End of a Queens empire: The sun sets on Jack Curran’s era of disciplined basketball dominance at Archbishop Molloy
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.
“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.
There’s also the matter of the way Curran relates to his players. In a sports scene crawling with sycophants who exploit the overheated dreams of impoverished youth and their families by telling them what they want to hear, Curran tells it like it is.
Said Thurston, “He cares about kids, and for their own good, he’s gonna tell you, ‘You’re not that good.' Whereas these people tell them, ‘You’re gonna play in the N.B.A.’”
That sounds great in the abstract, and is fine by some parents. But it doesn't always suit families in poor economic circumstances who believe their future is staked to their child's basketball prospects.
“Who’s playing in that Nike tournament, who’s playing in South Carolina, what sneaker company are they aligned with?" one referee of top-flight city high school games told me. "That’s what the parent of the 7th and 8th grade kid is thinking."
“Curran’s not on that scene, and neither is anyone in the building," the referee said. "If you’re that parent with a kid playing travel ball when he’s ten years old, you’re not going to Molloy, where they’re gonna kill you academically. You’re taking the path of least resistance.”
TOM KONCHALSKI, A COURTLY AND WELL-KNOWN LOCAL SCOUT who can be seen in the stands clutching a yellow pad at seemingly every important local high school game, told me that Molloy has overachieved considerably this year.
Unlike some Catholic teams brimming with players bound for Big East schools, there are probably only two or three Division I caliber players on Molloy’s roster, most of which is comprised of students from around Queens: Glendale, Jamaica, Laurelton, Astoria, St. Albans.
Their best prospect is sophomore, C.J. Davis, a savvy guard from Far Rockaway whose athleticism is somewhat obscured by the smooth, economical way he moves around the court.
But on the whole, when matched up against the better teams in the league, Molloy’s roster is undersized, and comprised of useful but flawed players. George Davis—he of the 19 points against St. Peter’s—has a Division I body and quickness, but lacks a commensurate feel for the game. Brian Kruger, a pure shooter with infinite range on three-pointers, is probably one of the slowest players on the team. Morrell Gaskins, a graceful senior forward who Curran said has improved markedly from last year to this year, doesn’t yet have the assertiveness to match his talent.
Because of this, Curran has mixed and matched his rotation this year, with each game a search for the proper alchemy.
“He’s adaptive,” said Konchalski. “He doesn’t have a strict ‘style.’ He works with what he has.”
Bishop Loughlin, Molloy’s Clinton Hill-based opponent in the Catholic league’s Brooklyn-Queens Diocesan tournament, which determines seeding for the citywide Catholic league tournament, has more obvious strengths: They have three sophomores (although Curran is skeptical about their actual age) who are among the fastest and most explosive players in the league.
Loughlin struggled for much of the year after three of their best players transferred abruptly to public schools (a common and growing phenomenon in the Catholic league). Molloy and Loughlin split their regular season games, but this game looked like a physical mismatch early on, as Loughlin overwhelmed Molloy with quickness and intensity.
Their dominance began with defense. Molloy tried to run its mechanical, screen-oriented offense, but Loughlin’s quick defenders would hustle around the screens and contest every shot. Molloy penetrators were swarmed and its passing lanes were cut off. As the cliché goes, Loughlin’s best offense was its defense: Steals, or long-rebounds of Molloy’s long-range heaves, were immediately converted into fast-break points culminating in the kind of elegant, above-the-rim finishes that underscore the fact that these aren’t just any kids playing basketball. Molloy made a run to cut the lead within 2, but Loughlin cruised the rest of the way to a 61- 51 victory.
Molloy's loss was ultimately inconsequential—the city playoffs is the big prize—and the next day in practice, during President’s Day vacation, Curran's players had already shrugged it off.
“They’re kinda resilient that way," Curran said. "You couldn’t tell whether they won or lost. And that’s good and bad. Sometimes you’d like to see them be a little more upset. But they recover faster than the coaches."
Had he laid into his team after the game?
“No, I don’t do that anymore. Years ago, when I was younger, I was a little more intense. Right now, I don’t have the energy for that.”
THE LOSS MEANT THAT MOLLOY, A MIDDLE-OF-THE-PACK team, did not get a bye in the playoffs. Their first-round game was against a Fordham prep team that finished at the bottom of the league, with a 1-12 record.
Molloy is not an imposing team, size-wise, but compared to a Fordham team that is probably the smallest and least athletic in the league, they looked like one. Still, they were disjointed early on. On offense, they were unable to figure out Fordham’s zone defense, and the resulting desperation led to kamikazee drives into a mass of defenders, or contested heaves. On defense, they had a hard time with Fordham’s Princeton offense, which compensates for the deficiencies of individual players by relying on constant motion and choreographed cuts to the basket.
In the stands, some parents were getting restless.
I approached two fathers whose sons did not see regular playing time, and told them I was writing about Curran.
“You writing about retirement?” said one, nastily. “You writing about the AARP?”
“The game passed him by,” said the other. “He had his time, for a long time. But it passed him by.”
The sentiment was by no means unanimous. The mother of power forward Marco Kozul, who immigrated to the United States from Croatia when he was nine years old, said, “He’s a legend. What more is there to say?”
Another mother admitted that there’s some unrest with some parents about Curran.
“A lot of people are saying he’s getting too old, he should retire.”
And what did she think?
“When my son plays, he’s alright,” she said, half-joking.
Behind us, some students reacted strongly to the removal from the game of Chaz Walker, an energetic reserve guard who cuts a distinctive figure with his retro-style goggles.
“Why are you taking Chaz out?” one screamed. “God, can he coach?!”
I turned around and asked them if that was a common sentiment among students.
“Not really," the student said. "He still knows everything, knows everyone, knows the players, knows the plays.”
Another said, “Nicest guy. He says hi to you in the hallways even when he doesn’t know you.”
Yet another said, “He’s the man.”
Molloy eventually settled down, and their talent took over. In the second quarter, Kruger, the sharpshooter, swished three straight three-pointers in as many attempts, leading a run that enabled Molloy to take a 36-23 lead at the half. Curran inserted into the game sophomore Gabe Kilpatrick, who saw sparing playing time during the season but led the team with 18 points against Fordham.
With Molloy maintaining the lead throughout the second half, Fordham was eventually forced to foul. Mollloy made its free throws at an impressive clip, and nobody did so more impressively than C.J. Davis.
“C.J. hit 13 of 15 from the line!” Konchalski beamed to me after the game.
CATHOLIC GENTLEMAN OR NOT, 81-YEAR-OLD OR NOT, CURRAN'S SIDELINE demeanor is basically the same as that of any basketball coach: stressed and irritable, constantly showing his frustration with deviations from basketball perfection, whether by his players or the referees.
The difference is that while most coaches stalk the sidelines nervously during the games, Curran stays seated for all but a handful of moments. His legs are long, so his pants ride up his shins, revealing a stripe of skin between his socks and his pant cuffs.
Early in the second quarter during last week’s game against St. Peter’s, Curran was sitting in his customary spot when a Molloy defender was called for a foul. The ball, neglected by the players after the whistle, came bounding toward Curran. Partly to prevent the ball from hitting him in the face, and partly to register his disapproval of the call, Curran angrily swatted the ball back onto the court. The referee called a technical foul, and Curran’s reaction—an 81-year-old shrugging incredulously and pleading, “What did I do?"—was priceless.
“To maintain his level of enthusiasm and competitiveness for 54 years is really something special,” Konchalski told me. “For anyone who works at any job for 54 years, that’s commendable.”
A lot has happened in those 54 years, but basketball is still basketball, and kids are still kids. Curran might not like all the changes, but he’s adapted to them.
From the bench during games, Curran makes subtle adjustments, switching from man-to-man to a zone defense, or, like in the St. Peter's game, deciding that George Davis should play off the ball in order space out the floor, to make use of his quickness.
On March 4, Curran and his team went up to Fordham University in the Bronx to play against an athletically superior team from Holy Cross in the playoff quarterfinals. Molloy came out and executed, and by halftime they were up by 11 points. But in the end, the Holy Cross players were simply too quick, and too big. Coach Curran's team lost, 72-61.