End of a Queens empire: The sun sets on Jack Curran’s era of disciplined basketball dominance at Archbishop Molloy

Coach Curran with one of his teams. (molloyhs.org)
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On the night of February 29, the Archbishop Molloy Stanners varsity basketball team, and its 81-year old coach, Jack Curran, made a narrow escape.

Their 65-59 victory over St. Peter’s in the second round of the Catholic High School Athletic Association AA playoffs wasn’t as easy as it should have been. Molloy, the traditional basketball powerhouse from Queens, raced out to a 10-point lead after the first quarter and a 12-point lead at the half. But St. Peter’s, a physically overmatched team from Staten Island, whittled the lead down by creating good looks with their well-designed ball movement and knocking enough shots down. With two minutes left, Molloy’s lead was only three points.

Kids these days. Curran cares about these kids, he even loves these kids. But God, this new generation— which, if you ask Curran, goes back 20 years or so. They get too comfortable too quickly. They’re complacent. Failure is too palatable because there’s always a handy excuse.

“They’re into making excuses for themselves because they wanna think they’re perfect,” Curran told me before the playoffs began.

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“Dr. Spock started that. Parents telling kids that if they throw a brick through a window, that’s OK, because they’ll get a new window. You need to let your emotions out, you know?”

But Molloy had one run left in it. George Davis, a muscular, explosive senior guard who had been blowing past the string-bean teenagers guarding him throughout his 19-point night, sealed the win with two determined drives and nifty finishes.

The teams lined up to shake hands. Players on both sides gave each other absent, open-hand slaps, with maybe a pound-hug or two mixed in. Curran gave each St. Peter’s player a solid grip and a single pump.

For the second straight playoff game, Molloy had taken care of business against a team over which it had a decided advantage in terms of size and speed (these things are easy to spot in high school sports). But their opponent in the quarterfinals, Holy Cross, would be one of the best teams in the city. In the regular season, Molloy was a middling 6-6; Holy Cross was 11-2.

In terms of bang for your buck, high-level New York City high school basketball makes for some of the best sports action around. It also takes some getting used to at first. If, like most New Yorkers, your standard is N.B.A. games on television, the kids look small initially, and it seems strange that there’s a cult of people that take a bunch of kids playing basketball so seriously.

But these particular kids are great at what they do. To be a starter on a team in this league—which people have long said is the most competitive league in the country, although most acknowledge that it has slipped markedly in the past 15 years or so— is to have passed through a series of weeding-out processes in this most competitive sport in the world. From the playground to C.Y.O., from C.Y.O. to A.A.U., to being one of the lucky, talented few to get through tryouts. The best of these Catholic league players play major college basketball, often for Big East or ACC or Big Ten schools. And the best of those play in the N.B.A.

They’re kids, yes, but they’re also select athletes who are better at basketball than most people are at what they do. The fast-paced up-and-down style of basketball that they play, replete with emotion-driven momentum swings only non-pros are susceptible to, makes these games arguably more entertaining than any N.B.A. game. All that for $5 and a hand-stamp.

Curran and his team walked off the court and into the locker room. He is 6-foot-2, strikingly tall for a man his age. A physical education teacher until he gave that up several years ago, he has the ginger, stiff-legged walk of a man who has been on his feet for more hours than all but a few people still living. But visible within that walk it is the smooth, capable swagger of the minor league ballplayer he once was.

He grew up in the then-Irish enclave of Kingsbridge, in the Bronx, and was a three-sport star at All Hallows High School before playing basketball and baseball at St. John’s University. He pitched for three years in the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies farm systems before a back injury forced him to call it quits.

He was selling building materials in Western Massachusetts when he saw an item in the paper that Lou Carnesecca, then the Archbishop Molloy coach, had just been hired to coach St. John’s University. Carnesecca became one of college basketball’s legendary coaches before retiring in 1992. Curran snagged Carnesecca’s old job, became a legend himself, and never left.

He didn’t leave Archbishop Molloy when Boston College called him and offered him the coaching job in 1969 to succeed Celtics star Bob Cousy. (This forced the school to hire its second choice, the late Hall of Famer Chuck Daly.) He didn’t leave several years after that when the University of Texas called and wanted him to interview— “I’m not going to Texas!” he remembered saying, as if someone had offered him a job in Siberia. He hasn’t left in recent years despite three bouts of skin cancer and the insertion of a pacemaker. And he didn't quit this year, despite suffering from pneumonia, and undergoing thrice-weekly dialysis for his kidney failure, ailments that have caused him to miss four games in a season after missing only three in his first 53.

CURRAN AND I SAT IN THE ARCHBISHOP MOLLOY TEACHERS’ CAFETERIA.

The cramped room, the picked-over cold-cut station, the vinegary pasta salads—all of it was illustrative of the disconnect between the living legend described by local basketball buffs and the uncomplicated school employee Curran considers himself to be.

He gave up the P.E. teaching 12 years ago, but he’s still the basketball coach (seven city championships) and baseball coach (17). From both programs, he has sent 500 students to college on athletic scholarships.

I asked Curran—who lives alone in Rye, and never married—why he never took those major Division I jobs, and the high profiles and high salaries that go along with them.

“When I see those guys, the way they work, the recruiting, I wouldn’t want the millions,” he said. “Horrible job. I don’t know how in the world they do it.”

The son of a city cop, Curran has an abrupt, no-nonsense tone.

“I think they’re more basketball guys where that’s all they live for,” he said. “I’m not so much that way. I’m more interested in people. I like working with kids this age. You have more effect on them than you do at other ages. At least I hope so.”

He talked about this without any apparent sentimentality, which is how he seems to talk about everything.

Curran apparently formed his views on coaching before it became modish for coaches to style themselves as gurus or strategic geniuses or a motivational masters. For him, it’s about teaching kids the right way to play, and maybe through that, teaching them the right way to be. You do the right thing because it’s just what you do, and it’s what you do because it’s the right thing.

This “Catholic gentleman,” as his former player John Carrey (who now coaches against him at All Hallows) described him, rises for 6:45 mass every morning.

“'Cause it keeps you regular,” Curran said. “Start with the most important thing first. Saying your prayers, being thankful for everything.”

Showing up at 6:45 every morning isn’t easy, but it’s simple. It takes discipline but isn’t reinventing the wheel. This describes Curran’s coaching style as well: He breaks down a helter-skelter, dizzying game into manageable components. The challenge wasn’t in knowing what the right thing to do was, but in consistently doing the right thing.

“To me, it was always that he had such an absolute, unbelievable knowledge of his subject," said John Thurston, a former basketball and baseball player at Molloy who is now an assistant women’s coach at St. Francis College. "The teaching was always crystal clear. He could break down any aspect of the game to its most minute forms.”

“So by the time the game came along, you felt you were prepared for the game. There wasn’t any big pre-game speeches or rabble rousing. It’s just an understated expectation of excellence. His whole thing was, ‘As long as you’re here, you might as well win.’”

IN THE 1950s, MORE THAN 60 YEARS AFTER the Marist Brothers founded the St. Anne’s school in Manhattan, enrollment was skyrocketing, with the grandchildren of the wave of Catholic immigrants that came to New York in the late 19th Century. The school building was bursting at the seams.

Because most of the student body was now coming from white ethnic enclaves in Queens, Archbishop Thomas Edmund Molloy of the Brooklyn-Queens Diocese stepped in, and offered up, for $1, a six-acre plot of land that the diocese owned.

The new campus, in what’s now technically called Briarwood, but which you can call Jamaica without getting an argument from anyone but real-estate agents, opened in 1957. It was immediately renamed Archbishop Molloy High School, although the athletic teams kept the name “Stanners,” for “St. Ann-ers.”

Curran became the basketball and baseball coach the next year, and went 22-4 in his first basketball season. Since then, the school's identity has become inextricably tied to his. In addition to the scholarships he’s procured, he sent six players to the N.B.A. and spawned an extensive coaching tree.

Curran's run has been punctuated by stretches of utter dominance. From 1966 to 1970, a four-year stretch during which the team boasted Thurston, future A.B.A. player Kevin Joyce and future George Mason University coach Jim Larranega for all or parts of the run, Molloy went 89-6. Then, beginning in 1985, when a kid from LeFrak City named Kenny Anderson followed in the footsteps of his neighbor, Kenny Smith, who played at Molloy several years earlier, the Stanners went 96-13 over a four-year period.

Curran's teams were known for their relentless pressure defense that wouldn’t allow the opposition to get the ball across halfcourt, let alone set up their offense. They would storm off to huge leads, compelling Curran to put his reserves in the game. The reserves would extend these leads even further, which earned Curran the reputation among some coaches for running up the score.

He never paid it much mind. He was fond of a remark that Carnesecca made to Jim Calhoun, who, while in his first year as the University of Connecticut coach, took Carnesecca to task for running up the score.

“Hey Irish,” Carnesecca told the Big East newcomer. “You can only coach one team.”

But recent years haven’t been as kind. In the past seven seasons since 2005, Molloy has gone 93-80, including this year’s solid but unspectacular 16-12. Part of this is just luck of the draw: One or two better players, an injury here or there or a few close wins could have made all the difference. But part of it reflects profound changes in both Catholic schools and youth basketball.

Declining enrollment across urban Catholic schools in the past several decades is news to nobody. There are many reasons for this, like the continued suburbanization of the mostly white, middle-class parents who used to send their kids to these schools, declining church membership in general, and the decline of the church’s finances.

Many Catholic league schools responded to this by dropping admissions standards, thus giving them a wider pool from which to pick basketball players. But Molloy's reaction to reduced demand for Catholic schools was to double down as an academic institution. Twelve years ago, the school started admitting girls, partly as an acknowledgement of the changing times, and partly to keep enrollment and academic standards afloat. There are now approximately 2,000 applications for 400 9th grade spots.

Over the past 15 or so years, the admissions department hasn’t bent from its strict standards. Curran doesn't find this to be a good thing, particularly.

“They have no connection to what’s happened in this school in the last 50 years at all,” he said.

This stance has put Molloy at a disadvantage, in basketball terms, to schools like Bishop Loughlin, Holy Cross, and Mt. St. Michael, where the coaches are the admissions directors.

“I don’t think any of them will take just anybody, but they’ll give kids a chance, let’s put it that way,” said Curran, who insisted the Molloy athletic department has “no control over who gets in the building.”

And although both recruiting and athletic scholarships are banned by the Catholic league, strings are pulled, and noncompliance with this rule is basically never punished.

“Technically, as a coach in this league, you can’t ‘recruit,’ and promise kids [scholarships] or whatever may be, all that stuff,” said Carrey, of All Hallows. “But sometimes things are not black or white. There’s a huge gray area. You figure things out.”

Mike McCleary, Molloy’s athletic director and an assistant basketball coach, said, “Every principal and every president is allowed to give out need-based scholarships as they deem fit. For me to comment on how other people do their business is wrong.”

From the outside, Molloy’s strict adherence to its academic standards appears like another instance of Curran’s unwavering old-school morality. But it’s more complicated than that: Curran actually talks these days about “the academic elitist attitude of the school.”

“The faculty here is like one of these quasi-liberal—or they all think they’re liberals," he said. "But when it comes down to helping a kid like that, they don’t want to give them a chance. I think the school should be doing more for minorities, because we’re in a minority neighborhood."

Another thing that has curbed Molloy’s success on the court is Curran’s disinterest in participating in the sleazy underworld that, in the last two decades, has wrested control of youth basketball from the hands of high school coaches and put it into the hands of Amateur Athletic Union, or A.A.U., basketball teams.

During Curran’s heyday, players wanted to play for him because he was Jack Curran, the high school coach with the best connections to college coaches. Every summer, Curran runs both a basketball and baseball camp. Prospective players were eager to get into this camp to put themselves before his eyes, and Curran would pretty much have his pick. But the rise of year-round travel teams has diminished the once-singular importance of the high school coach. And apparel-company-underwritten tournaments have created a climate in which, as Curran put it, “You get these A.A.U. guys peddling kids to schools. But I don’t get involved with that.”

Perhaps this is because the seedy scene is beneath him, perhaps it’s because he’s 81 years old. Either way, Curran and his staff aren’t out on playgrounds scouting junior-high kids, or schmoozing at A.A.U. games and tournaments. He’s also reluctant to pull his team out of school for travel tournaments, an increasingly common practice in top-level high school sports.

While Curran’s Molloy teams were the prototypical Catholic league juggernaut of an earlier time, the contemporary model was best illustrated by the Rice Raiders, who were perennially at or near the top of the league until the school closed after last year because of declining enrollment and lack of funds. Rice’s coach, Maurice Hicks, was also the coach of the New York Gauchos, the most well-known New York A.A.U. team. Gaucho players like Kemba Walker, last year’s NCAA Tournament Most Valuable Player, played during the winter for the Raiders, and for the rest of the year for the Gauchos. Hicks is now on staff at St. John’s University, charged with reviving the fortunes of the program by helping them recruit the best New York City kids.

“I always say, I do what I do, and they do what they do,” said Curran. “And if we don’t like it, we should get out of the league. But we like to compete against the better kids anyway, so our kids can see where they stand, and don’t get a false impression of how good they are. And I’ve adjusted to that. I’m here to coach kids, not to win games.”

The best-known example of Curran putting this mantra into practice was when he benched Kenny Anderson during the first-quarter of every game during his freshman year, even though Anderson was already the best player on the team by far.

“He had a senior he wanted to get some exposure, and he wanted me to know that I had to earn it,” said Anderson, who played 14 years in the N.B.A. and is now a coach at a Jewish high school in South Florida.