Florida International University Panther

In Toms River, premier sculptor’s statues cement sports legacies

By Jerry Carino, May 10, 2018

Demand his high for Brian Hanlon, whose bronzes can be found at arenas, campuses and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He’s got new ideas, too.

TOMS RIVER – Lou Carnesecca is 93 years old now, but in a drafty chicken coop that serves as the workshop of one of the country’s foremost sculptors, the beloved St. John’s University basketball coach remains frozen at 60.

There is life-sized Looie, circa 1985, punching his left fist through the air “after a Chris Mullin shot,” said Brian Hanlon, who broke one of his own rules in making the statue. Normally the 57-year-old Jersey Shore lifer creates monuments after they have been commissioned. This one is a rare preemptive strike, a work he’d like to see dedicated while Carnesecca is alive.

“There it is, waiting on the school,” Hanlon said. “I’m like, ‘You guys don’t get it. If we don’t do this now, the dedication is going to be terrible if Lou isn’t there.’ He’s got to be there, with Mullin.”

Hanlon is one of the very best at his profession. Roughly 500 of his statues are on display throughout the United States. Many of them are sports-related; he is the official sculptor of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But a walk through his workshop, which houses hundreds of resin replicas, illustrates the breadth of Hanlon’s range.

There is St. Padre Pio, stigmatic hands wrapped in cloth, standing next to Yogi Berra. There is Boston Marathon legend John Kelley in full stride, with his dog Brutus at his side. There is a Gold Star family for the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Holmdel.

“Some are solemn, some are celebratory, some are simple tributes and some are very sad memorials, like Yeardley Love,” Hanlon said, referring to the University of Virginia athlete who was murdered in her dorm room by an ex-boyfriend in 2010. The act spurred a nationwide discussion on campus relationship violence, and Hanlon created a statue of Love for a park in her hometown of Baltimore.

“Sometimes art can be a powerful vehicle for that kind of discussion to occur,” he said. “It becomes a monument to something that must be talked about.”

Proud of his roots

Hanlon is a Holmdel native and graduated from Monmouth University, where he ran cross country and track. His wife Michele played soccer for the Hawks, and one of his first sculptures was of her lying on the ground with a soccer ball while reading a book. It’s on the campus today, along with a Hanlon hawk that sits in front of the basketball arena.

“You see the energy and passion Brian has for everything, that really shines through in his work” said Monmouth track coach Joe Compagni, who coached Hanlon’s daughter Maggie before she graduated last spring. “We brag about him all the time. The nice thing is, he brags about us, too.”

Hanlon’s next project for his alma mater is a larger hawk for the arena’s rotunda.

“A 25-foot wingspan,” he said. “I want athletic teams and whoever else to take pictures under the wing. I want it to be, ‘Let’s go met by the Hawk before the game.’ That’s what I’m hoping for. That’s a forever thing.”

The sculptor’s pride extends to his entire home state. Last month, when Seton Hall senior Angel Delgado won the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award as college basketball’s top center, Hanlon took notice. He had crafted the actual award, which is a three-foot statue of the Lakers legend.

“I’m so psyched that a Seton Hall guy has one of my statues,” Hanlon said. “That award is better (as a Kareem likeness) than the statue of him in front of the Staples Center. I need to sell a copy to Seton Hall.”

Sales is a big part of the job. Life-sized statues, which he makes in clay over a period of two or three months, cost upwards of $100,000 apiece. Hanlon meets his subjects and their family members in person, trying to grasp their essence as best as he can. He researches their past thoroughly, especially figures who might border on controversial (like former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, whom he depicted munching on a towel).

“It’s very important to understand the physical, the spiritual and the mental,” Hanlon said. “All three are super-important to completing a piece of art. If you do that, you’re going to make something that’s going to punch somebody in the face — in a good way.”

That takes negotiating. Former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson sat down with Hanlon in the presence of a bodyguard and agreed to be sculpted only if a bigger statue of the Virgin Mary also got made for the campus (Thompson paid for it). Temple basketball coach John Chaney “fought me every step of the way,” Hanlon said, but loved the finished product.

“You look at their reaction,” Hanlon said. “You want to make sure you did the right thing, because it’s kind of permanent.”

A national debate

Sculpture is an ancient art, but it’s as relevant as ever. Debate continues to rage about the appropriateness of Confederate Civil War monuments. Sports is not immune to such controversies. Penn State removed a 900-pound bronze Joe Paterno in 2012, after his program became embroiled in a sex abuse scandal.

“Today there’s a lot of emotional, knee-jerk reactions happening, taking down statues,” Hanlon said. “Are we having the right conversations, are we doing the right homework? If we are, then the move is a historically fit move and not something that will be looked at as, ‘Oh that was crazy.’”

So what did he think when Paterno’s statue was whisked away?

“I didn’t cringe at all,” he said. “That situation was as ugly as anything could possibly be. Should that statue be removed if it is connected in any way with that? I see no problem with that at all, and I know Penn State fans will hate that.”

He adds, casually, “I had a proposal in for that. That could have been mine.”

‘It’s about the story’

The statues closest to his heart, it seems, are those of sports’ pioneers. He beams about his tribute to legendary Texas women’s hoops coach Jody Conradt, which was unveiled in 2012 by rival Pat Summitt of Tennessee.

“To me it’s about the story,” Hanlon said. “The important thing was that the University of Texas realized their greatest coach was in women’s basketball.”

After Conradt, he pledged to make at least one statue per year of a women’s sports figure. In the pipeline right now is soccer star Brandi Chastain, who of course will be depicted in her iconic shirt-off celebratory pose at the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

Last year was Hanlon’s busiest yet. He pumped out 30 monuments, from Charles Barkley to Evander Holyfield (no, he did not sculpt the boxing champion with a chewed-up ear). Right now he’s working on 10, including ones of Maurice Cheeks, Mean Joe Greene, Keith Jackson (for the Rose Bowl) and Big East founder Dave Gavitt (for Providence College).

On his wish list, for the future: Rutgers women’s basketball coach C Vivian Stringer for the RAC, George Raveling for Villanova’s Pavilion, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and pioneering college coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines.

And, of course, there is the Jersey Shore’s biggest cultural export.

“First and foremost, I’d want to do a proper tribute to Bruce (Springsteen),” Hanlon said. “There should be something proper done for him and maybe the whole E Street Band. It’s a hope I have.”

Hanlon has added some staff in recent years to accommodate the swell of requests, but he shows no sign of slowing down. Quite the opposite: The demand, and the rise in society’s interest in monuments, are fuel for his fire.

“I really want to make a difference with this stuff, and I think I can, but I must pay attention,” he said. “This is not a casual venture. You have to be all in, or you’d better get out.”