Two true gentlemen who have spent their long careers pushing their players into the spotlight ahead of themselves, simply could not hide from the glare this time.
Even though the self-important meter may have read close to zero with Rahway’s Jeff Lubreski and Roselle’s Michael Smith in the same gym together, they still became the big story within the story (like it or not, guys) by reaching two significant milestones simultaneously Friday evening in Rahway.
Rahway seniors Ernest Carter, Amari Thompson and Leon Lawson all played spectacularly on Senior Night to direct Rahway past Roselle, 79-48, for Lubreski’s 500th career victory, and Smith called an end to a 45-year association with that proud program, 29 as an assistant under Stan Kokie and the last 16 as head coach.
Carter scored 25 points and had five assists, Thompson compiled 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists and nine of his team’s 20 steals, and Lawson produced six points, 15 rebounds and five blocks. Tahdir Carson scored 17 points and had nine rebounds and fellow sophomore Elijah Harris contributed 11 points and eight rebounds for Roselle (5-7).
Lubreski, now 500-292 in 32 seasons at three schools, becomes the 40th coach in New Jersey history to reach the half-century mark, and the sixth who is associated heavily with Union County programs. The last was Elizabeth’s Phil Colicchio who also reached the milestone on the final day of the season, last March 12 against Paterson Kennedy in the Group 4 semifinals before the rest of the tournament was halted due to the fast-spreading coronavirus.
“What can I say? I’ve been around a long time. I’ve had very good players, I’ve had loyal assistant coaches, I’ve had fantastic athletic directors and administrators and I’ve had the support of my family,” said Lubreski, who found a way to make family and his excellent staff one and the same thing in a way, as sons Ryan and Sean now coach with him. Same goes for Smith, whose son Malcolm has been a longtime assistant for the Rams.
Fitting for a couple guys who’ve had a knack for treating their players like a part of the family while also coaching the living heck out of them; Lubreski at South Plainfield for 19 seasons, then Plainfield for seven, and the last six at Rahway, while Smith has been a Roselle lifer.
“All I know is Roselle, basketball, sports, my family and my church. That’s what I’ve been doing all these years,” the 69-year-old Smith said. “I’ve had great kids and great families throughout. It’s been such a pleasure all these years.”
That pleasure is no doubt mutual for the fans who’ve followed both Roselle and Lubreski’s squads for the last several decades.
During Smith’s 45 years, the Rams reached eight NJSIAA state finals and won six, three each in Groups 1 and 2. Even when they are not as talented as the opponent, which was the case against Rahway (12-2), they scrap and they dig and they do it together. And Lubreski’s kids do that, too, even when they are the superior team.
Lubreski won two state sectional titles and two Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament titles at South Plainfield, and two Group 3 state crowns at Plainfield in 2011 and ’12. Both those teams reached the Tournament of Champions final before bowing to St. Anthony. So far at Rahway, Lubreski has fashioned a 113-24 record and led the Indians to five Union County Conference divisional titles in six years.
“For me as a longtime AD, it’s been an honor to have the opportunity to work with Jeff as our basketball coach the last six years,” said Rahway athletic director Tom Lewis, himself a former Rahway head basketball coach. “He’s a guy who’s just loaded with humility and yet as a game coach, he’s a surgeon’s surgeon. He’s a hall of fame coach, no doubt about it.
“You know, a guy can get 500 wins at a basketball factory,” he said. “The bigger honor for him through the years is realizing where those wins came from. Because outside of Plainfield, a lot of those wins are coming from non-traditional basketball powers. That’s a great accomplishment that should never be taken lightly.”
Accomplishments? What accomplishments? There was a post-game ceremony seconds after the final horn with a nice plaque (shown above) marched out to midcourt and a commemorative basketball. Lubreski looked almost as if he’d just come back from a bad afternoon at the dentist because of all the fuss.
Fact is, he wanted to talk to his players first, or to Smith to congratulate on his noble career at Roselle. t
“Mike is a class individual. I told him I’m very honored to have met him a few years back and call him one of my friends,” Lubreski said. “Always, win or lose, you could never tell by the expression on his face what the outcome of the game was.
“There are guys – and Mike is one of them – who keep the game and everything else in perspective,” he said. “It’s just a marvel he’s done that as long as he’s done it.”
Certainly, Roselle would have loved to present Smith with a victory in his final game, but Rahway presented far too many of its better qualities throughout the contest for the smaller, younger Rams to overcome.
Rahway’s constant ball pressure forced those 20 steals, which led to numerous transition buckets by Thompson, Carter and Nasir Arribas. Lawson was a shot terminator in the low post, and the Indians even showed off their range from time to time, with Thompson and Carter each sticking three 3-pointers.
“That’s how we’ve played this year. That was our strength,” Lubreski said. “It was good to see some guys on our team really develop, even though it was a brief year. Like Leon Lawson. He was just a pleasure to watch get better and better. And our other seniors, Amari, Ernest, Nasir, Mekhi (McFadden) and JJ (Cid) off the bench, they played together and they really grew as leaders.
“You watch them and you see them develop and you only hope that you’ve done enough for them, so that when they leave here they have some kind of base line where they can continue to develop,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Yes, it is about the kids. Always has been and probably always will be for both Lubreski and Smith. But, from time to time, it’s not a bad thing to shove reluctant guys like that out onto midcourt and make them suffer some applause for the admiration and the trust and the friendships they have gathered up though days and weeks and years of integrity.
“Mike is a gentleman’s gentleman,” Lewis said of Smith. “When you talk about a great human being, you dial him up.
“And Jeff won’t ever talk about himself or any of his accomplishments. He’s always very unassuming; doesn’t want anything for himself,” Lewis said. “He’s really unique.”
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