The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her.


Peter Hooley is slow footed, undersized and oft injured. On the court, he is neither flashy nor freakish in ability or athleticism. He runs the floor with a hint of cement on his feet and a paunch-like quality to his gait despite his fit frame – as if it’s easy to see a pouch developing in middle age. In 127 games at the University at Albany, Hooley blocked exactly nine shots and you could probably count all of his dunks on one hand, with a finger or two left over.

Hooley will never play in the NBA. He will probably never play in the Euroleague, or any other high-level international league for that matter.

But, in March of 2015, Peter Hooley was the epicenter of the basketball universe.

Hooley hit the shot of the year – and, given the stakes and circumstances, quite possibly the shot of the decade: A game winner to send his school to the NCAA Tournament; only months after losing his mother to cancer and taking a leave of absence from school.

Peter Hooley became a hero – not simply to fans in the stands or kids dreaming of hitting the game winning shot, but to everyone who has ever lost someone.

For one moment, Hooley was the only story in basketball.

Then, another story came along, and then another and Hooley’s 15 minutes of fame were up almost as soon as they began. After being featured on CBS’ Road to the Final Four only weeks earlier, Hooley wasn’t even included in CBS’ One Shining Moment montage at the end of the NCAA Tournament.

That’s mid-major basketball: tiny teams from small schools play in band-boxes, away from the lights and crowds, away from Dicky V and Gus Johnson. They emerge and inspire for a night or two in March, only to serve as cannon fodder for the next class of soon-to-be millionaires.

Occasionally, all it takes is a jump shot to bridge the divide.

Hooley’s shot did even more. His shot was an act of defiance: A direct challenge to death, a cathartic moment for everyone carrying the invisible wounds of loss.

….

Peter Hooley’s college career got off to an inauspicious start: An uninspiring performance during summer workouts, followed by a broken foot and a shoulder that continually “popped out.”

“We used to joke with him that he would just try to get through practice not injured, so he would avoid contact at all costs,” Albany Head Coach Will Brown says. “It was a running joke with his teammates and with us, unless I was really in a bad mood.”

When Hooley was healthy, he faced a “steep curve” on the court, according to former Albany teammate and fellow Australian Samuel Rowley, who remembers Hooley struggling when he arrived in Albany in 2011.

“[He wasn’t] impressive when we first came over, physically, skill wise, one-on-one,” Rowley says.

None of this is to say Peter Hooley is a bad basketball player — quite the contrary: those who played and coached with or against Hooley paint the picture of a pugnacious guard who battered and bulled his way to the basket for 1,519 career points, good for fourth in the school’s Division I record books.

The words “crafty,” “relentless,” and “workhorse,” are often used to describe Hooley.

Jameel Warney, who competed against Hooley at America East rival Stony Brook, and currently plays in the D-League as a member of the Texas Legends, remembers Hooley as “a fierce competitor.”

Hooley’s all heart and hustle approach was exemplified in microcosm during a Nov. 2014 game at UNLV.

Against the longer, more athletic “Runnin’ Rebels,” Hooley took a pass early along the perimeter, got a step on his defender and attacked the basket. The bigger defender caught up with Hooley, generously listed at 6’4”, and bumped him with enough force to send him out of bounds. Picking up his dribble, Hooley launching into the air fired a one-handed pass across the court, hitting a teammate right between the numbers for an open three as Hooley flew face-first into a row of foldout chairs.

“He always wanted to make plays,” Brown says. “He was a guy, whether he was struggling or things were going well, he wanted the ball in big moments and never shied away from that opportunity.”

Brown yells to Hooley. Photo by Sam Perkins/PopGates

March, 14, 2015 (The America East Conference Championship) – With 16.9 seconds left in the game Stony Brook leads Albany 50 to 48. Albany has been the years’ conference juggernaut, going 15-1 in America East play. The one loss, a three-point nail bitter, just weeks before at the hands of Stony Brook.

The game has been ugly and slow. Both teams have been out of rhythm, shooting a combined 36-of-107 from the floor.  At the half, Stony Brook led a cringeworthy 20 to 16, shooting 8-of-25; herculean numbers when compared to Albany’s 6-of-29.

“I was in shock, as was the rest of the team,” Brown remembers. “We ran through the league fairly comfortable. It was an ugly game, we were playing poorly as a group. We couldn’t put the ball in the basket.”

Stony Brook’s two-headed monster of point guard Carson Puriefoy and Warney has combined for 43 of the Seawolves’ 50 points.

Warney, a legend in America East circles, had been un-guardable, converting 8-of- 13 shots near the basket, while plucking from the air 13 rebounds.

“We switched with about eight minutes to go in the game,” Brown says. “We couldn’t guard Warney at all, so we went zone, which we never do.”

Stony Brook’s inept free throw shooting (10-of-19) keeps Albany in the game.

At the 2:38 mark, the Danes trail by seven – a number that feels like it might as well be a million given the pace of the game and Albany’s offensive incompetence.

“Every time we went to a media timeout, or timeout, I looked at the group and said we are winning this game,” Brown says. “We have to lengthen the last two minutes of the game. The next two minutes have to take a half-hour. We made some shots, we forced some turnovers.”

“I remember, in the final minute or so, thinking the NIT wouldn’t be so bad – it’s a decent tournament,” Rowley says. “Being down by seven with a minute left, it was almost out of reach.”

Albany’s listless offense comes to life in the games waning moments. A runner in the lane, followed by a high-arching hook shoot off the glass and two converted free throws bring the score to 49-48.

With just under 17 seconds remaining and no timeouts left, Albany fouls Puriefoy on an inbound pass.

Puriefoy makes the first free throw.

50-48, Stony Brook.

“I said to our team, he’s not making both,” Brown remembers.

A second conversion would have assured at least overtime for Stony Brook, putting pressure on a Great Dane offense that had missed all nine of their attempted threes up until then.

Stony Brook fans who have traveled from Long Island, sensing victory and an NCAA tournament berth, file under the basket, preparing to rush the floor.

The second free throw is short, front rimming to Albany wing Ray Sanders.

Tick.

Sanders passes the ball to Hooley who pushes the ball past half court.

Tick.

As Hooley crosses half court he raises his hand, instructing the offense.

Tick.

Hooley dribbles towards Sanders, flipping him the ball, a few feet beyond the three-point line.

“We handed the ball off to Ray Sanders,” Brown remembers. “We wanted him to come off the ball screen, and then we were going to pin down for Peter to come back off a screen for a shot. Ray saw an opening. I told him if he sees an opening to attack the basket.”

Five dribbles between three defenders. Sanders gets to the basket, putting up a whirling, off-balance shot.

Tick.

The shot is partially blocked, ricocheting off the very top of the backboard.

Tick. 

Warney, arguably the best rebounder in college basketball, is muscled between two Albany players under the basket. Outstretching every bit of his 6’7” 260-pound frame, he swats at the ball. Unable to collect the rebound, Warney inadvertently slaps the ball out to the three-point line, towards Hooley.

It’s not a stretch to say that Hooley has been terrible for almost every second of the 35 minutes he’s been on the court: 2-of-12 from the floor and 0-for-3 from deep.

Given the deep wounds of the past weeks, the expectation of Hooley putting on a Brett Favre Monday Night Football following the death of his father performance was probably unrealistic.

“I didn’t shoot well. I don’t think any of us shot well,” Hooley says. “The game was pretty horrible to watch. I was saying to myself, do not take this last shot, you haven’t shot well. You’re not going to live with yourself if you miss it.”

Off one bounce, Hooley picks up the ball.

Nerves kept Hooley up the night before; he tossed and turned until five that morning. His pregame routine was off; he stayed quiet – lost in his own thoughts.

I won’t know what to do with myself if I lose. I don’t know how to get up for this game.

A defender sprints out to him.

With four seconds left and his body leaning towards the basket, Hooley heaves up a three.

The ball hangs in the air for 1.8 seconds.

Peter Hooley’s mom, Sue, is dead; the outcome of a basketball game can’t change that.

For 1.8 seconds’ time stops and Sue Hooley is with her son.

On Feb. 5, 1992, the two worst teams in the NBA met in the middle of lost seasons.

The 11-35 Orlando Magic, led by the indomitable pair of Scott Skiles and Nick Anderson, traveled to Minnesota, squaring off with the 8-37 Timberwolves and their backcourt of Pooh Richardson and Doug West – two names long since relegated to the back pages of the Pro Basketball almanac.

Eighteen-thousand fans piled into the Target Center Arena, anticipating yet another futile effort from the Wolves.

The Magic, largely on the strength of 23 points from 300-pound Buffalo Stanley Roberts, pulled out a 109-102 victory.

Lost in the mundanity of the night was a Timberwolves rookie center out of the University of New Mexico named Luc Longely, who chipped in with six points and four rebounds over 14 minutes.

Three years before becoming a vital cog in the Chicago Bulls dynasty as Michael Jordan’s best screener, Longely toiled on the Timberwolves bench. Even on limited minutes, Longely’s place in the Timberwolves rotation was significant.

For the first time, Australia had NBA representation.

Coinciding with Longely’s NBA debut was the “golden age” of the Australian domestic league (NBL) and the global success of the national team – The Boomers finished a respectable sixth and fourth at the ‘92 and ‘96 Olympics.

The perfect coalescence to propel the growth of basketball in the country.

In the years since Longely broke into the league, 19 Aussie’s have followed – including three lottery picks and two NBA champions.

On that same day in 1992, some 9,647 miles from the Target Center Arena, Peter Hooley came into the world.

Hooley describes himself as a “country boy,” growing up on a farm in Adelaide Hills, just outside the city that birthed Aussie basketball (the South Australia Register mentions two matches of “basket ball” between the Semaphore Boys Club and the Old Boys Institute in Adelaide in 1897). In between collecting Chicken eggs and feeding the cows, he picked up hoops. Hooley’s sport of choice was atypical in a family of athletes who all cycled through Australia’s football system (According to Hooley, his uncle has been inducted into the South Australian Hall of Fame and his cousin makes “big bucks” as a pro).

“You’d play with your friends from the country, and you play in the local leagues,” Hooley says. “Everyone knew who the best players in the world are, but, you’d rarely go in to school and everyone would talk about what’s going on in basketball. It just wouldn’t come up. You’d know you have a game that night. You’d go however far it was, and then you’d get in the car and drive home. It was very different than growing up here.”

It was Sue who encouraged basketball.

“She would talk to me after every game,” Hooley says. “It would be like I had another coach to get in the car with. She loved watching my sister [Hooley’s twin Emma] and I play. Even after I was in America playing, she would watch every game at 3 a.m. and write out paragraphs about what she had seen. It’s special to know she was there and had so much interest in what I was doing – whether it was little arguments about me having a go at the refs or me not doing something right. “

A late bloomer, Hooley frequently found himself on the outside looking in at Adelaide’s regional all-star team.

“The metropolitan team, which is all the city kids was universally better than the country teams, and there’s the country squad,” Hooley says. “Every year when I tried out for that I kept getting cut and going reserves up until I was about 18. My sister would always go on these trips and compete at a high level. I missed out. Eventually I started to improve….at 17 or 18 that’s when I started to take the next step pretty quickly.”

It started with a shyster.

As Hooley’s skills sharpened, he began looking towards American college basketball. The goal was Division II, so, Hooley’s family hired a scouting service in Adelaide.

“There was a guy,” Hooley remembers. “He was a bit sketchy. He would put your name out and a highlight tape. That didn’t turn out. He ended up disappearing. Anything he sent us we weren’t sure if it was actually going to college, or they even heard of us.”

As luck had it, a friend of a former assistant coach at Albany had seen Hooley play in a tournament on the state team, passing the scouting report along to Great Danes Head Coach, Brown.

With an Australian already on the roster in Luke Devlin and another on the way in Rowley, Albany was an ideal situation for Hooley.

“Really what it came down for Peter was comfort,” Brown says. “The one thing I’ve learned about the Aussies: Unless they are at the elite level, it’s more about comfort, fit, familiarity.”

“The opportunity was a blessing for me,” Hooley says. “I managed to speak with Luke Devlin, that made me feel more comfortable making the decision [to go to Albany].”

Live long enough, you’ll catch a curveball or two.

In the months leading up to Hooley’s freshman year, his mom Sue was diagnosed with colon cancer.

His mom — or “mum” as he calls her — was, as moms always are, his biggest supporter. Even in sickness she pushed for her son to pursue basketball, thousands of miles away.

“It would have been very easy for Peter to stay home,” Brown says. “His mother and father decided, hey Mom’s going to be okay. You need to go over and start your dream of playing basketball at the Division I level and getting an education.”

“It was really hard,” Hooley says. “Especially my freshman year when It was pretty fresh with her diagnosis. Her, my grandma and dad were on a flight over from Australia to watch me play. I had broken my foot while they were in the air. When they eventually landed in New York they got all the missed calls from me. That was pretty shattering. But, she was telling me to keep positive, if she can keep fighting on. There were always times when things go good I could talk to her, but when things go bad it feels like the world is crashing around you.

Hooley soldiered on, at times isolating himself socially.

“You’re lucky to have people to talk to like your coach and your teammates, but for me, a lot of the time I just wanted to be alone in my room. If I wasn’t talking to mum, I’d be thinking about it. It’s hard to be able to really know what to do or what to say. You want to be there for your family, and I had so many years where I felt helpless.”

Hooley continued developing as a player. After redshirting his freshman year, he broke into the Great Danes rotation and then the starting lineup. He was a three-year team captain, playing a pivotal role for three straight conference championship teams that appeared in the NCAA tournament – scoring 12 points, dishing out three assists and grabbing nearly four rebounds per game over his career.

Sue loomed large. She would wake up in the early hours to watch every game online. She was always there to offer praise and critique Hooley’s game if need be.

“I spoke to mum every day,” Hooley remembers. “Especially after the games. She’d watch every game no matter what time it was.”

“I would still be in bed, and Sue would be getting up at 4 in the morning,” Jeff Hooley, Peter’s father, told the Albany Times Union in 2015. “She would have my tea waiting for me.”

After a brief period of remission Hooley’s sophomore year, Sue’s health worsened rapidly in early 2015.

The chemo took its toll.

A fall lead to a broken pelvis, and a scan revealed further complications. In January of 2015 she entered the hospital, with the expectation that she would not be coming out.

“Dad said she was stuck in hospital and couldn’t get out,” Hooley says. “He told me he never wanted to tell me I had to get on a plane and come home. But the way he was speaking I had a feeling that it wasn’t going to be good. I immediately called coach and told him, this has finally got to a point where I had to go home.”

In mid-January, Hooley went home. It was unclear if he would be returning.

“He came and knocked on my door. He was obviously very upset,” Rowley says. “It was a tough mental shift. It was hard to wrap your head around it. Me personally I tried to put my head down and not think about it too much. It’s an upsetting thing, especially since I knew Sue. Nobody really knew how to deal with it. There was a lot of support from the coaches and players.”

A successful basketball team runs like a family. How the staff and players navigated Hooley’s departure is demonstrative of why the Great Danes have had so much success on the court in the 15 years Brown has been at the helm of the program.

On the morning of January 16, 2015 – the day before a game against conference rival Stony Brook – the team dropped Hooley off at the airport. Reserve sophomore Mike Rowley, the younger brother of Sam, volunteered to accompany Hooley from Albany to Los Angeles, and then immediately catch a flight back.

“Coaching is easy man, nobody prepares you for things like this,” Brown says. “From my end, my mindset was to be there for Peter. My wife from that point on stayed in close contact with the family – nonstop, every day. We got Peter on a flight the next day. What’s so remarkable is, Mike and Sam were like Coach we can’t let Peter go by himself. They looked at each other and Mike says to me, Coach I’m coming off the bench, Sam’s the guy, let me go. I’ll fly all the way to L.A. with Peter. I’ll make sure he gets on his connection to Australia. Then I’ll take the redeye back to the closest airport to Stony Brook, I won’t miss the game.”

“He got Peter on the plane, had a two-hour layover, didn’t sleep took the red eye back and made it to our shoot around.”

That night, Albany played circles around Stony Brook, winning 64 to 47. On no sleep, Mike Rowley played for 13 minutes.

When Hooley arrived, the first thing Sue said to her son, from her hospital bed was “you’re supposed to be playing Stony Brook tomorrow, you need to get back on the plane.”

On January 30, 2015, after battling for four-and-a-half years, Sue Hooley succumbed to cancer.

“It was pretty hard to be in the room when she couldn’t really talk,” Hooley says. “For about a week you’d just be in there holding her hand or watching over her. The hardest thing is the inevitability factor. You’re just waiting for a moment you have no way to ever prepare yourself for.”

Famed Italian actress Sophia Loren once said about motherhood, “When you are a mother, you are never really alone in your thoughts. A mother always has to think twice, once for herself and once for her child.”

Up until the end, Sue kept the needs of her family at the forefront. No one would have faulted Hooley for staying in Adelaide on the farm. But it wasn’t what “mum” wanted for son.

In the final days of her life, before she stopped speaking, she made her son make a promise: To return to Albany and finish what he had started.

“I think his mindset was I need to stay here with Emma (his twin sister),” Brown says. “His dad’s mindset was completely the opposite: pay your respects and grieve. But you promised your mother that you would go back; that you would finish school and you would keep playing”

“I told Peter I didn’t care if he came back and played in another basketball game; took incompletes in his classes and came back in the summertime. Everybody grieves differently. I couldn’t imagine what he was going through.”

After nearly a month away, Hooley returned to Albany – emotionally drained and, as Brown says, “in terrible shape” after weeks of limited physical activity.

“It was difficult, Hooley says. “I know how hard it was for me to watch my family go through it. I wanted to be there for them. If they didn’t come back with me I don’t think I would’ve gone. But Dad said to me, he made the promise he’d bring me back. It took me a couple nights, and the funeral, and speaking at the funeral to realize I have to do this for her. If it wasn’t for the team I had and the coaches who surrounded me I wouldn’t have survived.”

With his family in attendance, Hooley lobbied hard for playing time in his first game back, against out of conference NJIT.

Out of loyalty Brown played him.

Hooley played 17 minutes off the bench, eight more than Brown would have liked – scoring 10 points on an efficient 3 of 7 shooting.

Albany won by six. They then won six of their next seven games.

….

The ball drops from the sky, touching only the bottom of the net – as if it had been caught in mid-air and thrown through the hoop.

The ancient, Hoosiers-esque scoreboard reads 51-50. Albany leads.

Puriefoy takes the inbound pass and starts a mad dash towards shooting range. The ball is poked free and knocked of out of bounds before he can get a shot off.

Albany wins.

“It was the best assist I ever had in my life, I tipped it right to his shooting pocket” Warney says. “He went through a lot with his mother passing. It showed his toughness, and how great a guy he is. I’m not that happy that he beat me three times [In conference tournament games], but if it could be anybody I’m happy it was him.”

“I actually felt a bit sympathetic towards the Stony Brook guys,” Rowley says. “Carson Pureifoy had a fumble that went out of bounds. As good as that was for us, with the benefit of hindsight I can say It was heartbreaking to see.”

As if 4,468 simultaneously experience the same catharsis in the wake of overwhelming grief, a sea of purple descends onto the court.

“You grow up wanting to hit any kind of game winner – let alone a championship winner; let alone after everything that had happened with me,” Hooley says. “I wanted to win that one more so for mum, than anything. Looking back now I wanted to put together some type of celebration, but instincts just took over. I was so overjoyed I wanted to just be in the moment.”

Hooley is mobbed by teammates near the Albany basket.

House of Pain’s Jump Around blares, and what seems like the entire student body forms an orbit around Hooley and his teammates.

Sue is gone, nothing can replace her, but a support system – at least in that moment – of thousands is there to pick her son up.

As the Great Danes cut down the net, Hooley took a strand of nylon, kissed his wrist and looked up.

“I think I cried more tears that night than I had in long time,” Hooley says. “Some were happy a lot were sad, but that gave me so much to think about in terms of my life. There is no way I will ever forget that.”

His sister couldn’t speak; his father couldn’t speak.

Hooley tried to talk to his family over the phone in the moments after the game, but there were no words.

For that Great Danes team, the aftermath of that night is blur.

“That was just the culmination of a lot of emotion, a lot of buildup,” Rowley says. “It was dramatic and I mean that in the best way. Pete is a bit of a dramatic guy. It is a pretty special moment.”

“It was a whirlwind. It all went by really quick. The funny thing is you are so excited, and then everybody leaves, and you’re like what do we do now? I think we just hung out that night and let it all sink in.”

Like a brush fire in Southern California, the shot, and Hooley’s story spread.

There were radio and T.V. appearances. He was an in-studio guest on SportsCenter. He wrote a first-person article for the New York Post. He got a blue “verified” check on Twitter.

In the six days leading up to Albany’s opening round game against Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament, letters and messages from others who had experienced loss poured in. The father of a 12-year old, who had recently lost his wife reached out to Brown, who put Hooley in touch with the grieving son – who himself had a championship basketball game coming up.

“He turned to his dad and said I want to play because Peter Hooley played for his mum,” Hooley says. “The kid came on the phone, and it was just like a breath of fresh air for me just to talk to him. We talked on the phone for 30 minutes, talking about anything – school, video games. He didn’t really want to talk about anything that had happened, he just wanted to talk to me. After that conversation, I realized this was pretty special. To be able to just touch his life, and be able to feel that. I could only look up and cry and thank Mum for that.”

In the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, there would be no miracle.

Against three-seed Oklahoma, Hooley matched Sooner guard and future NBAer Buddy Hield’s 16 points, and the Great Danes fought the good fight, giving OU everything it could handle before falling 69-60.

Hooley’s fifth and final year at Albany was anticlimactic: He shot more and converted less. The team was good, but not quite as good.  The Great Danes were knocked out in the America East Tournament’s opening round, upset on their home court by a lowly Hartford squad. In Albany’s absence, Stony Brook advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

As the commencement speaker at the 2015 University of Albany graduation ceremony, Hooley said “I came to UAlbany with my mum by my side watching over me, and I leave it with my mum in my heart still watching over me.”

Two-years and 3,300 miles later. Hooley is largely anonymous in the basketball world again. He lives in a little apartment in Plymouth, England, with the backdrop of the Plym and Tamar rivers forming one of the world’s great harbors.

Now a reserve guard on the Plymouth Raiders of the British Basketball League, Hooley says “people know who we are but it’s nothing like college.”

Through his dad, Hooley has a British passport, which may have gotten him to a higher tier league, but in the wake of Brexit, he is no longer able to sign with a team in a domestic league of a European Union country as a native.

Earlier in the year, it was sounding like his passion for the game had waned. Now, though, he says he has no plans to stop and is hopeful of someday playing in Australia.

The shot and the story are much bigger than the shooter. Grief binds us all. It is consuming. A piece of self is torn away with the death of a loved one – especially for those taking on too much loss, too early in life.

Even now, people are still reaching out to Hooley. Sharing their stories of loss with him.

“Everywhere I go, people seem to know about it, Hooley says. “People message me saying they lost a loved one or a parent. I try to either write something back or give them a link to a blog that I have written. Something to try and help people. It’s special to know that’s always going to be with me. Because I’m still fighting to stay up for everything mum taught me. If people can keep living off that and being inspired by that, than I’m going to keep doing it.”


Peter Hooley is currently in his first year as a professional basketball player for the Plymouth Raiders of the British Basketball League. He says he is interested in writing a memoir about his experiences.