearing a big smile. “Not many guys get to do that. That’d be incredible. I’d love it.”
It’s one thing to be a legend; it’s another to have other legends consider you a role model, a beacon of unreachable achievements.
But that’s exactly why Bob Hurley, as of 18 months ago, can call Springfield home.
Brian Fitzsimmons is the award-winning author of Celtic Pride: How Coach Kevin Boyle Took St. Patrick to the Top of High School Basketball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FitzWriter