Remembering East Orange HS boys basketball’s glory years

Panthers enjoyed a great run in the 1970s

Head coach Bob Lester, middle, poses with some members of the 1976-77 East Orange High School boys basketball team, from left, Clyde Bradshaw, the late Curtis Smith, Dennis Ross and James Pitchford. The team won its fourth straight Essex County Tournament championship.

EAST ORANGE, NJ — The East Orange High School boys basketball program boasts a rich history of excellence with talented players who have dazzled Panthers fans.

Several of those players — as well as players from the girls basketball program — from the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s were recently inducted in the inaugural East Orange Basketball Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony, which was held on May 20 at the Appian Way restaurant in Orange, drew a large turnout as the inductees celebrated with family members.

From 1968-69 to 1977-78, Panthers boys basketball compiled an incredible 243-30 record, for a .890 winning percentage. In that span, the Panthers won seven Big 10 conference titles; five Essex County Tournament titles; eight North Jersey, Section 2 state titles; and five Group 3 or Group 4 state titles.

In the 1969-70 season, the Panthers were led by such players as Warren Melvin III, Wayne Groves, Dennis Motley, Towan Butler and Mike Dabney. The Panthers won their first ECT title, beating South Side of Newark in the final. East Orange went on to win the North 2, Group 4 sectional title and took a 26-0 record into the Group 4 state championship game as the No. 1 team in the state. East Orange faced Woodrow Wilson of Camden, which was 27-0 and the No. 2 team in the state. Woodrow Wilson prevailed, 82-71.

Bob Lester was the head coach of the Panthers for six seasons, from 1971-72 to 1976-77. In addition to Dabney, he coached many great players, such as Mike Booker, Cleveland Eugene, Rodney “Hot Rod” Williams, Reggie Baker and Tyrone Miles, all of whom were EOHS Basketball Hall of Fame inductees, along with Dabney. In Lester’s first two seasons, the Panthers won the Group 3 state championships.

In the 1973-74 season, the Panthers advanced to the ECT final for the third straight year, after losing in the final in the previous two years. In the ECT final, the Panthers faced an Orange team that was 23-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state. The Panthers erased a 5-point deficit in the fourth quarter and won, 76-72, to hand Orange its first loss. It was the Panthers’ first ECT title since the 1969-1970 season. Eugene scored 24 points, Booker and Reggie Baker each had 13 points, and Williams and Ken Young scored 12 apiece.

The Panthers then went on to win the North 2, Group 4 sectional title, beating Linden, 65-51, in the final. After defeating Teaneck in the state semifinal, the Panthers beat a strong Neptune team, 73-71, on a buzzer-beating shot by reserve Tyler Jenkins to win the Group 4 state title and their third straight group state title. It was Jenkins’ only basket of the game.

In the following season, the Panthers returned starters Booker, Eugene and Williams and started the season as the No. 1 team in the state. In a matchup of 23-0 teams, East Orange faced Essex Catholic in the ECT final. East Orange won, 90-85, to repeat as county champions. Booker scored 24 points and Williams had 16 points to lead a balanced scoring effort. The Panthers beat Rahway, 55-54, to win the North 2, Group 3 sectional title, and then crushed Union Hill, 109-83, in the state semifinal, led by Booker’s 36 points and 10 rebounds, and Eugene’s 28 points and 16 rebounds.

The Panthers were one win from completing a perfect season, facing Lakewood in the state championship game. It was a rematch of the 1972 Group 3 state final won by East Orange. The rematch ended in controversy. Booker’s short jumper had put the Panthers up 71-70 with six seconds left. Lakewood then called a timeout after the play. After the timeout, a Lakewood player missed a shot, but another Lakewood player managed to grab the rebound and attempted a putback as time expired. The EO fans stormed the court in jubilation, thinking the Panthers had won. However, the referee blew the whistle and called a foul on the Lakewood shot attempt with one second remaining. The players and coaches were called back to the court. The Lakewood player hit both free throws, giving Lakewood the 72-71 win and denying the Panthers a perfect season. The loss snapped the Panthers’ 39-game winning streak.

In the next two seasons, the Panthers won the ECT titles again, beating Bloomfield in both finals and giving them four straight ECT crowns. In the 1975-76 season, East Orange redeemed itself in the state tournament, winning the sectional title again and beating Woodrow Wilson to win the Group 3 state championship in Lester’s final season at the helm.

Photo Courtesy of Rodney Williams.