Back in the game: Former NBA player becomes men’s basketball coach

by Rory Sheil / Beacon Correspondent • October 8, 2014

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Coach Bill Curley brings NBA experience to the Lions.
Coach Bill Curley brings NBA experience to the Lions.

In Piano Row, deep beneath the street, the Emerson men’s basketball team has begun hitting the gym in preparation for their upcoming season. Meanwhile, in the athletic department, the team’s new coach is suiting up and strapping in to answer some emails.

William Curley, who goes by Bill, is not allowed to be on the court with his team until practices officially start on Oct. 15. He’s fidgety and clearly uncomfortable behind his desk. Every chance he gets, he peeks out his door to talk to a passing player or faculty member. As a former basketball player, the idea of being forced to stay out of the gym is agitating.

“You want to be out on the court,” said Curley, 42. “I think that’s the biggest challenge, dealing with all the emails and the videos and all that where you’re just stuck not being on the court.”

A Massachusetts native, Curley played for four years at Boston College before playing five seasons of professional basketball in the NBA.

“You have so much respect for a guy that can go there and then hand down his teachings to you,” said Eli Kell-Abrams, a senior journalism major and a team co-captain.

Curley is the successor to Jim O’Brien and served as O’Brien’s associate head coach for the last three seasons. Now, since O’Brien brought the Lions to the playoffs in each of his three years as head coach, Curley is left with some big shoes to fill.

The early years

Curley said a lifetime of experience and passion for the sport leaves him well equipped to handle the position.

“All I know is basketball, from being a player to coaching,” Curley said. “Right when I finished my career, whether I was youth or high school coaching, I was dabbling everywhere.”

After playing basketball for four years at Duxbury High School, bringing his team to a state championship, and being named a McDonald’s All-American in 1990, Curley was recruited to play for Boston College under none other than O’Brien.

“[O’Brien] is somebody that took me as a little kid from Duxbury and brought me to college to turn me into a functional citizen of society,” said Curley. “He did a lot for me and my teammates.”

In 1991, Curley was named Rookie of the Year in the Big East Conference. He also went on to make the All Big East First Team in his last two years with BC. Over the course of his college career, Curley was named MVP four times.

But perhaps the greatest accomplishment in Curley and O’Brien’s time at BC came in 1994, when the school made it to the Elite 8 in the NCAA basketball tournament, notching back-to-back wins over Indiana University, which was ranked 18th in the country, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which was ranked first. That year, Curley also received an “Eagle of the Year” award from BC, designating him as the school’s best athlete.

He would go on to be inducted into the Boston College Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006, prompting O’Brien to call Curley “one of the best players ever at Boston College.”

“Billy Curley could have gone anywhere,” O’Brien said in a 2006 interview with the Boston Globe. “At the time, our program was struggling, and recruiting Billy wasn't easy. It's not like I could point to the program and show him a lot of success.”

Post-college challenges and triumphs

Standing at an imposing 6-foot-9, Curley has the look of an athlete. Despite standing head and shoulders above most of his own players, Curley is soft-spoken. But under that quirky demeanor lies the heart of a champion.

After being drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 1994 NBA draft, and 22nd overall, Curley spent five seasons playing for five different teams. Curley’s BC career took a physical toll, and he spent most of his professional career plagued by injuries, missing two seasons from 1995 to 1997 due to a bad ankle.

After several trades and incomplete seasons, he ended his professional career in 2001 after averaging 2 rebounds and 2.7 points per game. The most games he managed to play in a single season was 53 in his rookie year, after he was traded to the Detroit Pistons.

Despite a frustrating career in the NBA, Curley never gave up on the sport he loved. He would go on to attend basketball lectures and clinics across the country, working to teach kids the fundamentals of basketball alongside NBA greats like Kevin McHale, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Kevin Garnett, among others. Today, he runs his own youth program, the Bill Curley Basketball Clinic, which offers weeklong training camps to kids of all ages.

“He’s a very selfless person,” said Kell-Abrams. “He doesn’t want to shove the fact that he was in the NBA in all our faces, but he definitely uses his experience to try and teach us things. He’ll talk to us about ways he handled certain situations, and the fact that he knows how it is to play a long season.”

Today at Emerson

Under Curley, the Lions are looking to break out as a serious contender in the 2014 season. The team finished fifth in its first year in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference, or NEWMAC, and 13-13 overall. The team will open its season against Wentworth at Emmanuel College on Nov. 15.

Kell-Abrams, who has played under O’Brien and Curley for the last four years, said he sees a lot of O’Brien’s coaching style in Curley, but recognizes a more physical attitude in his new coach.

“[O’Brien] was such a basketball mastermind, and he could literally pick teams apart with his eyes closed,” said Kell-Abrams. “Curley’s style is more, we are going to outwork you from the starting tip to the ending whistle. And I think that attitude is going to carry us pretty far this year.”

Curley said that in his inaugural year, his primary concern is for the students and the program itself.

“I just want to make it something all the alumni can be proud of,” Curley said.

Curley said he hopes to add a little height to the team moving forward and recruit some sharpshooters.

“I want to be able to look up at some of our players instead of looking down at them all,” Curley joked. “It’s hurting my back.”

Despite the pressure, Curley said he is looking forward to the season ahead—so long as he can handle the day-to-day trials of an office environment.

“My biggest challenge,” he said, “is sitting behind a desk all day.”