Peter Hooley still has the letters from the mother he lost to cancer. He keeps them in a folder, to read again in times of trouble, just as he did that morning last March, hours before he hit the buzzer-beating jump shot that would earn him national admiration, in the darkest winter of his life.
“Even though it’s been eight months," he was saying on the phone the other day, "you’re going to have down times when everything falls apart. That’s just the process of it. I try to go back and reflect, and that holds me together. So I’m going to keep those forever."
You might remember Hooley, the guard from Albany, by way of Australia, who had to leave his team last season to be with his dying mother back home. Who, after her funeral, returned in time to play in the America East tournament. Who, with Albany down two points to Stony Brook in the final seconds of the league championship game, retrieved a loose rebound at the top of the key and buried a 3-pointer to send the Great Danes to the NCAA Tournament.
It was among the most poignant moments of March. The mourning son doing something unforgettable, with the words of his late mother in his head. The day of the Stony Brook game, he had sat alone and read the last letter from Sue Hooley. Her hand was traced on the back, with the words: “If you ever need a hand to hold, I’m always here. I love you son."
And then he knew he was ready to play. For her.
"Looking back, him hitting the shot was needed, especially for him and his family," coach Will Brown said. "I think everybody just rallied around the game of basketball. It’s funny, what sports can do."
Eight months later, graduate student Peter Hooley eyes his final Albany season. The Danes have won the America East tournament three years running – he has been named most outstanding player of the past two – and Hooley wants badly to add one last NCAA Tournament bid. The journey opens with heavy lifting; a date this Friday night against mighty Kentucky.
So much has happened since last spring. How could he have ever imagined the echoes that would carry from one shot, even after it long since stopped being a SportsCenter highlight staple?
Hooley was asked to deliver Albany’s commencement address. He spoke of hope and perseverance, though he said public speaking was more daunting than any crucial free throw he had ever taken. In the audience that day were his father and twin sister, and that meant a lot.
Something else happened, too.
"All these messages and call and emails came from people I’d never met, saying they were touched or inspired," he said. "Now and then someone will still say they were going through similar times, and they were looking at how I handled the situation and gained strength from it.
"That’s the best thing of all for me, and something I’ll remember the rest of my life."
So the memories from last winter lingers at Albany. There were times, as the news grew worse from Australia, Brown would be tending to Peter, while his wife Jamie would be on the phone with a Hooley family member.
"It was one of those things where you’re living with it every second of every day as a coach, even when you go home at night," Brown said. "Peter was dealing with it every second of every minute of every day, too, but the difference is he couldn’t go home. He couldn’t have access to his family until he actually physically went home.
"An old coach told me once, the X’s and O’s are easy. It’s how you handle crisis management that will really determine what type of coach you are. This was as difficult a time for me as a coach as I’ve ever had for sure, and something I’ve never experienced in my coaching career and hopefully something I’ll never experience again."
Hooley is a three-year team captain, so he’s obviously been a good one. Maybe this has made him even a better one.
"I think he’s learned to really appreciate each day and each opportunity, because I think he understands you can lose it quickly," Brown said. "Also, the way his teammates supported him last year, he’s looking for ways to uplift them and guide them.
"It was a tragic situation, but I think a lot of good has come from it."
Hooley said he wants to help Albany’s new players to experience the sense of success he has had, and for the seniors to leave on a high note. "I like to live in the moment and take every single moment and try to make the most of it," he said. He heard when he was a little boy that he would grow up to become a great leader. His mother told him that.
He spent part of the past summer with the Australian World University Games team, and part of it home on the family farm, "getting back to what I had done, really, my whole life. Mornings and nights and days, I’d spend out on the farm with dad, doing all those things. Feed the cows, cut the grass. I love it. Maybe if I could sing, I could be a country singer."
Those weeks gave him a chance to reflect and regroup with family. He needed that. Now, a new season. Now, bring on – gulp – Kentucky.
"We have nothing to lose," he said. "The way I see it, we play some of our best basketball when our backs are against the wall."
For Brown—in his 15th season as Albany coach with five trips to the NCAA Tournament on his resume – this will be a blast from the past. His first game as a college player came in Rupp Arena in 1990, when he was a freshman for Pennsylvania. He came off the bench and hit two free throws.
"We got beat up. As a young 18 year old, I was just happy to get in the game and get fouled by Jamal Mashburn," he said."I was just hoping I would hit the rim with the free throws."
Brown understands the reality of Friday night, but he has three seasoned perimeter players, and that should help against all of Kentucky’s future NBA lottery picks. He hopes.
"I saw Coach Cal said the other day that they stink. But boy, I’d love to have his problems," Brown said. "We’re going to have to play terrific just to hang around, but we are excited about the opportunity. We’re going there to win. We’re not going there to say we played Kentucky, or to say we played in Rupp."
When they take the floor, the Danes will have the initials SH on their uniforms. Sue Hooley. Brown said it is out of respect, not to dredge up painful memories. "I don’t want to keep harping on Peter losing his mom because I don’t want it to be a constant reminder in his head, because it is anyway," Brown said.
But Hooley is never far from his mother on the court. She loved the sport too much. Brown said he will always remember that the first thing she said last February when her son had traveled from America and walked into her hospital room was express concern that he was missing a big game at Stony Brook. She was gone 12 days later.
Peter Hooley said he can still hear his mom’s words, can still see her encouraging him. Now he truly understands how significant that shot was, not only for what it won, but what it meant. And how everything he has must be given to this final season at Albany. He will not be stopped, not then, not now.
"It’s important for myself and my family to know that we’re finishing what we started," he said. "Not just in basketball terms, but in life."