For such a small state, New Jersey has a lot of division within its borders.
North Jersey or South Jersey? Springsteen or Bon Jovi? Taylor Ham or Pork Roll?
Regardless of where you stand on those trivial issues or what exit of the parkway you grew up near, there is one thing that is undisputed in Jersey: some of the most dominant basketball players, programs and coaches in the country are produced in the Garden State.
And man oh man have some amazing ballers come out of Jersey. There’s Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith and Karl-Anthony Towns just to name a few, and that’s only a few.
Superstars from the Garden State usually come out of major private Roman Catholic schools like St. Benedicts, St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s, where Smith, Irving and Towns attended respectively.
Five New Jersey high schools are ranked in MaxPreps 2018-19 preseason Top 100 high school basketball teams. Six New Jersey high schoolers are ranked in ESPN’s Top 100 2019 recruits. Three are in the top 20 including Roselle Catholic High School’s superstar Kahlil Whitney, who sits at No. 9.
But the state that’s producing some of the best athletes in the nation sits just west of Manhattan. About 4 miles, if we want to get specific.
So why is New Jersey’s high school hoops some of the best in the nation when the state is hiding under the shadow of the deafening New York City skyline?
“Because the population is so dense in the Newark and Central part of New Jersey, there are an awful lot of people, a lot of small cities and in cities basketball has a big place,” said Bob Hurley, head coach of 30-time New Jersey State Champion St. Anthony High School in Jersey City.
New Jersey is the most densely populated state with 1,210 people per square mile, according to World Atlas. The sheer numbers alone allow for talent to emerge.
Yes, the state is heavily populated, anyone driving the Garden State Parkway leaving Manhattan at 5 p.m. on a weekday could tell you that. But there is something more. Hurley didn’t win 30 state championships just due to the state’s density.
“I think when we started going into New York City in the 1980s, and started playing at the start of our schedule, we started going to the city and playing the best teams we could play,” said Hurley. “We kind of realized right away that it was a fairy tale about their success, that our better teams in New Jersey could hang with anybody over in New York City which is usually a pretty good litmus test for success.”
The motivation to earn the respect they deserved was huge for schools like St. Anthony’s, now closed, which sat right next to the Holland Tunnel.
“We were in the shadow of New York City for a very long time,” said Hurley.
Once Hurley brought St. Anthony’s out from underneath that shadow, he won nine-straight state championships from 1983-1991, a national record to this day.
In 1989, the state began the Tournament of Champions. The contest consisted of the state champs of each group or conference. This forced schools, big and small, to start competing for the recognition and title as the best team in the state. Players needed to step up their game if they wanted a chance to get a roster spot due to the massive competition.
“Because there is so much competition, there’s a lot of good players competing just to become acknowledged,” Hurley said. “There are 21 counties here. To make your county team, you have to be a pretty good player.”
Hurley coached two players who have gone on to coach at the college level. Those two players are his sons, Dan and Bobby.
DNA doesn’t hurt as both sons are now successful coaches in the world of college basketball.
Bobby had a successful college playing career at Duke University and now is the head coach at Arizona State University. Dan Hurley kept his Jersey roots close as he played basketball at Seton Hall University, coached at the University of Rhode Island for six years and now is the University of Connecticut’s head coach. He began his head coaching career at St. Benedict’s Preparatory High School, making it one of the state and nation’s top basketball schools. Though he never had the chance to play his coaching legend father, they spent time exchanging notes and scouting reports.
Dan attributes his father for laying out the groundwork for almost all New Jersey’s high school basketball success.
“He set the standard of what a successful program should be, a program that others have tried to emulate,” he said. “An awful lot of coaches have learned from his camps and clinics and brought those lessons back to their programs.”
One man that also continues a legacy of excellence is Robert Kennedy, president of Hoop Group, a company that holds basketball camps and hosts tournaments for high school and AAU players all over the state and country.
“High school basketball in NJ has been as good as any place in the country, especially over the last 30 years,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy has watched Hoop Group grow from a basketball summer camp started by his father Bob Kennedy in 1963, to a company that hosts some of the biggest college recruiting AAU tournaments in the country.
But above everything, Kennedy said it’s the coaches like Bob Hurley, Bob Farrell and Kevin Boyle who make New Jersey one of the best high school basketball states.
“Those guys are some of the best teachers of the game basketball ever all concentrated up in this small, little, populated state,” said Kennedy.
But it isn’t just high schools in New Jersey that take all of the success.
Seton Hall is a small Roman Catholic school with an enrollment just under 6,000 and a reputation of electric basketball. The Pirates went all the way to the Big East Conference Tournament Final last season even though they were picked to finish ninth in the league.
The reason? A kid from Trenton named Myles Powell.
Powell had one of the most outstanding performances of the 2018-19 basketball season. He averaged 23.1 points per game and shot better than 36 percent from the three-point line.
He connects his success on the court to the grit that comes with being from Jersey.
“They call it dirty Jersey,” said Powell. “If you look at all the Jersey kids playing in college basketball now, the one thing they say about us is that we’re rednosed kids.”
Jersey kids go hard on the court, diving for out of bound balls and making extra plays, said Powell.
Across the board, people involved with New Jersey basketball will attribute a toughness to the way coaches coach and athletes play.
“There’s definitely a toughness and a grittiness to New Jersey basketball, and I think that’s part of the fabric of New Jersey,” said Kennedy. “You’ve got to fight for what you get in New Jersey, whether if it’s space on the Garden State Parkway, or the New Jersey Turnpike or the basketball court.”
A lot of the fighting that came on the court was on the streets between kids from Jersey and kids from New York City. Kids from New Jersey needed an attitude to keep up with the New York kids on the streets, said Powell.
“I just feel like we have a little bit more swag to us,” Powell said. “Jersey basketball and New York basketball is just up and down fast paced, like let’s see who’s got game, who’s got moves. You’re going to bring out.”
New York is known for street basketball played on the blacktop courts that heat up in the summer, both in and on the asphalt, with guys showing off their moves.
It’s that motivation to compete with the New York kids that gives the Jersey kids their edge. Like most Jersey basketball kids, Powell is looking at the next level of competition: the NBA. Powell is going into his senior year at Seton Hall but hasn’t decided if he will declare for the draft or not. If he stays, he can lead the Pirates to the NCAA Tournament again and maybe even go on a run.
But no matter where he goes he has the skills and that New Jersey attitude that to show who’s boss.
Jersey hoops stands alone and isn’t New York’s little brother anymore.