When it was all over, Jack Curran had definitely picked the wrong night to avoid shaking hands.
Sometime after 7:00 pm last Friday, the future of Archbishop Molloy Boys Basketball – a JV squad that had just trounced visiting Monsignor Scanlan by more than 50 points – stepped off the court and formed a gauntlet outside the locker room to help usher in its history, or at least the personal embodiment of it these past fifty years, Coach Jack Curran and the Varsity basketball team.
As his team commenced warm-ups, Curran went immediately to his customary perch on the bench. But as is befitting a man of such humility, he would brook no discussion of the monumental achievement that lay just an hour or so away – his 900th victory as a coach – he simply wanted to watch Scanlan warm up so as to get a read on them.
“I don’t know how this team is,” said Curran, without averting his gaze from the hardwood. “We never played them before. They look pretty athletic. Ah, you never can tell from warm-ups,” he said, turning away. And Curran should know. He’s seen nearly two thousand of ‘em.
Pre-game well-wishers came his way from all quarters of the gymnasium that bears his name, each one extending a hand for a salutatory handshake, but Curran folded his own hands under his armpits again and again. “I have a bad cold,” he proclaimed to all within earshot. (It should be pointed out that while most in his situation would attribute the behavior to not wanting to be the recipient of any further pathogens – in Curran’s case, it was that he didn’t want to pass his own onto anyone else! Which tells you just about everything you need to know about the man’s selfless nature.)
Sit in the stands behind Curran during a Molloy game and you can almost imagine the years melting away as the game wears on. His demeanor seems unchanged as he constantly chides the referees, and exhorts his young team to avoid complacency, and – dammit! – to hustle out there. Makes no difference whether it’s Kenny Anderson on the court – or Kenny Smith – or even Stanner of the moment, Russ Smith. “Walk! Walk!” shouts Curran at one referee. “You gotta front him!” he yells to his big man. “Back! Back! Get baaaaack!” “Walk! Oh, my God – come on, he fell down with the ball!” The same things he’s been yelling for years.
Much to their credit, the Stanners definitely rose to the occasion on Curran’s historic night. Despite the best efforts of Crusaders Brandon Hill (17 points) and Anthony Lomedico (11 points), Molloy had pretty much put this game away by half-time. Ernest Rouse led all scorers with 21 points, while Ryan Dillon had an uncharacteristically hot hand from the perimeter, dropping 17 points on the night. “He was in the zone!” said a surprised Curran afterwards. Lebrandon Smith had 17 points, as well – and a noteworthy 14 rebounds. But perhaps most impressive about the contest was the manner with which phenomenal Stanner point guard Russ Smith (16 points) involved his teammates during this game, with a dazzling array of pump fakes, no-look passes, etc., certainly a solid indicator of future Stanner success this season. One side-benefit of the lop-sided rout – 93-53 Molloy when all was said and done – all Stanners who were eligible to play made it into the scorebook for Curran’s historic milestone.
While Curran was quick to pronounce, “I get enough attention – it should really be about the kids,” Smith was asked afterwards if the players had felt any special kind of responsibility, given what was at stake for their coach. “This was his night, most definitely.” One of the CHSAA’s most prodigious scorers, Smith seems finally to have arrived at a more well-rounded approach to the game, a far cry from the me-first scorer who first made a splash as a sophomore. Not only that, he seems to communicate with Curran far better than in previous seasons, and seems also to have come to a different level of appreciation of his time with him. “Do I appreciate it? Yes, definitely. Every second. Every tenth of a second. You just step into his office and there’s all this tradition and all this history. It’s definitely some good fortune of mine that he’s my coach.”
As Curran bid his team adieu in the post-game locker room, the Molloy alumni on hand, members of the coaching fraternity et. al. who’d long ago come to learn what Smith is now finally beginning to appreciate, began to gather in his office to offer their congratulations.
Fifth-year St. John’s men’s basketball coach Norm Roberts – and at one time Curran’s freshman hoops coach – was among the first to do so. “The kids may have changed,” Roberts pointed out, “but he hasn’t changed. He’s a constant teacher. It’s the way he communicates.”
Jim Sheldon, part of the loyal Molloy crew entrusted with the coordination of special events at the school – and one of its most popular teachers, as well – couldn’t have been prouder of what had just transpired. “It’s great for the school, are you kidding? It’s great for the kids – and not just the athletes, either. No other school in New York can claim this. Not even close.” Enthusiasm that’s highly understandable when you consider the source – a 1988 alum, Sheldon witnessed the Archbishop Molloy hoops heyday firsthand. In fact, other than Curran, you might be hard-pressed to find a more true blue Stanner.
As this convocation of coaches subsequently headed out to one of Curran’s favorite eateries – Briarwood’s ALBA, on Queens Boulevard – Athletic Director Mike McCleary was asked to reflect on what seemed to be Curran’s favorite aspect of so many milestones, so many celebratory occasions. It certainly wasn’t the trophies, the speeches – that just isn’t Curran’s style. Was it perhaps the reunions?
“The reunions? Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely,” said McCleary with a smile.
And moments later, as just such a reunion raised a glass to Curran – a reunion made up of some of his favorite people, people named Shannon and Rodgers and DeSarno and Sheldon and Leary and Martinson – it was McCleary who offered the evening’s first toast, “Coach, to your first 900 wins!” A gesture which immediately elicited a wry smile (or should we say, a Rye smile) from the venerable Irishman.
“Coach, do you remember your first win?” “St. Helen’s,” replied Curran, with instant recall. Ironic and fitting in that St. Helen’s ultimately became Monsignor Scanlan, the team Curran’s team had just beaten. Victory No. 1 bookending Victory 900.
And as glass after glass was raised, and reminiscence after reminiscence resurrected, it became abundantly clear as to what exactly was going on here on Queens Boulevard on this particular Friday evening. Because Archbishop Molloy, you see, is more than just an institution – it’s actually more like a family, with Curran its much-revered and much-beloved pater familias. And whether we played for him or not, whether we attended Molloy or not, we could all of us learn a thing or two from a man like Jack Curran. Because as Friday evening gradually became Friday night and then some, it became pretty darn clear that what Jack Curran has been quietly collecting these 51 years or so, what Jack Curran has prized most in his life, are not trophies, or plaques, or even wins, but rather, two things far more important in the grand scheme of things: some incredible memories… and some even more incredible friends.