Al Thompson reflects on great 1967-68 Orange HS boys’ basketball team

ORANGE, NJ – As an athlete and coach, Al Thompson, a 1968 graduate of Orange High School, has experienced a host of thrills in the world of sports.

In college at Montclair State, Thompson was a fine back who played on an NCAA Division 2 national championship team in football. Clary Anderson, who was a legendary head football coach at Montclair High, was at the helm for that 9-1-1 club.

And as the head basketball coach at Orange in the winter of 1987-88, Thompson guided the Tornadoes to a 27-1 record, culminating with a state championship. Al Grant was the key up front, and Mike Boyd and John Robinson were the leaders in the backcourt.

Then in the winter of 1993-94, Thompson led OHS to the Tournament of Champions title, as the Tornadoes chalked up a 25-3 record. Duval Simmonds and Robert Skipper were the keys up front, and Gerard Williams was the spark in the backcourt.

But for Thompson, whose favorite player in the NBA was Oscar Robertson, the legendary guard of the Cincinnati Royals, the ultimate sports thrill came in the winter of 1967-68 when Thompson was a senior at OHS. That season, led by forward Bob Butts, the Tornadoes went a perfect 27-0, highlighted by a dramatic 65-64 win over Central in the ECT finals at Seton Hall University.

That Orange team will be honored this evening, June 14, at Lincoln Avenue School, in an affair hosted by “The Big O” Booster Club.

“It should be a special night,” said Thompson. “But I think about half of our team has passed away, as well as our coach, Hoddy Mahon.”

Mahon, who Thompson feels was one of the best hoops coaches in Essex County history, along with the likes of Bob Lester of East Orange/Montclair, Bob Farrell of Seton Hall Prep, and Greg Tynes, who did most of his coaching at Clifford Scott, had a club that was loaded, to say the least.

Up front, Butts, a tremendous rebounder, was complemented by Harvey Glover and Countee Hall. In the backcourt, Thompson and Deroy Jackson were a strong combination. And OHS also had a very solid bench with players like 6-7 Anthony Norwood, Maurice Waiters, Ollie Greene, Herbie Lane, and Ross Wright.

“We were especially determined to make a run in the ECT,” said Thompson. “The previous two years we had lost in the first round. In 1967 we thought that we would have had a chance to compete with Weequahic, even though they were probably the best team in the state, if not the entire country.”

In the ECT in 1968, Orange rolled South Side, 83-62, in the first round. Then came wins against town neighbor Our Lady of the Valley and Barringer.

“The final was a matter of league pride,” said Thompson. “It was the Big 10 Conference against the Newark City League. We wanted to show people that the Big 10 was as tough as any league in the state. Hey, just playing against East Orange was always special.”

At tonight’s affair, the Booster Club is hoping that Butts, Hall, Glover, and Greene will join Thompson at the function. It’s an important gathering because scholarship monies will be handed out to deserving youngsters. The affair starts at 6 p.m. and $15 tickets can be purchased at the door.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s been half a century since that incredible season,” remarked Thompson. “I can still picture Butts doing his thing on the court. He was a 6-4 basketball machine.

“We were so dominant because Coach Mahon had us in peak condition. Our fullcourt press always did the job.”

Thompson suggests that his 1987-88 squad could very well have won the TOC. However, the event was not in existence at that time.

“Grant was just a dominating player for us,” remarked Thompson, who was several inches under 6 feet.

“And when we won the TOC in 1994, all three of our losses came at the hands of Clifford Scott. For some reason, they just had our number that winter.”

COURT NOTES – Grant was a deadly 3-point shooter for OHS… In the high school ranks, Thompson says that Kelly Tripucka of Bloomfield was the best player he ever saw. In the NBA, he gives the nod to Michael Jordan of the Bulls… The 1967-68 Orange club played great man-to-man D… In the ECT finals, Orange lost to Shabazz in 1988. And in 1989, OHS fell to Scott in the semis.