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Jack Curran, the legendary basketball coach at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, rolled his 70-year-old eyes last week in response to several preseason national polls which have ranked his Stanners among the top dozen or so teams in the country.
"What are they looking at?" Curran wondered out loud. "Have they seen us play yet?"
Indeed, Molloy (2-1) did not look like a national powerhouse after a blowout loss to All Hallows in the first round of its own tournament, the Stanner Classic, a week and a half ago. But the old professor's team has won two straight since, including a 68-55 victory over a strong Amityville squad on Saturday, and he appears to have enough talented bodies in the lab to create a hardwood monster by the time the Catholic High School Athletic Association playoffs roll around in February.
Sophomore point guard Marlon Smith, whom many hoopologists are calling the second coming of Kenny (ex-Molloy/NBA stars Kenny Smith or Kenny Anderson, take your pick), hardnosed center Wendell Gibson, and slick senior shooting guard John Sikiriche had 22 points against Amityvilleare the three primary reasons why the Stanners have a chance to make some real noise this season.
Still, when the so-called experts start talking projections and rankings, Curran's hands go quickly and squarely over his ears. "All of these guys played well in various summer tournaments, so maybe people saw that and said, 'Wow, they're going to be real good this season,' but it doesn't work that way at this level," said Curran.
"Before the season started, our own coaches picked us to finish third or fourth in our own division," said Curran. "So to tell you we honestly think we have a chance to be better than that would be false advertising." Of course, Molloy's division includes St. Raymond's and Rice, two other nationally ranked high schools; St. Ray's as high as fourth in some polls.
While big things are expected from the 5-10 Smithwho had to sit out last season after transferring from Dwight Highhe is at the moment just a sophomore with a few organized games under his elastic drawstring belt, and still has lots to learn. "I saw Marlon play in his first game against All Hallows, and he really struggled," said St. Raymond's coach Gary DeCesare, whose team captured the CHSAA championship last season and is the popular choice to win it all again this year.
"There's a big problem with talented high school kids like Marlon playing in New York City," said DeCesare. "They're always trying to live up to the reputation someone else gave them before they actually started paying their dues on the basketball court.
"By the time he's a senior, Marlon is going to be a terrific player," DeCesare added. "But right now, people are putting a lot of pressure on him to perform at an expected level, and it's not really fair."
Fortunately for Smith, his coach is not one of those people. While Curran is aware of Smith's potential, he is not expecting immediate dividends and is not about to compare Smith to either Kenny. "Right now, Marlon's still learning about his teammates, still learning the backcourt position," said Curran. "In time, he'll develop into a very good point guard for us."
Gibson, a talented, 6-7, 271-pound senior who was averaging 16 points and 18 boards per game in the early going this season, has already developed into a great high school player. Still, the only Division I program to seriously recruit him was Hofstra, where he'll play next year.
By season's end, however, under the tutelage and guidance of the mild-mannered but no-nonsense Curran, there's no telling how good the tandem of Smith and Gibson, as well as the rest of their teammates, might become.
After all, this current group of Stanners are playing for a coach who has shaped and molded a number of their outstanding predecessors, including NBA players like Kevin Joyce, Tom Kearns, Robert Werdann, Brian Winters, and the two Kennys. "He makes good players even better and gets them ready for the next level," said DeCesare. "That's the mark of a great coach."
Which makes it fairly obvious that in addition to the talent on the Stanners' roster, Curran himself is another factor in why the pollsters might be so high on Molloy. He's the reason why St. Raymond's and every other team on the Stanners' schedule must play their A-game when Molloy comes calling.
"He's a legend and someone that I look up to," said DeCesare. "He's always prepared, always has a competitive team, and is probably the most feared coach you would ever want to meet in a playoff game."
Now in his 43rd season roaming the Stanners' sidelines, Curran is New York State's all-time-winningest coach, capturing six city hoop titles since taking the job in 1958.
A former right-handed pitcher in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization who turned to coaching after arm trouble forced him to hang up his spikes, Curran took over at Molloy after another well-known high school coach, Lou Carnesecca, left to become Frank McGuire's assistant at St. John's.
"We knew Jack would be a great coach," said Carnesecca, a lifelong friend. "But he's become more than a great coach, he's become one of the great treasures of New York City."
Curran, voted Coach of the Decade for 1980 to 1990 by local sportswriters, entered this season having amassed an eyebrow-raising 791 victories against 250 losses.
Named the CHSAA Coach of the Year 20 times throughout his amazing career, Curran and his Stanners once owned the extremely competitive Catholic league. During one dominant stretch, Molloy reeled off 51 consecutive victories in league play.
While Curran's name has been synonymous with hoops for five decades, he has fared even better as Molloy's baseball coach, chalking up over 1200 victories on the diamond en route to 15 city championships. On four different occasions, he won CHSAA city championships in both sports during the same year.
"No one in the country has his record in both sportsno one," said Carnesecca. "Those numbers are a tribute to Jack as a coach, a tribute to him as an excellent technician. He knows his sports, and he's very thorough and extremely dedicated."
Back in 1987, when Kenny Anderson was dribbling his way out of the Lefrak City projects in Queens, the young point guard huffed and puffed off the court after one of Molloy's long practices. With Curran's voice still ringing in his ears, Anderson caught his breath, and shared a little of the secret to his coach's success.
"Coach always stresses the negative," said Anderson. "When you make a great move, he tells you what you did wrong."
Throughout the years, Curran has been offered numerous coaching jobs at the collegiate level. The closest he came to leaving Molloy was in 1969, when former Boston Celtic great Bob Cousy left his head coaching post at Boston College. Curran was interviewed for the job and became BC's first choice.
"I thought about it," said Curran.
But the old professor decided to stay.
And the rest, of course, is New York City history.