SALT LAKE CITY — Mitko Kurtev wishes he'd met a guy like Bob Hurley when he first started playing basketball in Bulgaria at age 5.
The Wasatch Academy junior helped the legendary Hall-of-Fame coach of St. Anthony's High School in New Jersey host a basketball clinic for students from Salt Lake's Guadalupe School at the Zions Bank Basketball Center Tuesday morning.
"He was very interesting and inspiring," said Kurtev. "It was a great experience. I wish someone had done something like for me when I was a kid."
It wasn't just that Hurley taught the youngsters, most in third grade, some basketball skills, he also talked to them about achievement off the court.
"This would have been very helpful to me," said Kurtev, who said basketball became his sanctuary as a child. "He told us to follow our dreams."
It is a message Hurley has been teaching for 40 years as one of the country's most successful high school coaches. He won the 2011 national championship after finishing second last year. In February, he became the 10th coach in high school history to win 1,000 games. Hurley came to Salt Lake City in hopes of raising awareness about the efforts of the Guadalupe School. After the clinic, he spoke at a fundraising luncheon.
"This is a younger version of St. Anthony High School," said the coach, who teaches his inner-city players the kind of discipline that allows them to succeed in college and life. "From 3- and 4-year-olds right up through parents who are learning to speak English. The social and educational programs they're running are going to be valuable components for the development of whole families, not just the kids going to school."
In four decades as a coach, Hurley has only had two student athletes not make it to college. His program is structured after another coaching legend, UCLA's John Wooden, and it's meant to give young men the best chance at success both on and off the court.
He makes the boys sign behavioral contracts that include restrictions on length of hair, jewelry and Facebook. He acknowledges that to some, the rules might seem harsh.
Hurley is hard-nosed, old-school and unapologetic in his approach to teaching the game.
"You have to get them there by making them do some difficult things," said Hurley. "There is no question when it is all said and done, they feel they were in their version of the Navy Seals or they want to basic training They look back on their experience, and they think they're in a special fraternity of people who worked harder than their peers."
Some of what he asks may seem silly, but in reality, he said, it's critical.
"But when they're doing it, because they are kids, they don't understand why they're doing it," he said. "In the end, they always understand."
The coach talked a lot about hard work to the youngsters, who took note.
"You have to practice, practice, practice," said 9-year-old Mazzie Pelton, who cradled her green basketball after the clinic.
Added her classmate Angel Ortiz, "It's hard because it takes a long time, but if you want to be good at something, you have to practice."
Hurley pointed to a local sports hero as an example of just how far hard work can take a person.
"We'll use Jimmer Fredette," Hurley said of the BYU senior. "He came from Albany, N.Y., and he was not a very highly recruited player, but he played all the time...four years later, he was the AP College Player of the Year. Any kid, anywhere, who dreams a dream, and you're willing to put the time in, can achieve it."
Sometimes the player is the only one who believes in the dream.
"Life is never going to be a straight three-lane highway," Hurley said. "You've got to be ready for the bumps and traffic lights and the accidents. One of the biggest things you learn from sports is dealing with obstacles and adversity."
When he hears of problems like Ohio State and Auburn are having, he doesn't get discouraged. He does make a note of where he doesn't want to see his players recruited, however.1 comment on this story
"Every time you have one that makes you gasp, look for another one that makes you feel good," he said. "For ever one where there has been a problem with behavior, I can always find another where the coach gets it."
And regardless of where a person plays - New Jersey, Glendale or Bulgaria - the game's lessons and rewards are still the same.
"For me, it's a time stopper," said Kurtev. "When I have a problem, I go play basketball. It takes me away from reality. It's just me and the court. I just love the game."