When we think of the greatest winner in basketball history, it’s obviously the late Bill Russell, who led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships — eight of which came in a row from 1959-1966.
Here on the diocesan level, a product of the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) was so successful on the court that he’s still being talked about 60 years later.
Just as Russell was in the midst of his NBA Finals record winning streak, the St. Benedict Joseph Labre, Richmond Hill, boys’ CYO basketball team began carving out its own legacy of greatness. The team had many skilled players, yet it was the savvy point guard, Mickey Steuerer, who became the heart and soul of the squad. Simply put, Steuerer was a basketball prodigy.
Between CYO and then on to Archbishop Molloy H.S., Briarwood, Steuerer matched Russell with eight consecutive championships. Not too shabby for a player who stood barely 5 feet, 2 inches upon entering high school. Despite his small stature, the size of his heart could never be measured.
Steuerer was the fifth of eight children, all of whom possessed athletic talents. His father was an NYPD officer, and his mother was the crossing guard at the St. Benedict Joseph Labre grammar school. Everyone in the community knew the Steuerers and knew how much sports were part of their upbringing.
“I grew up in a neighborhood with a boys’ club, and I was there constantly,” Steuerer said. “I played basketball almost every day during the fall and winter and then switched over to baseball over the summer. It was only a few blocks from my house.”
This constant practice translated to instant success on the court. Starting when Steuerer was a third and fourth grader, St. Benny Joe’s won the CYO Novice deanery championships in 1963 and 1964. The team then won the Bantam diocesan championship in fifth and sixth grade and the Grammar School diocesan titles in seventh and eighth grade.
The winning ways continued for Steuerer at Molloy as the Stanners captured the CHSAA city championship his freshman and sophomore years. The streak of championships ended while he was a junior on varsity, coached by the legendary Jack Curran. Molloy managed third-place consolation victories in both 1971 and 1972.
“Mickey was a special player,” said his CYO and Molloy teammate Steve Lowry, a fellow guard. “Everyone who saw him thought he couldn’t be that good. But he had great control of the ball and he was a great shooter at an early age.
“He wasn’t fast and couldn’t jump. But he was super smart. He never made a mistake…no turnovers. He was in the right place at the right time. At the end of the game, it was known: If Mickey had the ball, it was over.”
A Steuerer story that sums up this clutch excel- lence occurred in the seventh grade Queens county title game held at Ascension Church, Elmhurst. St. Benedict was playing St. Joseph’s, Astoria, who had beat Steuerer and company handily during a regular season matchup.
The gutsy St. Benny Joe’s squad kept things close all game and found itself down by just one point with only a few seconds on the clock. Head coach Pat Matera called a play for Steuerer, who drew a foul with no time left.
A one-and-one free-throw situation ensued. St. Joe’s called several timeouts to try to ice Steuerer at the line, yet each time, he stayed cool and collected under the pressure. When he was finally able to shoot, he swished in both free throws to send the team to the diocesan championship.
“It was typical Mickey…seventh grade, stone cold, and totally calm and confident that this game is over,” said Gene Verdino, the team’s center who also played with Steuerer at Molloy. “Every time he walked back to the huddle, there was not one trace of doubt in this kid’s eyes.
“When you looked at Mickey’s pure athletic talent — strength, speed, jumping ability — it was ordinary, but he was not an ordinary player. He was just a one in a million player.”
By the end of his time at Molloy — where he also won a baseball city championship in 1971 as a shortstop and pitcher — Steuerer grew to 6 feet, 2 inches and continued his basketball career at Princeton University in New Jersey. Alongside another CYO and CHSAA legend, Armond Hill, Princeton won the National Invitation Tournament in 1975.
After stints coaching at Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, and his alma mater Princeton, Steuerer began a 25-year career on Wall Street. He and his wife, Tricia, settled in Ossining, New York, with their four children: Kevin, Bridget, Jeanne, and Michael.
Steuerer was quick to point out that those years of success were the result of an entire team effort. However, the team members fed off his top qualities on the court: a passionate will to win and a mental toughness that made everyone around him better.
“I haven’t thought of it, but it is unusual for one team to win all those championships,” the humble winner said, adding that a little bit of luck helped along the journey.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at email@example.com.