Familiar formula, compelling story

The Miracle of St. Anthony

Adrian Wojnarowski


Penguin/382 pages

You start with a team that's expected to do well but isn't so stocked that a championship is a given. You put it in a locale riven by racial and class distinctions. You follow it for a season. And you've got yourself a heck of a story.


Sports readers everywhere learned this in 1990, when Buzz Bissinger profiled Odessa, Texas, and its high school football obsession in his terrific book Friday Night Lights. A slew of imitators followed, some very good and some coasting on a foolproof formula.

When I picked up Adrian Wojnarowski's The Miracle of St. Anthony, I assumed it was another in the line. But this tale of a New Jersey basketball power, now available in paperback, is much better than that.

St. Anthony is a small, poorly funded school in Jersey City held together by three ferocious personalities: coach Bob Hurley Sr., who is the father of the former Duke star, and a pair of nuns named Sister Felicia and Sister Alan.

Hurley's team entered the 2003-04 season highly ranked because of the program's reputation. But it had no clear star and no clear leader. The coach considered his seniors one of the most disappointing classes in memory.

Wojnarowski presents a nuanced portrait of Hurley, who is neither a bully nor a soft touch, and the writer also nails the kids.

There's Sean McCurdy, who dominated in the Connecticut suburbs but moved to Jersey City with his outspoken mom so Hurley could toughen him up. There's Marcus Williams, the one-time prodigy who never quite fulfills what others saw in him. There's Lamar Alston, the senior who's booted off the team despite his sweet left-handed stroke and who tries to regain Hurley's trust.

You're never quite sure how the next game will turn out because the narrative really does depend on a band of erratic teenagers.

Friday Night Lights made you care about a team and a place that understood its feelings for football better than its feelings about race or education. The Miracle of St. Anthony is more about a few people who've given their lives to a mission, one that happens to be wrapped up in basketball. It's a superb read.