EAST ORANGE, NJ — When it comes to high school boys basketball, East Orange undoubtedly has a storied history.
The East Orange High School boys basketball program boasted dominant teams in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
The 1960s included such star players as Lenny Williams, Ken Macklin, Hassan Greg Ali James, the late Billy Lovett and the late Harry James, who later became an athletic director at EOHS.
East Orange, under legendary head coach Bob Lester, won numerous Essex County and state sectional tournament championships as one of the premier programs in the state.
With so many incredible players during those glorious times, an East Orange Boys Basketball Hall of Fame is being formed.
Lester, a Central High School Class of 1964 alumnus, and Ken Macklin, an EOHS Class of 1966 alumnus, are consultants on the Hall of Fame committee, which includes East Orange alumni James Pitchford, Class of 1977; Gwendolyn Barnes, Class of 1968; Roy Hinton, Class of 1973; and Rodney Williams, Class of 1975.
Among the nominees for the first induction class are Mike Dabney, Dennis Motley, Warren Melvin III, Cleveland Eugene, Clyde Bradshaw, Mike Booker and the late Ken Young.
The first induction ceremony is being planned for the first quarter of 2022.
From 1969 to 1978, East Orange won an amazing 230 games and lost only 30.
After being runner-up in the Essex County Tournament in 1972 and 1973, East Orange won four straight ECT titles from 1974 to 1977 with Lester at the helm. In 1974, East Orange defeated then-undefeated Orange in the final, 76-72, avenging two regular-season losses.
Orange was No. 1 in the state at the time and East Orange was No. 2. East Orange finished 25-4 in 1974.
The following year, East Orange brought a 39-game winning streak into the Group 3 state final against Lakewood. Some extra seconds were put back on the clock when the game apparently ended, and Lakewood went on to stun East Orange, which finished with a remarkable 29-1 record. The next year, East Orange went on a 17-game winning streak to start the season.
In Rodney Williams’ senior year in 1975, East Orange averaged around 99 points a game, topping 100 points in seven games. What’s remarkable is the fact that there was no three-point line at the time and high school games are only 32 minutes long.
“We had a lot of firepower, no doubt,” said Williams in a recent phone interview with the Record-Transcript.
In the 1976 and 1977 ECT finals, East Orange defeated Kelly Tripucka–led Bloomfield teams. Tripucka later played at Notre Dame and in the NBA. The 1976 EOHS team was ranked No. 1 in the state.
In the history of the ECT, which began in 1947, East Orange has won eight titles, tied with Shabazz for second all-time, behind Seton Hall Prep’s 17 titles. The other county titles came in 1970, 1981, 1986 and 1987. East Orange has appeared in 12 ECT finals, which is third all-time behind Seton Hall Prep with 27 and Shabazz with 15.
This year’s nominees are:
Hassan Greg Ali James
* Briscoe Belcher
Warren Melvin III
Daryl “Juice” Gregory
Rodney “Hot Rod” Williams
Jimmy “Mack” Saunders
Erroll “Pearl” Flannigan
Mark Gray — EOHS All-Time leading Scorer
Jamal “Peanut” Williamson
Aaron Nelums — 1,000-point scorer
These nominations are based solely on a player’s career at EOHS. It considers the player’s overall contribution to his team’s success. Individual awards such as: All Oranges All County All State and All Conference. A player’s character on and off the Court is a factor as well.
* Deceased Players
Photos courtesy of Rodney Williams