Good breaks, great decisions
The course of everyone’s life is determined, to a greater or lesser extent, by a series of breaks. Bad breaks are inevitable, but not necessarily destructive if they are followed by good breaks – which often result directly from good decisions.
Steve Garay’s first bad break occurred in 1931, when he was one year old. His father, a Czechoslovakian immigrant named Mike Garay (formerly Garaj), passed away, leaving his mother, Mary Aleksa Garay, to raise Steve and his four older siblings. But a good decision turned that misfortune around when Steve was six. His mother married John Beres.
“My mother and he raised us during the Depression,” Steve said. “She did a lot of sewing and wallpaper hanging. We lived down on Dock Street right across from Malleable. A lot of ethnic people lived around there – Italians, Hungarians, Slovaks. She used to do work for them.”
John Beres was very supportive of his stepchildren. Steve remembers one particular incident where John’s understanding and sensitivity proved to be invaluable. When Steve was about eight, his passion for sports and athletic ability were beginning to blossom. He wanted to play baseball, but he needed a good glove.
“My mother took me to Murphy’s Five and Ten Cent Store and got me a real cheap kid’s glove, like a toy. I cried, so she put the glove back and said we’re not getting anything. I cried again when my stepfather came home from work. He asked what was the problem. Mother said, ‘I bought him a glove and he didn’t like it.’ He asked why I didn’t like it. I said it was cheap!”
His stepdad understood that Steve was a serious kid with athletic ability, and that a cheap glove – or no glove – might crush his enthusiasm for baseball. So he bought Steve a good glove.
As his stepchildren’s interest in sports grew, so did John’s encouragement – with one condition:
“He was totally supportive of our playing sports as long as we didn’t come home and talk about the coach,” Steve said. “His name, of course, was Beres, but when I was playing basketball, everyone would refer to him as Mr. Garay. He just smiled from ear to ear. He was a very good stepdad.”
In Sharon High School, Steve was outstanding in both baseball and basketball, becoming a starter for three years in each, as well as captain of both teams in his senior year. During one of those years, the Sharon basketball team made it all the way to the W.P.I.AL. finals, only to lose to Homestead.
After graduating in 1948, he wanted to play baseball rather than basketball.
“A friend and I went down to Bucknell,” Steve said, “but they weren’t going to give us what they had promised, so I came back home. My stepdad didn’t talk with me for a month because he was so down. He didn’t have an education, and he wanted to make sure I had one. But he couldn’t afford to send me to college.”
Steve got a job at Westinghouse, where he played on the plant’s baseball and basketball teams. It was the latter that provided him with a great opportunity.
“We played in a tournament in East Liverpool against Duquesne players. They had a good team, but we beat them. I scored I think 22 points against Steve Skendrovich from Farrell, who was supposed to be their best defensive player. He went back and told Coach Dudey Moore, ‘You’d better get that kid down here.’ They gave me a full scholarship.”
With Steve as captain during his senior year, Duquesne’s basketball team made it to the final four of the National Invitational Tournament, which at the time was bigger than the NCAA tournament. They lost the that quarterfinal game, but won the consolation game.
Steve also starred in baseball all four years. As a Junior, he set a record by hitting seven home runs and averaging .496 in 12 games. After graduating, he had the opportunity to fulfill his dream. He tried out with the Boston Red Sox, and won an assignment to their AA farm team in Greensboro, NC.
Then came another bad break. His two-year Air Force R.O.T.C. obligation prevented him from starting his pro baseball career.
But the military service had its own sports opportunities. While serving as a training officer in military law and physical fitness at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, he again played both basketball and baseball. He was named to the All Air Force teams in both sports. His Lackland basketball team won its way to the world tournament finals, where they played against a team from Bitburg, Germany. It just happened to be coached by a guy named Dean Smith.
By the time Steve got out of the Air Force, he was in his mid-twenties, a bit too old to start a professional baseball career. Instead, he became a teacher and coach at Hubbard High School. After just one year, he returned to Duquesne to earn his Master’s Degree and to coach the Freshman basketball team. During his two years there, his teams won 29 games and lost only seven.
Then he taught and coached at Ambridge High School for eleven years, first as junior high basketball coach, and then as assistant varsity coach. Again his teams were very successful.
“In 1966, I had a ninth grade team that was undefeated. It wasn’t because of me – there was a kid named Dennis Wuycik, who in ninth grade was six foot four. We won the league championship game over New Brighton. After the game, we were in the locker room having a good time. A guy comes running in and says, “Coach, there’s somebody here who wants to talk with you.’ It was University of North Carolina’s Coach Dean Smith, already recruiting Dennis. I asked him for some information about his coaching philosophy. He said, ‘Better yet, as of right now, you’re invited down to my camp. Come down anytime you want.’”
That was the beginning of a close, long-term relationship with Coach Smith. Steve served as an instructor at his North Carolina basketball camps for many years.
While at Ambridge, Steve met a Kent State student from Hubbard named Nora Lea Stephens.
“We dated three or four years,” Nora said. “I graduated in June, 1962, and we got married in August. Steve had been in Ambridge for two years, and we lived there another nine years. Our son Steve was born there, actually in Sewickley, in 1963.”
After teaching and coaching there for nine years, Steve became head basketball at Hickory High School. During the next ten years, his teams won 121 games and lost only 54. They were Section II champs two years, and Steve was Coach of the Year twice.
While at Hickory, Steve continued to coach at basketball camps, including Dean Smith’s. That provided his family with the opportunity to join him for short vacations.
“They were nice people down there,” Nora said. “Coach Smith has been a wonderful friend. Steve stayed in his house and babysat his kids once when Coach Smith went on a recruiting mission.”
Nora and Steve’s primary summer recreation was playing golf with other couples. For forty years, they also took an annual family vacation trip to Canada, where Nora formed a close relationship with her in-laws.
“Steve and his stepdad would go out fishing,” Nora said, “and his mother and I would stay in the cabin. She would sit in the evening and knit and crochet and we would talk. I found out things about her and her family that Steve didn’t even know.”
After Steve had been coaching at Hickory for ten years, he resigned as basketball coach, but continued to teach there. His teaching career spanned nearly forty years. He kept very active in sports, working at various basketball camps, including North Carolina, Westminster, and Geneva.
Nora taught in the Hubbard schools for thirty years. While raising her son Steve and supporting her husband, she enjoyed pursuing her own interests, primarily reading and traveling.
“My sister Judy and I travel a lot,” she said. “We’ve been to Europe several times, including Ireland, where my family is from. Judy and I loved to go to museums, and anything that had to do with history. Steve and I went to Hawaii for our 25th wedding anniversary, and we just went back a second time this winter.”
Nora still reads voraciously, and often donates to libraries the books she has finished. She also loves animals and supports animal charities, such as Angels for Animals in Youngstown.
“She’s a very good cook,” Steve said. “She’s a firm believer that if you can read a cookbook, you can be a good cook.”
Steve gives a lot of credit to others for his own success, particularly his stepfather and the coaches with whom he has worked: Dudey Moore, who was coach of the year two of the three years Steve played on his teams at Duquesne; Dean Smith, whom he calls the greatest coach in the country, if not the world; Larry Brown, head coach at UCLA; and Roy Williams, who as head coach at Kansas and North Carolina led his teams to seven NCAA tournament Final Fours and two national championships.
Steve was inducted into three sports Halls of Fame: Mercer County in 1985, Duquesne University in 1987, and WPIAL in 2006. While these are prestigious honors, they pale in comparison with his innumerable – but mostly anonymous – successes: his impact on the lives of the students he has coached. Ironically, their good breaks all came out of what seemed at the time to be one of Steve’s worst breaks: his missed opportunity to play professional baseball.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010