It was a magical night in February of 1975. More than 4,000 people packed the Jersey City Armory to see the HCIAA boys’ basketball championship game between underdog Hudson Catholic and rising powerhouse St. Anthony.
In the end, the Hawks from nearby McGinley Square upset the fabulous Friars, sending the Armory into a total frenzy and sending the Hawks’ faithful onto Montgomery Street after first storming the floor in jubilation.
“I remember getting knocked down by the rush of people and a teacher helped to get me off the floor,” said Mike O’Koren, a member of that Hudson Catholic county championship team in 1975, who later went on to become an All-American at North Carolina, then a player and coach in the NBA. “It was absolutely crazy.”
“I remember that night,” said Jim Spanarkel, who also went from Hudson Catholic to All-America status at Duke and later the NBA. “It was our first big-time game. There was a lot of excitement that night. It was my first taste of what a big-time game with a big crowd was really like.”
Spanarkel had a brilliant game, scoring 25 points, leading the Hawks to the eight-point win over the Friars.
At that time, Hudson Catholic was one of the best, if not the very best, programs in Hudson County. They had a five-year run or so where the Hawks were contending every year for a county and state title. They had players like the aforementioned O’Koren and Spanarkel and Jim McDonough, who was another All-County great who played at William & Mary.
But the Hawks, under the guidance of legendary coach, the late Joe “Rocky” Pope, only won that one championship, captured on that night at the Armory in 1975.
“Every time I still walk into the Hudson Catholic gym, I make sure the banner is still up there,” O’Koren said. “Back then, winning the county was bigger than winning the state. It’s something that stays with you for the rest of your life.”
And at the time, you had to figure that Hudson Catholic would have had a dynasty and would have resided atop the Hudson County basketball world more than once. But it didn’t happen.
“I never thought about it like that,” O’Koren said. “Back then, every single game was a tough one, so to come away with a county  and a state [NJSIAA Parochial A in 1976] in four years was pretty impressive.”
However, that magical night in 1975 was it for Hudson Catholic and county titles.
“It’s 37 years,” said Spanarkel, who is now a respected television analyst in NBA and college basketball telecasts. “It’s hard to believe it’s been that long ago. It doesn’t seem like it is. Back then, we didn’t know how long it would take to get another one. But when you think of it, 37 years is a long time.”
Flash ahead to 2012. The Hawks are enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Thanks to head coach Nick Mariniello, who had a vision of turning the program around when he took the position three years ago, the Hawks have been ranked among the best teams in New Jersey for the entire season. They’ve been dominant in their own backyard, winning every single game against Hudson County opponents, some of those games in devastating fashion, regularly winning by margins of 40 and even 50 points.
The Hawks thought they had a chance to win the Hudson County Tournament title a year ago, but they were upset by Marist in the semifinals.
“We really thought we were going to win last year,” said junior forward Rakwan Kelly, who has been the cornerstone of the Hawks’ ascent to state prominence. “But we had that bit of a downfall.”
Mariniello knew that eventually winning the county title was a goal he had in mind when he took the job.
“I thought if we worked hard and competed right away, the kids would eventually come to the school,” Mariniello said. “I knew St. Peter’s Prep was the direct competition and [former Coach] Mike Kelly, who I respect a great deal, had their program rolling. I just wanted to be able to put ourselves in a position to win.”
Mariniello remembers what county rivalries meant to him in the past.
“When I was at Bloomfield Tech, playing Seton Hall Prep was huge,” Mariniello said. “It was important for us to play the teams in our backyard and win those games.”
But Mariniello knew he was battling a demon, called a championship drought, when he arrived at McGinley Square.
“I knew it had been a long time,” Mariniello said. “But I didn’t know how long.”
With the Hawks on the precipice of finally getting atop the county, facing four-time defending champion St. Peter’s in the title game last weekend, Mariniello reached into the history books and pulled out a gem.
“I invited Mike [O’Koren] to come to practice,” Mariniello said. “He sat in on our coach’s meetings and then spoke to the kids.”
“It was good for me,” said O’Koren, who was an assistant coach in the NBA for more than a decade with the Nets, Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers. “When Nick contacted me, I definitely wanted to be there. I hadn’t done that in a while. I told them that they helped put Hudson Catholic back on the map.”
And after the Hawks defeated the Marauders last Saturday night, 67-54, to win the Hudson County Tournament title, the school’s first in 37 years, O’Koren was right there as Mariniello accepted the trophy.
“It was priceless,” O’Koren said. “I was there with a couple of my teammates and we talked about how winning in 1975 has never left us. I never thought it would take this long to get another one.”
“I’m so excited for the kids, for the school, for the administration and for the alumni,” Mariniello said. “I think it says a lot about Hudson Catholic as an institution, because four years ago, the school was ready to shut down. But it’s amazing to think we were able to lay a foundation and in three years, we won the county championship. I know it’s been a long drought and it’s something that hadn’t been accomplished in a while.”
Added Mariniello, “It was a great night for us. It was very surreal. That was also some of the words the alumni used. They remembered what it was like 37 years ago. I could see how proud they were and how excited they were that we won again. They lived that first championship. They knew what it was like.”
For a kid like Kelly, who missed almost a month due to a hip flexor injury, coming back in time to win the county title says everything.
“This was our year,” Kelly said. “It was our goal from the minute we lost last year. Every time I walked into the gym, I thought about that loss when I looked at the banner. It’s a great thrill to be able to put our year up there now.”
“They have a lot going here,” O’Koren said. “I think this helps and they’re only going to get stronger. They’re on the map again and I think they’re there to stay.”
“It’s a great thing that they won it again,” Spanarkel said. “It’s a funny thing, because even if it was such a long time ago, I still have flashbacks.”
Much like the 2012 Hudson County champions will some 30 years from now as well.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read his blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com