EAST ORANGE, NJ –As a basketball player at East Orange High School and Upsala College in the 1970s, Mike Booker had a number of thrills on the hardwood.
With the Panthers, Booker, who could play equally well at guard or small forward, vied on teams that won county and state championships. And for the Vikings, Booker competed on a club which made it to the NCAA Division 3 finals.
Booker, who as a kid enjoyed baseball just as much as hoops, had a special thrill over Thanksgiving weekend. At the second annual East Orange Hall of Fame affair, Booker was one of the inductees.
“To be inducted into a Hall of Fame is a great feeling,” said Booker, who works at Harrah’s casino in Atlantic City. “And what made it extra special was that my high school coach, Bob Lester, and former high school teammate, Reggie Baker, were also inducted.” Baker was honored in a non-sports category.
It figured that Booker would become a pretty good athlete because his cousin, Norman Tate, sparkled in track & field.
“Heck, he got to compete in the Summer Olympics,” said Booker. “That’s pretty impressive, to say the least.”
And the Booker family athletic success continued with his daughter, Tara, who was a basketball standout at Absegami High School, and then George Washington University.
“I played during a great era for basketball,” reflected Booker, who graduated from high school in the spring of 1975. “UCLA was dominant in the college ranks and the Knicks were in the spotlight in the NBA. I really admired their great guard, Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier.”
When he was in high school, Booker knew he would have to play well each time out. After all, the Big 10 Conference was loaded with outstanding teams like Orange, Bloomfield and Montclair.
During the 1973-74 campaign, East Orange fell twice to Orange in regular season play. But then in the Essex County Tournament finals before a packed house at Seton Hall University, Lester’s crew stunned Cliff Blake’s Tornadoes, 76-72.
“Coach Lester always had us prepared, particularly for the bigger games,” said Booker, whose favorite baseball player was Yankees outfielder Roy White. “We were in great shape, and we knew how to excel in the fundamentals of the game.
“Hey, in the 1975 ECT finals we faced a very tall and talented Essex Catholic team. But we knew how to box out people, and that helped us get a huge win. On paper, Orange and Essex Catholic were probably more talented than our club, but we did the things we had to in order to get a championship.”
The 1974 Orange team spotlighted guard Greg Tynes who became a college star at SHU and a fine coach at Clifford Scott. On the 1975 EC squad, Cliff Anderson was a very tough player.
“Playing Orange was special because we had a great rivalry with them,” said Booker. “The two teams respected one another, but on the court maybe we wanted to destroy each other. But those games were always fun, despite the great intensity for every minute of play.”
Booker is just a little over 6 feet, but in programs, he was always listed several inches bigger.
“I just wanted to play up to my ability,” remarked Booker. “I was lucky to have some great teammates around me, like Reggie and Cleveland Eugene.”
Lester, who racked up 382 wins at East Orange, Atlantic City and Montclair, regards Booker as one of the best players in EOHS history. The top player was Mike Dabney, who went on to star at Rutgers, and others on that special list include Eugene, Clyde Bradshaw, Greg James and the late Ken Young.
“We had such a great tradition at East Orange,” said Booker, “and Upsala wasn’t too bad either. It was nice to attend both high school and college in East Orange.”
Booker, who through his work in casinos has met scores of sports legends, including Muhammad Ali, had one major disappointment in basketball. In the 1975 Group 3 state finals at Brookdale Community College, an apparent EO victory was taken away when extra seconds were put up on the clock. Lakewood then got the points, which snapped a 39-game Panther winning streak.
“That hurt, but in my time at EO, we got our share of titles,” reflected Booker. “I have so many good memories of my playing days in basketball.”
HALL OF FAME NOTEBOOK – Booker was quite impressed with the 2018 Hall of Fame honorees. He thought that the emcee, Tom Finch, who worked for a time with the Chicago Bulls, “did a great job.”…
According to Booker, Lester’s teams at EOCHS “could run all day,” and were very tough to stop on the fast break. Booker feels the 3-point shot has changed basketball an awful lot…
Tate was inducted in 2017 as were Dabney, Bradshaw and James.