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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Steve Kuberski

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Steve Kuberski and the Buffalo Braves had an odd relationship. He was part of the Boston Celtics teams of the early 1970s that beat the Braves the first 22 times they played. Then Steve popped up on the Braves’ roster for about a month in late 1975 … only to be cut and picked up and signed by the Celtics. There he helped Boston knock off Buffalo in the Braves’ final playoff series.

Steven Paul Kuberski was born in Moline, Illinois, on November 6, 1947. Moline was part of three similar cities located around a bend in the Mississippi River; Davenport and Rock Island were the others, and the group became known as the “Tri-Cities Area.” When East Moline grew, the area switched to the ‘Quad Cities.”

He didn’t know it, of course, but he had landed in the midst of basketball country. The National Basketball Association actually had a team based in Moline from 1946 to 1961. The Tri-Cities Blackhawks moved there from Buffalo late in 1946, and their home – Wharton Field House – is still in operation. The Blackhawks were once coached by Red Auerbach and drafted but didn’t sign future Hall of Famer Bob Cousy – two of the greatest names in the history of the Boston Celtics - so maybe fate worked in some interesting ways in the way his career evolved.

Steve’s parents were Felix and Elaine Kuberski. According to census records, Felix completed one year of high school and was working as a machine operator at the age of 21 in Moline. He served in the Navy during World War II. They had five children. Steve’s paternal grandfather, Maryan, was born in Poland in 1883 and arrived in the United States in 1903. He married another Polish immigrant, Alexandria, in 1907, and they had 10 children.

Steve and his family stayed in Moline throughout his childhood, and he played for Moline High School. The team played its home games in the Wharton Field House. Steve is one of two Maroons (taken after the University of Chicago’s nickname) to play in the NBA; the other was future Celtics draft choice and player Acie Earl. Kuberski was a good player in school, once earning honorable mention on a Chicago Tribune list of the 100 greatest players in Illinois’ high school history. He averaged 14 points per game as a junior on a 15-8 team under Harv Schmidt. That was topped in 1965, when he scored 50 points in the final home game of his career at the Field House, and averaged almost 27 points per game – breaking an area record. Steve could shoot, rebound and ballhandle.

The Maroons (25-3) reached the Elite Eight of the state tournament, only to lose, 75-72, to Chicago Marshall. “It was the most disappointing loss of my career,” Kuberski said to author Taylor Bell. “I had some big losses with the Celtics that cost me a lot of money. We lost to the Knicks in the seventh game in the NBA playoffs, but the Marshall loss was even more disappointing. We should have been the first Quad City champion.”

Steve eventually was inducted into the Quad Cities Sports Hall of Fame, and was part of his high school’s charter class of the Hall of Honor in 2000. After high school graduation, he picked the University of Illinois for college over Notre Dame and UCLA. Kuberski watched as a freshman as the team went 12-12 under coach Harry Combes. Future pros Donnie Freeman and Rich Jones were on the roster. Better times, however, were believed to be in the team’s future, thanks to a good recruiting class.

Then the story became dramatic. In the summer of 1966, athletic director Doug Mills retired. The two top candidates for the job were assistant athletic director Mel Brewer and football coach Pete Elliot. It became obvious by the end of that calendar year that Elliot eventually would be hired. Brewer grabbed some files and headed for the office of David Henry, the university’s president. The documents indicated that a “slush fund” totaling $21,000 in the athletic program had been in operation for five years. Boosters and companies supplied the funds, which went to the football, basketball and athletic director’s offices for distribution.

Henry ordered three basketball players suspended immediately, and Kuberski was one of them. It was a huge story, because the team was ranked 13th in the nation in a national poll at the time. Soon after that, the three initial players eventually lost their eligibility for the year. In February, the Big Ten’s athletic directors voted to apply two-year losses of eligibility to the 14 players in the program who received illegal payments, and they also demanded the resignation of three top Illinois administrators including Elliot and Combes.

Kuberski’s father said the basketball coaches authorized Steve to accept $15 to $35 a month from a “sponsor” who worked at the John Deere plant in Moline. “That money went from Moline to the slush fund,” Felix said. “We thought the money was coming from the place he worked. If we had known that it was from a slush fund, Steve never would have gone to Illinois.”

Kuberski sat on the end of the bench during that basketball season in street clothes. His final statistics for the season consisted of five games and 16 points. The Illini fell to 12-12, 6-8 in the Big Ten. The three coaches were involved in the administrative and legal battle over their jobs that lasted for a couple of weeks. Finally, right after the Big Ten told Illinois in March that it would be expelled from the conference if the three coaches stayed, the trio quit.

For Kuberski, it was time to move on. He transferred to Bradley, located in Peoria, Illinois, and played some AAU ball while waiting to become eligible. He also tried out for the 1968 U.S. Olympic team. The Braves had some good teams in the early 1960s, qualifying for the NIT twice, but the Missouri Valley Conference certainly was a step down from the Big Ten. Joe Stowell directed Bradley back to the NIT in the spring of 1968, as Kuberski watched from the sidelines. But after sitting for two full seasons, Steve in 1968-69 played like a man who was anxious to make up for lost time. He averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds for the Braves. Bradley finished with a 14-12 record.

At that point Kuberski had a decision to make. He could return to Bradley and play one more season as a senior. The alternative would be to enter the NBA draft, as he was eligible because of the missed year caused by the transfer. Steve picked the pros, hoping for the best. He probably didn’t know it at the time, but he had a supporter on the Celtics’ roster. Forward Don Nelson had grown up in Rock Island, and played some pickup ball with Kuberski at the local YMCA. Nelson told the Celtics that Kuberski was worth a look. Boston took him in the fourth round (No. 57 overall). The Carolina Cougars of the ABA also drafted the forward, but he signed a three-year guaranteed contract with the more established league.

On one hand, the 6-foot-8 Kuberski was joining the defending NBA champions. On the other hand, the champs had undergone some major changes. Player-coach Bill Russell and Sam Jones had retired and taken their many championship rings with them. The Celtics did have John Havlicek back, and a young guard duo of Jo White and Don Chaney had promise, but a major rebuilding program was ahead. In other words, it was a good year for an unknown to have a chance at making the roster.

Kuberski did exactly that. “Steve was a guy who could play the power forward spot or the quick forward spot,” Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn said to author Roger Gordon. “He could hit the outside shot and could rebound. He played effectively for us in that role.” Kuberski grabbed some minutes (15.6) per game behind Nelson, Tom Sanders, and Bailey Howell at forward. If nothing else, Steve put in an honest night’s work every time he played. The Celtics finished 34-48 and missed the playoffs.

Help for the Celtics arrived in the 1970 draft. Dave Cowens was an unusual package of talent, a 6-9 center who could shoot, rebound and defend. He also played with a remarkable amount of intensity. Cowens gave up size to other NBA centers, but he didn’t let that or anything else stop him. Boston suddenly had a team with a decent starting five. In addition, Howell was gone and Sanders was often injured, leaving Kuberski a nice niche for playing time. He took part in all 82 games in 1970-71 for the 44-38 Celtics, averaging 22.8 minutes per game. Steve set a career high in points with 27 on January 27, 1971 against Milwaukee.

Things continued to get better for Boston from there. Sanders came back to take back some minutes from Kuberski, who still averaged 6 points in 16 minutes. Boston (56-26) won the division but lost in the Eastern Conference finals of the playoffs to the Knicks. Then the Celtics added Paul Silas and Paul Westphal, two great fits, and Boston ran off with a 68-14 record in 1972-73. With Silas around, Kuberski averaged about 10 minutes per game. Boston seemed headed for an NBA title, but an injury to Havlicek in the playoffs probably proved decisive in another loss to the Knicks. The Celtics ran the same nucleus out in 1974, and it worked even better. Boston won another division title with a mere 56-36 record, and went through the Buffalo Braves, New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks to a championship. Kuberski played 78 games and averaged 12.6 per game.

Alas, he didn’t get to enjoy the title for long. The New Orleans Jazz scooped Kuberski up in that summer’s expansion draft. And then in October, the Jazz traded him with a second-round pick to Milwaukee for Russell Lee and a first-round choice. Therefore, Steve had changed sides in the Celtics-Bucks matchup that marked the end of the 1974 season. Kuberski played 59 games for Milwaukee in 1974-75, but averaged less than 10 minutes a game. The Bucks went 38-44 in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s last season in Milwaukee, as he was traded to the Lakers.

The Bucks received a bunch of talent for Abdul-Jabbar, and they didn’t need Kuberski. He was waived around the start of the season. The Braves claimed him on October 16, 1975. It probably was a case of Buffalo needing a spare forward to cope with an injury, as Steve only hung around town for a month. Kuberski made his Braves’ debut on October 25 by playing eight minutes against Golden State. He never played more than 15 minutes in his 10 games, and never scored more than five points. Buffalo waived him on November 20 when Tom McMillen came off the injured list.

After a few weeks, he called Celtics general manager Auerbach and asked for tryout. Boston offered him a contract, and he signed on December 11. Steve had 12 points and five rebounds in 17 minutes in his first game back. “It’s terrific,” Kuberski said when he rejoined the Celtics. “I was out on the streets with no work. I thought, what the heck, I’m only 28 years old. I have to give it one more shot, but damn, this is too much.”

Trivia question alert: Kuberski was given No. 33 upon arrival … making him the last player before Larry Bird to wear that number for the Celtics. He immediately was put in the starting lineup because of injuries, and the team won 14 of its next 16 games. White figured out what was going on rather quickly. "There's nothing wrong with Steve," he told Sports Illustrated. "Thing is, he can't play anywhere else. He's just a Celtic."

Boston essentially played its starters into the ground that season, but Kuberski averaged 14.7 minutes per game to rank sixth on the team. Even better, Boston remembered how to win. The Celtics beat Buffalo, Cleveland and Phoenix to win another NBA championship. Kuberski’s strange year had a happy ending.

“I was fortunate to be out here and play on two championship teams,” Kuberski said later. “A lot of guys who are good players and great players never get to experience that. The sense of accomplishment as a team was more gratifying than any individual award I won. Back then you were just one piece of the puzzle and that’s the way (general manager) Red Auerbach played the game.”

Boston’s level of play fell off in 1976-77 without Silas and Nelson and with injuries to Cowens and Scott. The arrival of Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe left less time for Kuberski. The Celtics fell to 44-38 and lost in the second round of the playoffs to Philadelphia. Steve only played in three games in the 1977-78 season before he was waived, and that was it. Kuberski played in nine seasons, scoring 3,114 points. As of 2018, no No. 58 overall pick had ever scored more points in the NBA.

Let’s let Steve sum up his own career: "I gave a lot of effort. I just thought that whatever needed to be done at that given moment was what was important. I wasn't one to always score a lot of points, although I had my moments. I tried to adapt to whatever the situation called for."

Kuberski was done with basketball, so it was time to reach back to his background. He had taken some management training with the Caterpillar Tractor Company while in college, and he enjoyed that end of the business world. Steve had a forklift truck dealership for a while, and then started Pro-Quip Inc., which produced lockers for schools and warehouses.

He and wife Diane (a cheerleader back at Moline High School) raised two children, Jason and Matthew, in Massachusetts. “I thought business-wise opportunities were better,” Kuberski said in a 2005 interview with Jon Goode. “I really like the East Coast and this area in particular. I have friends out here and both the kids were born and raised here. I like the quality of life out here.”

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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