Funny thing how history tends to be repackaged over and over, sometimes as a dead ringer of itself. Anyone who's seen Hoosiers – the Academy Award-winning movie about Indiana's high school basketball champions in 1954 – and compares it to Leonia in 1967 is struck by a powerful revelation: It's the same brilliant story, thanks to Lee Clark, the Lions' legendary coach. He might not have Gene Hackman's Q-rating, but the schools' paths were close enough for an intense rush of déjà vu.
In fact, 45 seasons later, Leonians still revere Clark for bringing them the only state championship in the program's history. Every year in March, the alumni organize a fundraiser in Clark's name. Drop by the American Legion Hall and, for $30, you get all the ribs and chicken you can eat while the NCAA Final Four is blasted on a big-screen TV.
The money goes toward the Lee Clark Scholarship Fund, which donates $1,000 to a deserving senior hoops player on his way to college. Clark himself is there to reconnect with former players, who number in the hundreds after his 30-year run at Leonia. Clark, now 79, can still rattle off the highlights and records of practically every team he coached from 1959 through 1989. But none are quite as special as the 1966-67 edition, which, just like in Hoosiers, saw a basketball version of David conquer one Goliath after another.
"There's no question it was a special year for me and the kids," Clark says. "Leonia wasn't exactly a powerhouse when I got there, but things started to improve little by little in the early '60s. Our summer program took off – we had players from other towns coming in – and soon everyone [in Leonia] wanted to play in Wood Park [in July and August]. That meant we finally we had a great feeder system. By '67, it all came together."
The Lions, part of the now-defunct BCSL National Division, were only 5-4 in December, which could've turned the season into a long, flat road to nowhere. But that changed after John Hehre, a powerful rebounder, was added to the starting five to complement shooters Phil Boggia, Hank Meyer, Mickey Janelli and Phil DiPasquale.
Suddenly, the Lions took Bergen County by storm. Boggia, now a municipal judge in Moonachie, recalls looking at the remainder of the schedule, a stretch of 15 games, and boldly telling his teammates, "We're going 15-0 the rest of the way."
Incredibly, Boggia was right, as the Lions, having already upset Don Bosco, surprised Park Ridge and even took down Dick Vitale's East Rutherford squad on their way to a 20-4 record. The Lions were not unlike the Knicks of that era, a relatively undersized but intelligent group of playmakers and passers, all skilled shooters who wreaked havoc on opposing coaches' defensive schemes.
That's because Clark himself was a hybrid of Red Holzman, the tactical genius who would guide the Knicks to an NBA championship in '69, and Hackman's Norman Dale, who motivated his players into believing they could – and would – conquer the world. It wasn't long before Clark did the same with his Lions.
By January of '67, Leonia's unusually small court and tiny gym became the Lions' most lethal weapon. The place was packed; opposing teams were intimidated by how close the crowd was not only to the floor, but the huddles during timeouts. The fans were everywhere, even the ones who couldn't get tickets. Outside the building, kids propped up ladders to climb high enough to watch the action through the windows.
The noise, meanwhile, was deafening. No wonder other schools hated coming to Leonia: The gym's walls were tiled, which reverberated and multiplied the decibel effect.
"I had guys on other teams tell me years later, they couldn't even hear the ball bouncing on the court," Boggia says. "That's how loud it was when you came to our place."
Clark rode shotgun as the Lions turned into the county's top-ranked team. He and the players began to understand this was a perfect storm – the first Leonia had ever experienced – and were determined to seize the opportunity.
"My guys were extremely confident and very tough – they could go anywhere in Bergen County and match up against the best," Clark says. "I'm talking about McCabe Park in Englewood and [the famed pick-up games in] Tenafly. By the end, I wasn't surprised anymore at how well we were playing."
The surge took the Lions all the way to Atlantic City for the state championship. Busloads of Leonians followed them, along with reporters and photographers from The Record, which had devoted daily coverage to Clark's juggernaut. The Lions suffered momentary culture shock – compared to their micro-gym, the city's convention center was as intimidating as Madison Square Garden – but they never wavered. Powered by Meyer's 21 points, Leonia beat Burlington 73-65, turning the dream into an enduring reality.
Clark's dedication finally paid off in what he hoped would become a dynasty. Even though the Lions were losing three players to graduation, Clark still believed Leonia would return to the finals "at least three to four more times" in the coming seasons. But they learned the cold reality of Group I sports: It's hard for the smallest schools to recapture the magic. Even though the Lions' baseball team won a state championship in 1969 under coach Ed Meisse, Clark's team never won another title.
Still, his legacy endures. After leaving Leonia in '89, he went on to coach at Don Bosco and Dumont for nine more years, retiring in 1998 with 457 victories, sixth on Bergen's all-time list. Clark has since moved to Manahawkin, although Leonians still consider him one of their own. Fran Orlowski, who played for Clark from 1969 through 1971, now coaches the school's varsity team, and he speaks to his mentor regularly.
"Lee taught me everything about being prepared. He studied every detail of the game," Orlowski says. "I remember how red in the face he used to get – he wanted everything exactly right."
"It's true, I guess I was a maniac at times, but I never considered myself a strong disciplinarian," Clark says. "I respected my players, and they respected me. If we ever had a problem, we would go to the drawing board and work for hours to solve the problem."
That work ethic has had a ripple effect at the school. Orlowski himself has won more than 300 games, although he doubts he'll ever catch Clark. But just to make sure future generations remember the best coach in Leonia's basketball history, Orlowski petitioned the board of education in 2007 to rename the court in Clark's honor.
There was no objection – who could've said no? In a touching ceremony that year, Clark thanked the players who made his success possible.
"I told them, 'This court is in my name, but it's for all of you. I represent you,'" he says.
Clark meant every team, every year from 1959 on. But peel away the layers of memories and you find one that still burns brightly.
"As you get older, you realize some of your older teams are your favorites," Clark says about the winter of '66 to '67, when the Lions, like those Hoosiers, proved nothing is impossible.