PRINCETON — Long before Bill Raftery became a nationally recognized and respected Emmy-award winning sports announcer, long before he was a tenacious and spirited head college basketball coach, Bill Raftery was a basketball player, probably the best player to ever hail from his hometown of Kearny.
“It was so long ago that people don’t even remember me as an athlete,” Raftery laughed, much like he does thousands of times when he tells a tale of his storied past. “Everyone thinks of you as being one thing. Being an athlete is a distant memory to most. I guess they have to rely upon what they can read.”
So when the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association held its annual Hall of Fame induction luncheon last Monday at the Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village, the 500 or so people in attendance got to read about Raftery’s achievements while as a player at the now-defunct St. Cecelia’s High School of Kearny.
The luncheon program featured Raftery’s achievements at St. Cecelia’s, setting then a new single season state record by scoring 827 points in 1958-1959 and ending his career with 2,193 points, another state record.
Those totals obviously set records in Hudson County as well. While Raftery’s scoring marks were eventually eliminated in any state-wide ranking, his scoring prowess remained at the top of the Hudson County scoring list for more than 30 years.
Raftery was one of 17 legends who gained induction into the NJSIAA Hall of Fame last week. It caused Raftery to pause and reflect a bit on his basketball playing days that began in his hometown.
“Kearny is still home,” Raftery said. “I’m always running around from place to place, but I always say it’s my home. It was a great place to grow up. And who would have thought it was a great place to play basketball. Everyone knows Kearny for soccer, but at that time, we had some great basketball in Kearny. It was an area for good basketball. We had a bunch of guys who just loved to play basketball all the time.”
But it wasn’t the only sport Raftery excelled at. He was also a fine baseball player in the spring and a soccer player in the fall. However, basketball was Raftery’s bread and butter.
“The biggest place to play was the Tappan Street playground,” Raftery recalled. “A lot of kids would go there and just hope to get into a game. We also used to turn around and travel to the Montclair YMCA and get good games there. I was in eighth grade and I was playing against adults.”
Raftery mentioned some legendary players he would go up against during those days, guys like Hank Morano, who played at St. Peter’s College and later became a Hudson County Hall of Fame coach at Emerson High School in Union City, or Chet Forte, who was an All-State basketball player at Hackensack High School and later Columbia University, but gained more fame for being the best sports television director of his era, working for ABC Sports on Wide World of Sports and Monday Night Football.
“All these older guys gave you an opportunity to play and get better,” Raftery said. “I was constantly traveling all over to play, places like the Littleton Avenue Boys Club in Newark or Audubon Park in Jersey City.”
Raftery said that through all the different places and the countless players that came from northern New Jersey, his roots were always in his home.
“For me, everything started at home,” Raftery said. “Someone has to give you the push, give you the encouragement.”
Raftery went on to play at LaSalle University and had a brief stint with the New York Knicks, before turning his attention to coaching, getting a job first at FDU-Madison, before getting his big break, the head coaching job at Seton Hall, where he remained for 11 years.
From coaching, Raftery became one of the most beloved basketball analysts in television, working for SportsChannel, doing New Jersey Nets games and college basketball on ESPN. He became identified with catch phrases like “onions,” “with a kiss,” “man-to-man,” and the best line he ever uttered, in January 1988.when University of Pittsburgh power forward Jerome Lane obliterated the rim and shattered the backboard, forcing Raftery to utter, “Send it in Jerome.”
That call is now almost synonymous with Raftery. It’s prominent on Rafterty’s Wikipedia page.
It’s been 40 years that Raftery has been calling basketball games as an announcer. And it’s safe to say that basketball is Bill Raftery’s life, even to this very day. He took a little break in his hectic schedule to attend the Hall of Fame luncheon with his wife Joan and two of his daughters.
It was good to see Raftery holding court, like he was basketball royalty. He greeted everyone with the same affable personality, like he was still that same kid bouncing from playground to playground in northern New Jersey, especially in his hometown of Kearny.
“Our parents were Irish immigrants,” Raftery said. “They raised us kids and enabled us to get to college. They pushed us in the right direction. Basketball exposed me to so many people who gave me the opportunity to become a coach, become a broadcaster. And it all began in Kearny. I loved it. Kearny was part of my fabric.”
And it’s that fabric which carried Bill Raftery from the playgrounds of Kearny to the state athletic association’s Hall of Fame.
“Look at this class,” Raftery said. “We have Olympians (Erin Donohue in track and field), Heisman Trophy winners (Mike Rozier), World Series champion (Rick Porcello), an Olympic gold medal winner (Asjha Jones for basketball) and me. That’s not a bad class. I was just a kid from the Tappan Street playground.”
But he’s always Kearny’s native son and he’s a Hall of Famer among his own state. Truly an honor.
Kearny native Bill Raftery (second left) receives induction into the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Hall of Fame at the Princeton Westin recently. With Raftery are A.J. Morgan and David Campanello from sponsor R PS Bollin ger amd Jack DuBois, the NJSIAA assistant director and the chairman of the Hall of Fame committee. Photo by Jim Hague
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”