Danvers High Champion Hoopster Jeff Ryback Dies, at 68

With the passing of Jeff Ryback in mid-February, at 68, the world lost a Renaissance man of the highest form: award-winning writer, playwright, author, actor, film producer and director, educator, commercial pilot, software developer, worldwide traveler, theater company founder ands artistic director, Ford Agency model, field biologist. Just google him.

But to us contemporaries who had the pleasure of sharing our high school days with him, especially on the basketball court, he will always be the deadly shooting cager who led the Danvers High basketball team to its first Northeastern Conference championship in 1964.

He had some talented teammates that year, most prominently fellow starters Bob Cunningham, Bob Bonner, John Keane, Steve Lenz and sixth man Pat O’Shea. But Ryback, a 6-2 forward with equally adept moves to the basket and a deadly pull-up jump shot, was the straw that stirred that championship drink and enabled the Oniontowners to surprise the title favorite, Marblehead, in both of their meetings that winter.

Ryback’s crew had had a respectable season the year before, but with the arrival of a new young coach in John McGrath, the all-senior rotation flourished and Ryback emerged as the best player in the eight-team circuit. Those were the years before NEC realignment/expansion when the loop was comprised of Danvers, Amesbury, Swampscott, Marblehead, Andover, Newburyport, Woburn and Winthrop.

“When I got the job I was apprised quickly,” McGrath recalled, “that I had some good athletes but only one pure basketball player in Jeff, and that Jeff would need a big year to carry us too any significant success. And he did indeed. In addition, he was an inspiration to all the younger basketball players in town. He was Danvers’ Mr. Basketball.

“As good as Jeff was at both ends of the floor, that was a team where the individuals for the most part were good, but as a team they were excellent — and intelligent. They were all team players, Jeff in particular . He had some big scoring games, but he was a fine passer who usually found the open man when he was double teamed, which was often.

“In our 1-3-1 combination defense, Jeff played the back man and had to do a great job blocking out and rebounding.”

Ryback’s personality also played a vital role in his success as a player, which would lead him to success at the college level first at Merrimack, then at Salem State.

“Jeff knew how to control his personality on there court and off,” McGrath said. “He did not let his success affect his emotions. He kept his calm and his teammates did as well.”

Ryback was a basketball nut. He always had a ball tucked under his arm and played several hours a day during the off-season, especially in the summer. He was always finding ways to get use of a public school gym in the winter when he wasn’t at team practice or the team wasn’t playing games.

He is best remembered by this admirer for the countless pickup games he would organize at the Danvers Park court or the Maple Street School court when he wasn’t shooting at his driveway hoop located across the street from the ice cream stand/golf driving range on upper Conant Street. He made sure, too, as the BMOC (Big Man on Court), that the youngest players got their chance to shine in these pickup games.

He had a variety of interests outside basketball, like tennis and the performing arts, but none of us imagined the world he would create after graduating from college.

His brother Andrew was one year younger than Jeff and was not blessed with his size or talent, but he played a positive role on the 1964-65 team that went 7-7 in the NEC. Andrew also chose a life as a world traveler and was living in Sweden at last notice.

Thanks to Jon Tiplady, who stepped into Ryback’s “lead scorer” role the following two seasons at DHS after Ryback’s graduation, and Barry Robertson, for letting me know about Jeff’s passing.

Ryback is the second member of that championship team to pass away. The first was Cunningham, a Harvard graduate and three-sport DHS standout who had a successful career as a teacher and coach before finding his true niche working for a defense contractor in eastern Europe.

  • Get well wishes go out to McGrath, 82, the legendary Danvers High basketball and baseball coach, who is recovering from major back surgery. Prior to that he had dealt with a serious cancer condition and a heart condition that nearly killed him. McGrath won three NEC titles as hoop coach and two NEC titles, as well as an Eastern Mass. Class B title, as baseball coach.


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