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Bloomfield's T.K. Tripucka (left) and East Orange's Mike Dabney were two of the 1970s hoops stars on hand for 70th Essex County Tournament dinner held recently at Franklin Steakhouse in Nutley. (Sideline Chatter photos)

Dennis "Mo" Layton and his lovely lady were two Newark residents and former Weequahic students enjoying the festivities during ECT dinner.

As retired Columbia High School coach Johanna Wright and his sister Patty (rear, right) listen in, an animated Bob Masin (Columbia '66) talks about his memories of Essex County basketball including stories about his late dad Swede, who was a legendary hoops star at Weequahic in the 1930s.

Irvington's Ramadan Brunson, star of the 1995 ECT championship for the Blue Knights, was joined by his son at the special evening of hoops lore.

T.K. and Kelly were two of the four brothers on hand from Tripucka family

1970's Orange star Greg Tynes (left) chats with Weequahic's Mo Layton

Retired Shabazz girls coach Vanessa Watson (left) and Bruce Essing, a chief administrator with Super Essex Conference, were on hand for event.

Retired Columbia High coach Johanna Wright shares moment with former Star-Ledger sportswriter Rick Bliwise who put together ECT hoops dinner.

ECT 70th Anniversary Dinner
Conjures Up Hoops Memories
By Steve Tober

NUTLEY- For Bob Masin the February 1977 afternoon was an opportunity to check out the best player Essex County hoops had to offer and also do his duty as a scout for Columbia High School.

After all, not only was Orange at Bloomfield a typical great Big 10 Conference showdown to take in, but also a first look at the Bengals’ Kelly Tripucka, who had already etched a legendary schoolboy basketball career.

Beyond avoiding an all-out brawl that ensued among fans in the Bengals’ gym that day, Masin came away with a unique – albeit impossible – idea of how to perhaps try and contain Bloomfield’s all-time great.

“(Columbia coach) Pete Cross had asked me to scout the game and I reported back recommending we play a 3-2-3 zone and just hope that the referees didn’t notice that that there were eight guys on the court,” recalled a smiling Masin, a 1966 Columbia graduate. “Otherwise I knew we weren’t going to be able to stop him!”

Masin, the son of legendary Weequahic star Swede Mason, and Tripucka, who comes from the immortal Bloomfield sports family, were two of the noteworthy individuals on hand during the recent (April 28th) dinner at the Franklin Steakhouse in Nutley to commemorate top players from the 70 years of the Essex County Boys Basketball Tournament along with also remembering the great girls hoops players from their ECT that started in 1976.

Retired Star-Ledger sports reporter Rick Bliwise organized the get-together which attracted such luminaries as four of the Tripucka brothers – Kelly, Mark, Tracey and T.K. – along with Weequahic’s Dennis “Mo” Layton, East Orange’s Mike Dabney, Orange’s Greg Tynes, Our Lady of the Valley’s and Clifford Scott’s Troy Webster, Scott’s Fred Hill, Shabazz’s Vanessa Watson and Columbia coach Johanna Wright.

Bob Masin’s dad Sweede, who along with South Side’s Lonnie Wright were selected by The Star-Ledger as two of the top all-around athletes of the 20 th Century, actually played in the pre-ECT era, starring for Weequahic in the late 1930s, yet he is also an indelible part of Essex County hoops lore and ‘a sentimental pick,’ according to his son, as far as the all-time county greats honored at the special ECT hoops event in the spacious upstairs room at Franklin Steakhouse.

“Swede and Lonnie were two of the pioneers of Essex County basketball,” said Johanna Wright, who along with her late husband Lonnie and daughter Jazmine, the current Columbia High girls hoops coach, have been longtime family friends of the Masins. “There are just so many great boys and girls players through the years in our county and it’s great that Rick worked so hard behind the scenes with repeated phone calls to put this great event together and it’s fabulous to see old friends that go back so many years.”

Johanna urged Masin to fly in from his home in Portland, Oreg., to attend the April 28th ECT dinner in Nutley, and Bob’s sister, Patty, of Edison, was also in attendance as their dad and many others were remembered through stories and anecdotes shared by speakers such as Hill, Tynes, Tripucka and Wright.

“I was the first freshman to play in the ECT back in 1949,” said the 82-year-old Hill, who is best known as the legendary baseball coach at Rutgers, but was a classic 3-sports scholastic star at Scott before his graduation in 1953. “The talent level in the county basketball tournament back then was unmatched then, just as it was in the seasons to follow in the rich history of that great event and I’m thrilled to be here to share some memories with those on hand.”

Kelly Tripucka, a longtime NBA TV and radio commentator, was on hand at the dinner along with three of his brothers, wife, Janice, and their sons Travis (former star lacrosse player and football long snapper from UMass) and Jake (ex-lacrosse standout at Duke), and was simply soaking in all the history around him while taking his own 'Trip Down Memory Lane.'

“We never felt any pressure in following in the footsteps of my dad (former Notre Dame and Denver Broncos QB great Frank) at Bloomfield and we just wanted to enjoy playing all the different sports,” said Kelly, who finished his high school hoops career with 2,278 points before going on to excel at Notre Dame and in the NBA. “My brothers and my sons at Mountain Lakes felt the same way I did and always striving to win was simply part of competing at a high level each and every day.

“I just wish we could have won a county championship at Bloomfield, but the ECT was a classic tournament to be a part of each season and despite some tough losses (in both the 1976 and ’77 ECT finals) to (coach) Bob Lester’s East Orange teams we had some great moments in some big games that I’ll always remember.”

While Tripucka played for the great George Cella at Bloomfield, Mo Layton was fortunate to perform under his own top high school coach, Les Fein, at Weequahic, which had one of the county’s all-time great teams in 1966-67 with Dana Lewis, Billy Mainor, Leroy Cobb and George Watson.

“Back then it was a lot about just winning for bragging rights in the city of Newark since we had our share of memorable battles with the likes of South Side with Ron Kornegay and company,” said Layton, who went on to play at USC and in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks. “We had a great school community at Weequahic in the 1960s and I remember one time warming up before a game with the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and seeing many of my Jewish friends from school behind one of the baskets, which brought a smile to my face.”

For Johanna Wright, who was a twirler at Montclair High, helping to support the Mounties’ great football teams under coach Clary Anderson, the advent of the girls ECT in 1976 was a landmark moment and led to the arrival of such stars as Irvington’s Tammy Hammond, Belleville’s Jennifer Appicella and University’s Lauren Mincey plus so many championship teams at Shabazz that were coached by Vanessa Watson.

“I was a student at Montclair pre-Title IX and we didn’t have girls high school sports for the most part,” recalled Wright, who coached the 1997-98 Columbia girls team to the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions final. “To see all the great girls teams and players that have come in the past 40-plus seasons has been just tremendous and great coaches like Vanessa have helped put Essex County girls basketball very much on the map from a state, regional and national perspective.”

All told, it was indeed an ECT hoops ‘Trip Down Memory Lane’ to experience for those fortunate enough to have spent a few hours at the Franklin Steakhouse.

“This is incredibly special,” said Bob Masin, who has also penned a book, “Swede, Weequahic’s Gentle Giant’ about his late dad. “When the ‘boss’ (Johanna Wright) said I should come East for this dinner I thought, ‘wow,’ this could be something special, plus my brother and sister still live in Jersey, and I am just thrilled that I came East for this night.

“Essex County basketball is truly special and the people here tonight are testament to that fact!”

Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister

Greg Tynes, the former Orange star and longtime coach at schools such as Clifford Scott, East Orange Campus, West Side and now at West Orange, addresses audience during 70th ECT hoops dinner.

Fred Hill, the first freshman to play in the ECT in 1949, recalls his days as a Clifford Scott boys basketball player during ECT dinner.

Dinner organizer Rick Bliwise addresses audience as fellow longtime sportswriter Frank Giase listens in at Nutley's Franklin Steakhouse.

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