Wednesday, August 18, 2010
The 1988-’89 St. Anthony (N.J.) Friars can legitimately lay claim to being one of the greatest high school teams of all time.
A cogent argument can be made for any of the Baltimore Dunbar Poets teams that went undefeated from 1981-’83 and, at various times, featured future NBA players Mugsey Bogues, Reggie Williams, David Wingate and Reggie Lewis. LeBron James’ teams at Ohio’s St. Vincent/St. Mary have gotten a fair amount of hype recently as well.
But the reason St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley Sr. can now call himself a Hall of Famer is that his teams are always tough defensively and highly disciplined on offense, with the ’88-’89 team best personifying his philosophies. Hurley’s teams also boast big names, and these Friars had Bobby Hurley, Terry Dehere, Jerry Walker and freshman big man Rodrick Rhodes.
That team was at the vanguard of the explosion in popularity of high school basketball. The Friars played a national schedule, flying to big tournaments from coast to coast. This is commonplace for powerhouse teams now, but it was rather revolutionary at the time. Hurley and other elite coaches drew criticism for what some deemed the “professionalization” of amateur athletics. But it is hard to argue with a loaded team like St. Anthony that needed to seek out the best competition available. What is the point of sticking around New Jersey and beating vastly inferior teams by 40 points every game?
The Friars also got national publicity. They even had a game televised by ESPN: a 64-45 victory over Flint Hill (Va.) in the championship game of the King Cotton Classic on Dec. 29, 1988, in Pine Bluff, Ark.
The tournament was one of the biggest for top-shelf prep teams, along with the Big Time in Las Vegas and the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C. ESPN’s first televised regular-season high school game was the 1987 King Cotton title game.
A year later, the nation had the chance to see how far prep hoops had come. St. Anthony’s opponent, Flint Hill, epitomized the new order. The prep school had taken its cues from another Virginia institution, Oak Hill Academy, in piecing together teams of all-stars.
Whereas St. Anthony largely took players from its area (granted it is a very fertile vineyard for the game), Oak Hill had set the standard of bringing in blue-chip recruits from anywhere, which in turn brought prestige and money to the school. This set the stage for the cash grab of the bloated 1990s, when fly-by-night schools cropped up across the U.S.
Flint Hill didn’t yet have that national reach, but it had struck gold by mining players from the Washington, D.C., area. The 1988-’89 team was anchored by senior forward George Lynch and junior guard Randolph Childress, both future ACC stars, and was widely seen as the No. 2 team in the country after St. Anthony.
So the nationally televised matchup was highly anticipated. It didn’t take long for St. Anthony to show that it was on a different level than Flint Hill. The Friars’ swarming help defense held Lynch scoreless in the first half, and the future stalwart defender was repeatedly torched by Walker (19 points and nine rebounds.)
Childress had just as much trouble with the younger Hurley, whose heady game was already fully formed. Hurley, as he always would, looked like a player that wouldn’t be out of place on a JV team. But he was the fearless leader of this team, and by the time he came out of the game late in the fourth quarter, he had 24 points, four rebounds and four assists. True to the breed of coach’s sons, Hurley rarely made bad decisions with the ball. Childress and Lynch combined for only 14 points. In fact, Flint Hill’s best prospect looked like future Villanova player Aaron Bain.
St. Anthony easily passed its biggest test of the young season. The Friars would run the table, finishing 32-0 and claiming that mythical national championship. The best prep team ever? Impossible to say, of course, but you certainly can’t go wrong by backing the 1988-’89 St. Anthony Friars.