Leslie Hurley didn’t know her husband before the accident, so she never saw the true happiness basketball gave him. She met Bobby Hurley a year after he was thrown from his vehicle in 1993, when he was still overcoming physical and emotional scars left over from his brush with death.
Hurley spent the better part of a decade searching for answers, searching for peace, after his five-year NBA career ended in 1998. He returned as a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers a few years later for one season, but it wasn’t the same. The former Duke star was burned out from basketball, disappointed in himself and frustrated with life.
He dabbled in private business for a while. He became involved in horse racing. But all along, Leslie and their three children knew he would eventually return to the game he loved since he could remember. He couldn’t be pushed or prodded. He needed to rediscover his passion by himself.
Finally, thankfully, he did.
“He just missed basketball,” Leslie Hurley said Saturday after UB played its best second half all season in a 78-55 win over Miami of Ohio at Alumni Arena. “There was a void when it wasn’t there. We all knew it. We just didn’t know how he would get back into it. It was just finding the right time and place.”
Who knew now would be the time and Buffalo would be the place?
Hurley has rediscovered a purpose in his life with coaching, which seemed inevitable even when he was playing. It was in his basketball IQ if not his DNA. In case you hadn’t heard, his father, Bob Sr., is a legendary high school coach. His younger brother, Danny, is coaching at the University of Rhode Island. Bobby served under him for three years.
Coaches are never really sure how things will work out until they have their own program. Hurley had the name and the game when UB hired him to replace Reggie Witherspoon after last season, but there were no guarantees that he would become a coaching success after taking over the Bulls.
UB won its fourth straight game Saturday and improved to 12-4 in the Mid-American Conference. The Bulls’ conference record matches the best in school history. They already have secured a share of the MAC East title. Now, they’re looking to finish second or higher overall, a fast track into the semifinals of the conference tourney.
Witherspoon’s firing didn’t go over well in the community. Some wonder if he would have had the same success Hurley has had with a roster that was mostly in place when Hurley arrived. But there’s no disputing that Hurley has done a terrific job. UB couldn’t have asked for a more seamless transition under a new coach.
Hurley hasn’t been this happy in about two decades. His family has certainly noticed the difference around the house. Winning helps, of course, but Hurley has found harmony in the daily grind that comes with coaching. Being around players, knowing he’s having a positive impact on them, has made him feel like a kid again.
“I feel like this is what I’m meant to do,” Hurley said. “I always was a player before it ended for me. It was the interactions, the relationships, seeing the guys day to day and getting out on the floor with them. It was all that stuff that you miss as a former player. I’m able to have some influence on the direction of their lives. I always had a ton of passion when I played, and I coach that way. The guys respond to me, so I feel blessed that I’m here and coaching this team.”
UB certainly responded against Miami after coming out flat and laboring through a sloppy first half. Hurley coaches with the same intensity he had as a player, which has filtered down to his team. He blistered his players during a timeout with about 4½ minutes left in the first half after Miami took off on a 13-0 run.
Moments later, Hurley picked up a technical foul after riding the officials throughout the half. Hurley argued afterward that he didn’t deserve the technical, but he should’ve taken credit. The Bulls scored eight straight points, regrouped during intermission and blew out the RedHawks in a near-flawless second half.
UB outscored Miami, 43-18, in the first 16-plus minutes and cruised through garbage time for another win. The Bulls had 14 assists and five turnovers in the second half, essentially reversing what happened in the first. Hurley didn’t look the part, but he had a blast while watching his team finish the game the way it did.
“Now that he’s doing this, he’s so much better than when he wasn’t coaching,” Leslie Hurley said. “Everything falls into line. It’s like he’s supposed to be here, this place and on the court. It’s where he’s most comfortable. When you watch him on the court, you can just tell. It’s second nature. It’s everything.”
Everything appears to be coming together. Josh Freelove, who transferred to UB mainly because Hurley was hired, was the hero Saturday after scoring 21 of his 24 points in the second half. The Bulls are beating teams in different ways with different players. They’re starting to expose zone defenses rather than succumb to them.
Last weekend, UB won at Kent State for the first time in school history. They had a big win over Ohio on Wednesday. They have two winnable games against Akron and Bowling Green to finish off the regular season. They have the making of a dangerous team going into the conference tournament.
And then, who knows?
If they can keep rolling and they continue improving, they’ll have an opportunity to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Hurley had the time of his life playing in the Big Dance and winning championships. The next-best thing for him would be coaching UB into one.
The daily chore is getting the right message across to his players. For years, he was haunted over how his career ended. All these years later, he still believes he could have done more and played better after the accident. He doesn’t want his players living with similar regrets. As he learned, it takes a long time to find peace.
“It ate at me big time, and it was hard for me to deal with that,” Hurley said. “You miss the game, deep down at your core. But seeing these guys where they started this year, and where they’re at now, it’s where the reward comes in. That’s what feels great. They’ve invested what they needed to invest and they’re getting tangible results.”