Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman Kevin O’Toole discusses how studying a person's actions and history can help you gain a better understanding of who they, which is beneficial in predicting outcomes in politics.

I was watching a special on ESPN E:60-HURLEY, a moving, poignant and relatable story about a tough luck kid, Bobby Hurley, who rose from a tough, gritty and seemingly undersized point guard from St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City to national prominence as one of the nation’s best point guards at Duke University, all ending far too quickly because of an auto accident that shortened his NBA career.  

Somewhere near the end of this inspiring documentary, Bobby’s legendary father, one of the winningest and most successful high school coaches in our nation’s history, and a notable probation officer in the mean streets of Hudson County, comments that his son is an ordinary person doing extraordinary   things.

This tough-love dad’s astute observation is startling and welcoming in many ways. Coach Hurley, as legend and the documentary has it, had a fierce reputation of being a real task master and near drill sergeant on all his players. With regard to his player sons, he was even more demanding and had an even higher  expectation. 

Those of us who have had the benefit of sharing the court or our place of work with a father or son can fully understand and empathize with these complicated dynamics. Coach Hurley’s honest and frank praise of his son passes along several life lessons that can translate and seep into our politics (doesn’t everything intersect politics?)

As an aside, in this day an age where many parents coddle their children and build trophy cases for the seemingly endless awards and medals given in today’s time simply for showing up, it is entirely  refreshing to see a respected coach and parent not simply reward mediocrity.  Some have suggested that the participation medals  and 14th runner up ribbons in competitive sports and other contests should really be reassessed. There is something to be said about having an honest assessment of one’s ability or lack of ability, and asking more from all.  

Pivot to politics, there are many in politics and public service who, despite the constant and ever present public adulation and award and unnatural public credit, are not deserving of being congratulated for the Sun coming out or the buses running on time. It has been my observation as a former Mayor, state assembly member and state senator that all too often, in public and legislative forums, the public is all too quick to offer high praise and congratulatory notes just because it seems like the right tone to set (all current state legislators and Mayors know exactly what I’m talking about). Like the good coach who balances praise and criticism, the public should offer honest and true feedback to our elected officials.  By the same token, constructive comments don’t need to assume the shape of verbal harpoons looking to end careers.

I truly believe that this honest feedback will help grow a more honest and balanced democracy. I often comment that the higher the altitude of the office you hold, the more isolated of a world that you occupy. As a staffer, I was once told the Boss doesn’t like to hear bad news. As the former Boss, I needed to hear all the news, bad and good.  

In the real world, simply saying what you think people want to hear doesn’t advance the ball forward at all.  Imagine  a political world where we could say  the following truths to the current   elected-

-that speech missed the mark and was for the wrong audience  

-could you cut the reading of the prepared comments by 35 minutes? 

-the bill you are advancing wasn’t well drafted or researched

-the mentioning of your upcoming fundraiser intermingled with talk of that client killing bill is a bit too close for comfort  

Those in elected office and those enjoying public service, I would suggest, in the words of the Coach Hurley, we are all ordinary people and we should be trying daily to do extraordinary things. 

Former Senator Kevin O’Toole is the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

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