Sussex County History Today: More on star’s beginning

| 16 Sep 2023 | 04:52

This is Part 3 of the story of one of Sussex County’s most standout of athletes. Michael Ferrara was exceptional in high school and college and made it to the NBA - considered the pinnacle of achievement.

How he gained his success is documented here, and the “history lesson” may act as a guide for others willing to try to make the best of what skills and abilities they may have.

Here is Mike’s story, as told by himself, Part 3 ...


The ‘74-75 season ended with a close loss to Clifford Scott in the semifinals of the Group 1 state tournament.

Clifford Scott won the state in the next game and had a good team, with future Chicago Bull Gary Garland as their main guy.

Mr. (Frank) Virtue and I always felt that if we played them again, we would have beaten them. But we both agree, they were very good.

That night down below at their place, they outplayed us and deserved a close win.

It was the next day, and we were all back in the gym about 2:30 to 3 pm. training and playing every day with Mr. (Jim) Platukis. He was about 24 or 25 at this time and a former Little All-America basketball player from Bloomsburg, Pa.

We were already getting ready for the ‘75-76 season. Then by that summer, the committed basketball training crew grew to about 15 to 20 guys our age and older, and we played everywhere every night all spring and summer. Not to mention two sessions a day doing drills or playing at Franklin High School or working out one on one with the Stick, Nick Stefkovich.

The 1975-76 school year started, and we lost three committed good role players (Pete, Milt and Gaylan) from the ‘74-75 team but we picked up five new even more committed players with Jimmy Coleman, Doug Bowlby, Jackie Kovack, Tommy Conklin and Earl Hornyak.

So at the very least, we were much deeper with basketball talent this year than last year.

In thinking about it, I am not sure which team was better. They were both very special teams and incredible to be on and play for. They are the two best teams (coaching and players) I have ever played for or with.

Bernie Bickerstaff coaching the NBA Bullets Dunbar Pro league team was the third best coach/team I ever encountered or played for.

Let’s talk about this team. In 1975-76, the SCIL was formed, and Franklin left the Skyline Conference and joined.

There were eight teams in the new league. Hopatcong, Newton and Lenape were very good.

So let me give you a feel for the explosiveness and character of this team. Here are some of the highlights all verified by Hornyak, who is the unofficial FHS/Ogdensburg basketball historian.

In the SCIL, we went 16-0. We beat those 16 teams by more than 600 total points, making the average victory 37.5+ points per game in league.

Four quick stories: We played High Point. At halftime I think I remember us hitting 101. In the third and fourth quarters, all the starters were sitting, and our second/third team mostly played.

Our second team was probably the fifth- or sixth-best team in the county that year. Mr. Virtue did everything he could do to keep the score down that night, and I think he even considered playing our Ram mascot and the ball boy.

Dunking was illegal back then, but no one told Tom Conklin. He got a break away two-hand tomahawk dunk that game. It didn’t count, we got a technical foul, but looking in the stands you would have thought we won the national championship.

I was on the bench watching the stands and I remember the reaction to that dunk being very wild-crazy. We won the game 151-43. Stick and I combined for 99 points.

Our team held the state record for the most points scored in a game for 16 years (151). We still hold the state record for the greatest margin of victory of any game (108 points). Second place was Camden in 2001: 157-67 (90-point victory).

If the starters had played in the entire game, we would have scored 175 to 210 points that night.

Second quick story: Hopatcong was the second-best team in the county led by a young Dennis Tobin. They came to FHS to play us. Not an easy gym to come play in back then.

For some reason we came in a little flat that night. Dennis was a sophomore and was very good, and he wasn’t flat. So it was a close single-digit game that they were actually in, and we only won by about 10, 12 maybe 14?

The next day in the New Jersey Herald, you would have thought they beat us by 30. All I can remember is reading the paper in amazement. The Herald sportswriters didn’t like us or our coaches that much; they thought we were bullies on the court and that our coaches ran the scores up all the time.

We may have been a little over-aggressive thanks to Mr. Platukis, but if our coaches ran the scores up, we would have averaged maybe 120 to 125 points a game instead of just over the 100 points we did average.

Mr. Virtue and Mr. Platukis weren’t too happy about that Hopatcong Herald write-up, and we paid for that poor performance in practice the next few days.

Third quick story: This team really didn’t have a set offense. Stick and I stayed spread out on different sides of the court and we just ran the ball up the court like the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Running Rebels back then.

So Mr. Virtue and Mr. Platukis focused on defense in practice. Their new goal this year was to shut a team out in a quarter. I am not kidding.

So, our practices were now three-quarters defense and one-quarter offense, which none of us liked. Needless to say, we did shut out one of the teams in the first quarter that year and a few others we did keep to two points for a quarter in a few other games.

Final funny story: We were playing at home crushing someone but for some reason in the first half I wasn’t seeing the ball on my side of the court. Hornyak kept it on the other side the entire first half, throwing it to Stefkovich and Coleman.

Halftime comes, I am not happy. I am leading the state in scoring, and I have a 30-point average to maintain (Stick is somewhere around 23 to 25 a game).

I had maybe eight to 10 points in the first half and maybe took five shots that half. I voiced my concern at halftime, it was addressed by the coaches, and we went back out.

The third quarter starts, and the same thing is going on. So midway through the third quarter, me and Stick find ourselves together under the basket going for an offensive rebound far side.

He gets it, goes back up with it very relaxed and doesn’t even jump because I am the only one next to him. The next thing I knew my hand got in the way of his shot and I had the ball. Yea, that was me.

Then I took the ball and put it back in. Stick looked like he just saw a ghost. He was in shock and didn’t say a word.

Coleman and Conklin started yelling at me for blocking his shot. Hornyak was a sophomore and he’s hiding down court because he was the culprit causing the problem.

We had to call a quick timeout before we almost had our first brawl amongst ourselves. We run over to the bench, the coaches know exactly what’s going on and they bench the three guys and put three new guys in with me and the Stick like nothing happened. Problem solved.

I got my 30 and I think Hornyak wasn’t starting for a few games after those shenanigans. Nothing was ever said about that blocked shot again until just now.

We played five fewer games that season than the ‘74-75 season. So we ended up with 21 wins, we went deep in the states again and lost to Cresskill (that should have never happened).

Of the very few games we ever lost in both seasons (all were very close games and mostly to Group 3 and 4 schools down below at their home gyms), the Cresskill one-point loss hurt the most.

We could have played those guys nine more times and won every game and probably some big. But anyone who plays knows that’s the way it goes sometimes on any given night.

Of the two seasons, Cresskill by far was a huge disappointment and should not have happened. Mr. Virtue and Mr. Platukis deserved a state championship and so did we, but we fell just a little short of the ultimate prize.

Stick received a scholarship to the University of Connecticut, and I received one to Niagara. For some reason, we separated instead of staying together and went in different directions after high school.

I don’t know what we were thinking back then, but we were off to the second half of our basketball careers with new coaches, teammates and without each other.

Were we to get lost in the big college basketball pond or were we going to rise to the occasion? That was the question being asked and often.

Mr. Virtue, Mr. Platukis, my dad and I thought we knew the answer to that question, so it was back in the gym for the next five to six years to figure it all out. What a journey that was.

Now, the real hard part starts.

Contact Bill Truran, Sussex County historian, at