Sprts News Sports News
Calendar Latest Sports News Athletic Home www.mccc.edu

Howie Landa Court Unveiled Amid Friends, Fanfare and Fun


West Windsor, N.J. -- They came from as far north as northern New York, as far south as Florida and as far west as California to pay tribute to a coach they continue to respect and cherish 25 years after his retirement from Mercer County Community College in 1987. It was Howie Landa's day on Sept. 15 when the college unveiled his name on the basketball court in the West Windsor campus gym.

As several speakers noted, when future Mercer students ask about the name on the court, they will learn the storied history of Mercer's basketball program under Coach Landa -- when the Vikings went to the national tournament six times and won the national title twice (1973 and 1974).

Landa, a resident of Henderson, Nevada, who attended the event with his daughter and son-in-law, Davida and Beau Mentley, teared up at many points in the emotion-packed ceremony.

"It isn't about Howie Landa. It's about all of you," he told the packed house. "I was only as good as the players who played for me. You are the ones who put my name on this court. I am in 12 Halls of Fame, but this is the greatest honor of all."

Master of Ceremonies George O'Gorman, a long-time Trentonian sportswriter who served on the Landa Tribute Committee, started off the lively program. "Of the people who have made a difference around Trenton, Howie Landa is at the top of the list," O'Gorman observed. "This is a fitting testimony, a legacy for future generations. He was an iconic coach and he put Mercer on the map. He was a coach who coaches came to see."

Many of the approximately 200 guests in attendance are now coaches themselves - in men's and women's basketball at the college level, high school level, and in youth basketball leagues, as well as in other sports.

Landa Committee Chair Al Leister, who served as MCCC athletics director during much of the Landa era, also addressed the audience, acknowledging the many current and retired staffers who have helped to make the athletics program strong, including retired administrative assistant Carol Gibilisco and equipment manager Zinna Kusnirik, now 96 years old.

"Carol was the rudder on the Vikings ship and Zinna kept us humble," he said. Leister thanked Landa for supporting his own candidacy at Mercer. "I planned to stay three years. That lasted over 40," Leister said, who still teaches math as an adjunct professor.

Leister noted that Landa's standards for excellence are ones the college continues to strive for today. "But excellence costs. So we truly appreciate your support and for showing your respect and love for Howie Landa." Approximately $25,000 has been raised towards the $50,000 goal for the Howie Landa Tribute Fund to benefit student athletes.

Physical Education Professor Bob Pugh, a Landa assistant for six seasons in the 1970s, recalled the joys and the pressures that came with national fame. "When we returned to the national championships in 1974, our emotions were in overdrive. We had a target on our back. But we repeated as champs. You never realize you are making history while you are part of it," he said.

Current Athletics Director John Simone read a letter from the college's first president, Dr. Richard Greenfield, who was unable to attend but sent his words of congratulations. "Thank you so much for the seeds you planted," Simone read from Greenfield's letter. He added that the MCCC athletics program has never been stronger, with nine intercollegiate teams and 153 participating athletes this year.

Other committee members include Bob DiFalco of the MCCC Board of Trustees, who presented proclamations from the New Jersey Legislature and the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and Landa assistants Charles Smith and Bill Panella. Also on the committee are current Basketball Coach Howard Levy and Academic Counselor Fred Weiner. College representatives include Erin Cahill, Charlene Edwards, Wendy Humphrey, Edyta Kuciapa, Amy Frangione and Mellissia Zanjani. Rosanne Zarrili and Jeremy Parry have also provided valuable assistance.

President Patricia Donohue noted that the event celebrated what is best about Mercer - coaches, faculty and staff all working together to mentor and guide students to better futures. "We have a deep and lasting commitment to our student athletes. We understand the role of athletics in molding young people into responsible, take-charge adults… who know how to manage their priorities, work as a team and pursue their goals with determination," Donohue said.

Three players shared their recollections of the Landa era. Mel Weldon, a First Team All-American and MVP of the 1973 championship team, recalled Landa as a coach who became like his dad. "He did this not just for me, but for every kid who came across his path." After graduating from MCCC, Weldon transferred to Boston College and continued his highly successful basketball career. He returned to central New Jersey in the late 1970s, where he has served as a long-time manager for the Trenton Housing Authority. He is also a well-known youth coach.

Alumna Deitra Primas-Johnson, who played for the women's team from 1978-1980, recalled Landa's role in promoting women's sports back when Title IV was in its infancy. Now the sports editor of the Atlanta Daily World, Johnson spoke of Landa's intensity as a coach and his profound impact as a mentor. "He helped me grow up," she said. Johnson also read heartfelt comments from Ann Meyers-Drysdale, who played for the New Jersey Gems under Coach Landa in the Women's Basketball Association, the predecessor of the WNBA. Today Meyers Drysdale is president/general manager of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and vice president of the NBA's Phoenix Sun.

Rich Freda, another player on the championship team, recalled Landa's goals for that stellar 1972-73 season. "He told us he wanted to get to the national championship game. He never stated that winning it was one of his goals. When we got there, he said, 'You brought me here. Now win it for yourselves.'" And they did.

Yet another highlight was the unveiling of two paintings by MCCC Fine Arts Professor Mel Leipzig, Landa's long-time colleague and friend. In a homage to Landa's impact on the next generation of coaches, Leipzig created a large-scale painting depicting three current young MCCC coaches: Erin Cahill (women's cross country), Miles Smith (assistant men's basketball coach), and Jane Berlinger (assistant women's basketball coach). A second painting that Leipzig presented as a gift to Landa captured a famous photo of Landa himself as a young coach with the current young coaches in the background.

In his presentation, Leipzig observed, "There is a lot in common between careers in sports and in art. You have to be committed to it. You have to have a passion for it." He thanked his young models and Landa for all that he has done for Mercer.

The festivities continued into the evening at the MCCC Conference Center, where guests enjoyed dinner and more opportunities to share stories from the past and express their appreciation for one of the all-time greats to coach the game.

The Landa Tribute Fund continues to accept donations. For more information, visit the MCCC Foundation website here or call the Foundation Office at 609-570-3659. Donations by check may be made payable to the MCCC Foundation and mailed to: MCCC Foundation c/o Finance and Accounting, P.O. Box B, Trenton, NJ 08690. (Those contributing by check should indicate that the funds are for the Landa Tribute.)

Current basketball coach Howard Levy with Coach Landa. Levy, who serves on the Landa Tribute Committee, attended one of Landa's youth basketball camps. He went on to play at Princeton University and serve as an assistant coach there before coming to Mercer in 2008.
Zinna Kusnirik, now 96 years old, worked in the Athletics office for 20 years while Landa coached at Mercer. She says Landa was "respected by the players. He was known all over, everywhere we went." She is pictured with George O'Gorman.
Originally from Phildadelphia, Landa is pictured with a "Philly connection," Jim Lynam, former coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Landa's daughter, Davida, expressed her appreciation to the college for making the event possible.

Return to Landa Tribute Page

Landa Tribute on Facebook

Return to Current News

Return to Athletics Home Page

Return to Sports News


Unveiling the Howie Landa basketball court are, from left, MCCC President Patricia C. Donohue, Landa's daughter Davida, alums Deitra Primas-Johnson, Rich Freda, Mel Weldon, and Coach Landa, far right.
"It's because of all of you," Landa told the crowd, as he thanked them for coming out to pay him this honor.
Professor Mel Leipzig, second from left, created two paintings in tribute to Landa. Current coaches depicted in the paintings are Jane Berlinger, Miles Smith and Erin Cahill.
Sportswriter George O'Gorman (at podium) served as MC for the ceremony. Also participating were, from left, Professors Mel Leipzig and Bob Pugh, Athletics Director John Simone, President Patricia Donohue, Committee Chair Al Leister, Mr. Landa, Landa's daughter Davida, and alums Deitra Primas-Johnson, Rich Freda and Mel Weldon.
Landa enjoyed a reunion with MCCC staffers and former players outside the Physical Education building prior to the ceremony.
Landa was greeted by many long-time faculty members, including Mathematics Professor Art Schwartz.
The "Landa Girls," who worked in Landa's summer camps, traveled from all parts of the country to attend the event. Many are now coaches.
Landa's speech was in turns poignant, inspirational -- and funny.
Landa, second from right, is pictured with current basketball coach and committee member Howard Levy, far right, and players and assistant coaches from this year's squad.
Landa, center, brought his own memorabilia to share with his former players. Pictured next to Landa, at right, is former assistant coach Charles Smith.
MCCC basketball alumni John McKeown, far left, and Joe McKeown, far right, are pictured with Landa, third from left, and Al Leister at the MCCC Conference Center. Joe McKeown is the current women's basketball coach at Northwestern University.
A slide show captured images from the Landa era.
Landa and Leipzig with the painting Leipzig created for Landa.

MCCC basketball alum Denise Randolph, left, and Deitra Primas-Johnson look over old photos as former athletics administrator Carol Gibilisco looks on.

Have comments on the event? Couldn't make it and would like to share your stories? Visit the Landa Tribute page on Facebook here.