Hometown: Bloomfield, NJ
By Steve Sears
If you asked Kelly Tripucka what his favorite lifetime memory is, no doubt it would be sports related.
After all, Tripucka played 12 years in the National Basketball Association, being drafted in the first round by the Detroit Pistons in 1981. That first season, he was also named an NBA Eastern Conference All-Star, and for a period he held the Pistons team record for points in a game with 56. He scored over 12,000 points in 10 NBA seasons.
Then there was his collegiate career for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, where he started for four years and led the squad in scoring each season, he and his teammates knocked off a few ranked opponents, and went to the NCAA Final Four in his freshman season of 1977-1978.
However, significant as all of the before mentioned is, perhaps Tripucka’s fondest recollections take him back to his high school days, when as a three-year starter for legendary Head Coach George Cella’s Bloomfield Bengals, he led the team to a 65-16 record and two consecutive appearances in the Essex County Tournament finals. It was the competition faced, the 2,278 points scored in just three seasons, being named an All-American as early as his junior year, as well as being lauded as the Star-Ledger New Jersey Boys High School Basketball Player of the Century in 2000 – all that resonates in a very special way.
“Memories are memories, whatever you make of them, whatever other people make of them,” Tripucka says. “There’s no question that’s also the start of everything; that’s your background, that’s who you are, that’s where you grow up. That kind of makes you into who you end up becoming. Obviously, when you go through it and end up reaching the pinnacle like I did for the most part, that’s also special, too. But it starts at home, and that’s another era. That’s what makes it even more special.”
Tripucka, in addition to his hardwood exploits which garnered significant collegiate interest nationally, was also an All-State soccer player (he scored 26 goals as a senior) and track and field record setter (an eastern states champion in javelin, and he was also a high jumper), the results of which were additional colleges recruiting him to attend their schools for those sports. Letters arrived regularly at both the high school and the Tripucka home.
Tripucka credits his coaches – Cella, Jim White, and Paul Williams – with his success. “I was fortunate to have three of the greatest high school coaches in different sports than anybody could possibly ever have,” Tripucka attests. “You don’t see coaches around for 40 years like that. Those are the three, top of their profession, great guys, great coaches, fun to be around, and they deserve a lot of the credit because they taught me and others like me to be who we end up being.”
A big aid as well was growing up in a family of competitive brothers (and one sister) when backyard pick-up games became real battles and ended in fights, where the elder Tripucka, Pro Football Hall-of-Famer and Kelly’s Dad, Frank, would be summoned to grab a rake or shovel and end the tussling. Little brother Kelly often was teased, having the ball kicked away from him by his older siblings. “Again, that’s part of growing up,” he says. “There are older brothers and they wanted to do what they were doing and most of the time they didn’t like you because you were in the way, so they kicked the ball down the driveway or into a neighbor’s yard.”
“But I was persistent: I always came back because that’s what I wanted to do. To stick with it.”
When Kelly was in junior high school, brother T.K. was recruited by an East Orange summer basketball league coach to play on his team, and the team suffered a crushing loss in its first game. When asked if he had any other friends that he could think of that might be interested in playing, T.K. asked his younger brother. “I was never so excited in my life,” Tripucka recalls. “So, I show up with T.K., it’s outside and they have stands, beautiful glass backboards, and he tells the coach, ‘I brought my brother with me.’ And the coach looks at me and says, ‘Yeah, fine.’ We start to play the game; he has no idea who I am – and why would he? I’m in ninth grade – and we’re getting killed. The guy, the coach, he’s frustrated they’re losing again, and he walks down the bench, points to me and says, ‘Ahh, why don’t you go in.’” Tripucka laughs as he continues. “I end up scoring 20 points, we come back, and we win the game, and the coach is running around like Jim Valvano when North Carolina State won the national title! He grabs T.K. (who is 6’ 9”) by the shirt and pulls him down, and this guy is like 5’ 8”, and he looks at T.K. and says, ‘You got any more brothers at home?!’”
From that moment on, Tripucka became a fan favorite in East Orange, and thereafter the rest of the county and the state.
Tripucka watched older brothers Tracy, Mark, Todd, and T.K. play for the legendary Cella, and he wanted his chance. “Growing up, my goal was to make the high school team and play for George Cella. That’s all you thought about. There was no thought beyond that. ‘I want to play for Bloomfield High School and George Cella.’ So, to finally get that opportunity and play with my brother T.K. for a year, and actually get coached by him (Cella), it meant everything. A great man; knew basketball through and through. It was an honor to play for him.”
Tripucka achieved his goal, and for the next three years he led Bloomfield to (arguably – there was a three year, 64-
game winning streak in the late 1950s) its most exciting three years of basketball ever. As a sophomore for Bloomfield’s 20-4 Bengals, Tripucka, who was on the starting five, scored 437 points. Colleges came calling early. “Some guy who sent a letter thought I was a senior,” he laughs. His star was rising.
In his junior season, he averaged 29.4 ppg and scored 796 points, became the school’s all-time leading scorer, led the squad to an overall 24 – 3 record, a Big Ten conference title, and an Essex County Tournament finals appearance. Perhaps the most sparkling gems from that season were wins on the road over rival East Orange, 82-71 (“They never lost at home,” Tripucka says), and at home versus #1 ranked Trenton, also by an 82-71 count. “At that time, you basically played in your county. To be playing Trenton at that time, I don’t know how that game was scheduled,” Tripucka says, who scored 41 points that snowy afternoon. “How crazy that, at that time, they were #1 in the state and we were #2. The gym was packed, the kids were all into it, and the fans and everything else, and you couldn’t ask for a better scenario. They happened to be #1 in the state, and we get a shot at them. Obviously, there was a lot of talk going on, but we basically ran them out of the gym. That was big for the school, the program, and it was great for me as well. That was a huge game.”
In his senior year, Tripucka tallied 1,045 points, and Bloomfield finished the season with a 21 – 8 record but lost again in the county finals and state tournament. Tripucka scored 54 points in his finale, an 82-80 loss to North Bergen, where the opposition said there was no way he’d score his season’s average – 36 points per game — against them. Tripucka had tallied just short of that by the end of the first half. Courtesy of Danny Callandrillo, former North Bergen all-stater, Tripucka was told that the North Bergen coach walked in at half time and, seeking to have someone else defend the Bengal star in the second half, asked, “Okay, who wants to guard him?” All the players lowered their heads. There were no takers.
“Not winning the county tournament one of those two years,” Tripucka says, “that still bugs me, and that along with not winning a state championship.” But there was success, some big wins, and Tripucka attributes that to something very specific. “When you have (on your schedule) teams like East Orange and Orange, you can’t play scared. We got our fair share of them, obviously they won the big games, and I’m still friendly with some of those guys, but I’ve always said that not winning the country tournament at least once and not winning a state championship for George (Cella)…that will go to my grave (with me). I think about it every once in a while, that’s for sure. It still hurts.”
“But it was a great, great time in high school. I enjoyed every second of it.”
Among the coaches who visited the BHS gym to scout and attempt to recruit Tripucka were Bobby Knight of Indiana, Lefty Driesell of Maryland, Notre Dame’s Digger Phelps, and others. Tripucka visited Duke, Maryland, South Carolina, and Notre Dame, his eventual choice, the same college his Dad attended. “If I didn’t go to Notre Dame, I probably would’ve gone to Maryland.”
Tripucka would go on to become one of Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorers. “It’s a whole other level,” Tripucka recalls about his college basketball and his freshman season. “You have to be patient. I was always very confident; I never backed down from anybody. I didn’t care; you weren’t going to get into my head or whatever. I think I’m better than you and I’m going to show you. In college, you just can’t assume that you’re going to walk in there because some of these guys have been playing for three years. But I was confident in my ability and I knew you have to work, so I worked at it and I was bigger than most guys at that time at that age. I didn’t start right away but I knew I was going to be a (smart) player, and after three or four games I ended up becoming a starter, and we had some really, really good teams.”
Notre Dame made it to the NCAA Final Four but was bested by Duke, 90-86. Tripucka sparkled during the season, averaging almost 12 points per game. He averaged 18 points per game in his 1980-81 senior season, sealing his collegiate career with 1,719 points. During his four seasons, the Fighting Irish won an average of 23 games per season.
Tripucka was drafted 12th by the Detroit Pistons, who in the same draft had also selected Indiana Hoosier All-American guard, Isaiah Thomas. “That was a great place. We put Detroit on the map and, again, it was about making another adjustment from college to the pros. You’ve got to have confidence. You’re battling bigger, stronger, faster guys, but I made my way in, worked hard, and having an opportunity to start and playing all 82 games that year. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a job, but at the same time it’s game. It was a very successful first year.”
A title eluded Tripucka as well in Detroit, who traded him to the Utah Jazz, and he eventually became part of a new regime in Charlotte, North Carolina known as the Hornets. “We used to sell out all the time as a first-year program. It was a happening place. It was awesome!” For Tripucka, the joy, after two forgettable seasons in Utah, was found in playing again. “That’s what it’s all about. You play. I played in the Jersey shore league. It was about playing. The fortunate thing was that I went to Charlotte. It was unfortunate that it was an expansion team, and it’s tough to win. But you know what, Charlotte was a great place. Two of my three children were born there, and for me it was a rebirth. Basketball was fun again. 20 wins isn’t a lot, but it was enough that they threw us a ticker-tape parade after the season. I was back to playing again, and that made me happy.”
Tripucka retired from the NBA after the 1990-91 season with a career scoring average of 17.2 points per game.
Tripucka and his wife of 33 years, Janice, have three children. Oldest son Travis and middle child Jake had successful sports careers, and youngest child, Reagan, is a college senior. “I’m very proud of my kids and what they’ve been able to do,” Tripucka states proudly, “and I think they’ll appreciate it more as they go through life and get a little older, and it certainly goes by quickly.”
Every so often when in his old Bloomfield stomping grounds, Tripucka reflects. The Brookside Park basketball court has yielded to a playground. “It’s gone,” Tripucka says of the court where over the years he many times perfected his game against top competition. “How disappointing is that?!” The home he grew up in doesn’t seem as big as it did in his childhood. “When we played in that side lot, we hit baseballs out into the street and had neighborhood football games right there, and that basket was the greatest thing ever. The basket was awesome – I think it’s still the original basket my father put up — and we used to think that that driveway was forever (long), but when you drive by it now, it doesn’t seem as big. Boy, wouldn’t you like to know some of the legends of some of the three-on-three of four-on-four games we had that were pretty good.” Tripucka also states that, when at the high school, he does visit the trophy case and his retired #42, which garners the attention of many sports, especially basketball, fans.
For Kelly Tripucka, it was all about the joy of playing, and never playing scared, especially in his and the glory days of Bloomfield Bengal basketball. “You can’t play scared. That was never my problem. I came to play, and I backed down from no one. They (opponents) knew they were in for a game when they played Bloomfield.”