Hackettstown’s Mike Palko Celebrates a Basketball Life

Photo credit: Rutgers University Athletics

By Steve Sears

Mike Palko has wonderful basketball memories.

While a Hackettstown Tiger, in three varsity seasons he had almost 1,000 career points, but did crack the century mark for rebounds. Also, he was a member of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights legendary NCAA Final Four team in 1975 – 76.

Palko explains his earlier days playing the sport. “I really had never played competitive basketball until the eighth grade, and a friend of mine told me that Hackettstown had a new recreation director and that he was putting a team in the Lakeland Midget Basketball League, which I think is still in existence today.” Nelson Hoyt was that recreation director, and he had seen Palko and his friend playing basketball, and wanted them to play for the team. When Palko’s friend convinced him to play, he was in. “And Coach Hoyt said to me, ‘Palko, I saw your father. He’s about 6’ 4”, and your mother’s tall, too. You’re going to be about 6’ 7”, and if you work at this game, you could go to college for free.’ He told me that after about a month playing with them, and that hit home with me. I enjoyed playing, I believed what he said, and I made a commitment to basketball, and he turned out to be right. Sometimes people say something to the right kid at the right time, and luckily my ears were hearing what he was saying.”

When Palko was a junior, the Don Grant-coached Hackettstown Tigers had a great 1970 – 71 season. “We lost the sectional final championship game at County College of Morris against Mountain Lakes, but here’s the interesting thing about that,” Palko says. “Had we won that game, we would have been playing against East Rutherford High School, and the head coach at East Rutherford High School was Dick Vitale.”

Vitale the week before had seen the 6’ 7” Palko in action when the Tigers had defeated a very strong Glen Ridge team. His concern? Palko’s superb defensive skills, and how he would match up against East Rutherford’s 6’ 10” All-American senior center, Les Cason, if the clubs faced each other. That matchup didn’t happen, but what did occur was Vitale a year later being hired as an assistant coach at Rutgers, and his radar was honed in on Palko, whom he wanted him to play in New Brunswick two seasons later. 

The Tigers were 22 -3 and Delaware River Conference champs in Palko’s senior campaign, and Vitale recruited Palko and five other freshmen, and it coincided with Rutgers for the first time offering athletic scholarships. “It was also the first year that freshmen were eligible to play varsity basketball,” Palko says. 

Palko was a Scarlet Knight from 1972 – 1976, and the total won – loss record for those four seasons was 86 – 29. The final season was historic; the club finished the regular season undefeated at 31 – 0 and headed to the NCAA basketball Final Four for the first and only time, where they lost both the semifinal and consolation round games to end up a bittersweet 31 – 2. 

Rutgers played its home games at the aged and intimidating College Avenue Gymnasium, affectionately called “The Barn,” a place where fans were right at court’s edge and, when the Knights gave them something to cheer about, paint peelings fell from the ceiling. “It was only really just a little more than half of an arena,” Palko states, “because the half behind the benches, there were wooden walls, and there was a swimming pool on the other side of that. Sitting on the bench, you could smell the chlorine through that wooden wall. There was 2,800 people on one side, it was loud because all the sound came at you from one direction. It was amazing.”

In the final regular season game at The Barn, Rutgers trailed a very good Saint Bonaventure team by seven points with a few minutes left. “I think every single guy on the team would tell you the same thing,” Palko says. “I think the whole season was flashing before our eyes.” In fact, a few of the Bonnies had even told Rutgers players that they were rooting for the Knights to stay undefeated, because they wanted to be the ones that came down to New Brunswick and end the Knights undefeated season, which they came very close to doing. “They had us on the ropes, there’s no doubt about it,” Palko says.

Rutgers outscored the Bonnies, 17 -6, down the stretch and won, 85 – 80, capping a perfect regular season.

Palko, now 68, has been married to his wife, Patty, for 40 years, and the couple has two sons, Mike Jr. and James, and a grandson, Matthew James. 

And Palko, who has served as an assistant coach at Hackettstown, and head coach at both Randolph and Warren Hills High Schools, is still the only Hackettstown basketball player who has gone to the NCAA Final Four. “It was close to about a decade of fantastic memories with teammates from eighth grade through senior year in college,” Palko says fondly of his basketball career.

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