When reading Adrian Wojnarowski’s The Miracle of St. Anthony, one thought kept going through my head: ‘I’ve read this before.’
Though I never actually had read the book, I had read tales similar to it. The stories behind A Season on the Brink and Friday Night Lights make this one so familiar.
The concept of beat-writer books began somewhere around the 1990s and was defined by Buzz Bissinger’s aforementioned Friday Night Lights. To write the book, Bissinger spent a year with the team. But the author wanted to dig deeper, to somehow create a greater social impact. These beat-writer books were likened to sociological case studies, as sports have a unique ability to generate a feel of community.
Like every good idea, this one was quickly duplicated. Numerous writers used it as a near-instant way to get a best seller. This isn’t to say that it’s bad journalism; it’s actually far from it.
But it seems that every sportswriter is asking the same question: “Where can I find a poor town and a successful high school sports team?” Which is how I got to Wojnarowski’s The Miracle of St. Anthony.
One of St. Anthony’s main characters is Bobby Hurley, who most sports fans would remember as the point guard who played at Duke in the early 1990s with future NBA players Grant Hill and Christian Laettner. Yet, many sports fanatics cannot recall Hurley’s father, Bob, who coached the St. Anthony Friars of Jersey City, N.J.
Under the senior Hurley, St. Anthony’s, a school that had to fund raise every year just to come up with its operating costs (and often fell short) had won a mind-blowing 24 New Jersey Class B Parochial state championships.
His players were routinely outmatched physically, but somehow seemed to epitomize the idea of team play. Shutting down an opposing team’s most talented player became almost regular. Current NBA players DaJuan Wagner and Tim Thomas were two of St. Anthony’s more famed victims. The secret of the Friars’ success had to do with Hurley, whose belief in a system of winning games with defense and team play led to so many state titles.
The far greater miracle of St. Anthony’s – the one the book does not properly allude to and falls short in discussing – is the dedication everyone must endure to keep this small school running. Mainly there are two nuns who act in every role at the school, operating as St. Anthony’s principals and athletic directors. One of the two strong women does this, despite having suffered from two different forms of cancer.
Somewhere hidden within St. Anthony’s is a great story that should be told. Unfortunately it goes untold and unwritten.
Instead Wojnarowski goes the tried and true route by profiling players, their families and Hurley’s son.
The author spends far too much time making Hurley come across to his readers like former Indiana Hoosiers coach Bobby Knight, who was featured in Wojnarowski’s previous book Brink. Wojnarowski never sees the bigger picture, just a number of smaller, less significant pictures.
The Best American Sports Writing series has gotten to a point where it annually publishes the works of authors who write stories on programs that defeat unprecedented odds. Ultimately, the coach gives himself to the program to win the larger prize.
Wojnarowski’s St. Anthony’s would have been a great story for a 12- to 15-page profile. But as a 350-plus-page book, it strongly borders on the redundant and boring.