EAST ORANGE, NJ – In the rich history of basketball in Essex County, there have been a number of superb coaches in the high school ranks, both on the boys’ and girls’ sides.
Among male coaches, people like George Cella of Bloomfield, “Finn” Tracey and Bob
Farrell of Seton Hall Prep, and Greg Tynes of Clifford Scott rank among the best in Garden State history. And among female coaches, Johanna Wright of Columbia rates with the best in the game.
But perhaps no hoops coach in the county had more of a passion for the hardwood game than Bob Lester, who was a fine player for Newark Central in the early 1960s. Lester had a distinguished coaching career at East Orange, Atlantic City and Montclair. He was forced to retire in his early 40s due to health problems, but racked up 382 wins and numerous championships, including seven Essex County Tournament crowns – four at EOHS.
Lester, who coached such great Panther players as Mike Dabney, Mike Booker and Cleveland Eugene, will be one of the inductees at this year’s East Orange Hall of Fame affair, which will take place on Saturday, Nov. 24, at Cicely Tyson School. Dabney, who went on to star at Rutgers, was inducted a year ago, and Booker, who went on to play at Upsala College in East Orange, will also be inducted this week.
“It really is a nice honor for me,” said Lester, who now resides in Georgia. “I’ve been very fortunate to be inducted into a few Hall of Fames, but this one is special because I have such great memories of my times at East Orange.
“I was frustrated when I lost in an ECT final as a player, but I got my fair share as a coach.”
Lester, who suggests that Wilt Chamberlain might have been the best player in the history of the NBA, had a special thrill in February of 1974 when he won his first ECT title as a coach. In the finals before a standing-room-only crowd at Walsh Gym on the campus of Seton Hall University, East Orange upset heavily-favored Orange, 76-72.
“They had beaten us twice in regular-season play in the Big 10 Conference,” said Lester, “but I felt if we stayed close, we could beat them. We knew that a guy like Greg Tynes would get his points, but we wanted to try and contain the rest of their lineup.”
Orange coach Cliff Blake had a superb starting five with Tynes and Ed Butler in the backcourt, and Dickie Johnson, Dennis Holmes and Donald Wells up front. And off the bench, OHS had such capable subs as Greg Jones and Cutty Hammond.
But East Orange also had a top lineup as well as a strong bench.
“I think I had two guys on me for just about the entire second half,” recalled Tynes, who went on to star in college at SHU. “We knew they would play us tough, but it was still disappointing to lose that game because it was our only loss in the 29-1 season.”
Booker and Eugene were two of the key underclassmen that season for East Orange. They would spark the team to another ECT title in 1975, and the Panthers would add two more county championships against a quality Bloomfield squad led by Kelly Tripucka.
“Kelly was impossible to stop,” smiled Lester. “But likely we had a few more weapons. I really respected the way Bloomfield played under George Cella.”
As a player, Lester enjoyed vying in the tough Newark City League. And as a coach, he enjoyed the kind of competition the Big 10 Conference presented.
Lester, who attended Montclair State, had a knack for bringing out the best in his players. His teams especially responded in the bigger contests.
The one loss at East Orange that still haunts him came in a state final against Lakewood. In that Group 3 final in 1975, some extra seconds were put back on the clock when the game had apparently concluded. Lakewood then got some more points and that snapped a 39-game EOHS winning streak. The next season, the Panthers reeled off 17 more wins in a row, so it could have been a sensational 57-game winning streak.
“That loss was kind of like what happened to the U.S. in the 1972 Olympics against Russia,” reflected Lester.
A positive highlight came in the semifinals of the 1975 ECT. Despite a remarkable effort by Edgar Jones of Barringer, EOHS still pulled out a win.
“Even Kelly Tripucka never had a game like that against us,” said Lester, who played for Matt Lombardi at Central. “But in this sport, one guy can’t do it by himself.”
“I would have liked to coach longer than I did, but hey, I had plenty of thrills in the sport. The ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s were great decades to be involved in basketball for sure.”
COURT NOTES – Tynes had great respect for Lester as a coach and Booker as a player. “Mike was like a high school version of Larry Bird,” said Tynes, who finished his coaching career at West Orange… Reggie Baker, another top player for Lester, is also being inducted this year, but for achievements outside of sports.