By Yadira Betances firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — LAWRENCE — As a junior in high school, Steve Kelley’s father took away his basketball privileges when he got a C in English for turning in a homework late.
“I love to play basketball and I remember being so mad. I tried to make a deal with my father and pleaded with him, but he would not budge,” Kelley recalls. “That stayed with me my whole life because he took away what I loved and I vowed it would never happen again. It was the biggest eye-opener of my life.”
For the past 50 years, Kelley has used that same lesson as a basketball coach at the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence. This week, he stepped down as coach, but will remain at the club which has been his second home since 1966, helping students fill out applications for private high schools and colleges, tutoring during study hour, and acting as an assistant to the coaches.
“I won’t give basketball up. It’s still a tool that I can use to help the kids,” Kelley said.
On Friday, the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence hosted “Toast the Coach” where fellow staff members, alumni and friends honored Kelley for his half-century of coaching.
“He means everything to me,” said Socrates de la Cruz, who was named National Youth of the Year in 1991. “He has been a father figure, an anchor during emotional times, a friend, a mentor and a big brother.”
De la Cruz, an attorney in Lawrence, said Kelley’s best qualities include his selflessness, compassion and big heart.
“He taught me to persevere and that life is not always going to be the way you want it to be. There will be ups and downs, but be yourself and always be prepare to help someone else, not as a handout but teaching them how to fish.”
Thousands he has helped
During his years at the Boys and Girls Club, Kelley has touched the lives of thousands of youth who today are judges, teachers, businessmen, engineers, doctors, and lawyers. Among his alums are former Michael J. Sullivan and his brother Kevin Sullivan.
The Sullivans started going to the Boys Club shortly after their father died in 1970 and would walk from South Union Street to Water Street.
“It was a very positive experience for me and my brothers,” Michael Sullivan said. “When I’d walk into the club, I was able to transition into a positive environment. Steve had the ability to understand what was going on in the lives and minds of the kids and adjust to their needs.”
Kelley’s connection with the Boys School started when he joined the old facility on Haverhill Street at age 10.
“I needed a place to hang out with the guys. It was my escape,” said Kelley, 66, the only boy in a family of four children. His sister, Maureen, retired as volunteer coordinator at the Boys and Girls Club and his sister, Eileen Grenier, lives in Lawrence. His third sister, Nancy died of cancer.
He began working at the club in 1966, coaching boys basketball, which he said he uses as a tool just as a builder uses a saw and hammer in his trade. His philosophy is building character and self-confidence while youngsters play the game they love. But it comes with strings attached.
In order to play, students must have their teachers sign forms showing their academic progress and grades.
“Basketball is only a game and the chances of the kids going pro are low, but they can become doctors, architects and engineers. That’s why we study before practice,” Kelley said. “You can learn so much about a kid when they’re on the court; how hard they’re willing to work, how mentally tough they are and how much they are maturing.”
Kelly is assistant director at the club and 10 years ago started coaching the seventh- and eighth- grade girls basketball team.
“He pushes us hard and yells because he knows we can do and be better,” said Natasha Santana, 17, a junior at Central Catholic High School.
Solina Pascual, 16, also a junior at Central Catholic, agrees.
“He’s a big role model who uses tough love to make us a better person and show us that we can do anything,” Pascual said.
Taking them in
His work with Lawrence’s teenagers goes beyond the four walls of the Boys and Girls Club at 136 Water St.
When brothers Raymond and Carlos Nunez needed a place to stay when their father was deported, Kelley opened his home to them just days after getting married. Kelley and his wife, Sonya, raised Raymond and Carlos for 10 years.
“He has been an absolute blessing to the city of Lawrence,” Carlos Nunez said.
Carlos Nunez, was about to start his freshman year in high school, but did not want to go because he was reading at a second- or third-grade level.
“A week before school started, he encouraged me to go to school which was actually one of the best decisions someone made for me,” said Carlos who attended Central Catholic. “He believed in me and thought I could make it at Central.”
Carlos Nunez said Kelley’s encouragement and mentoring helped him get a 3.5 grade point average. Carlos Nunez went on to study at Endicott College.
“He took us under his wings, helped us mold us into the persons we are today,” he said.
Kelley would make the brothers get up at 4:45 a.m. to work out before heading to school, then going to the club in the afternoon. When they got home, the Nunez brothers would watch television and go to bed.
“There was no hanging out, no going to The Loop or to friends’ houses because he’d ask where you’re going, who lives there and who’s going to be there. We had our battles, but I never won,” Carlos Nunez said.
Carlos Nunez, a social worker for the Department of Family Services, is grateful for everything Kelley did for him and his brother.
“It helped me to stay focused and do the best I could athletically and academically,” he said. “He instilled work ethics. We wouldn’t have made it so far if it wasn’t for Steve ... I could have gone anywhere, but I wanted to come back and work in the community because of what I went through in my life and how the club helped me.”
Carlos’ brother, Raymond Nunez, 30, said Kelley went above and beyond his job when he took him and his brother into his house.
“It takes a person like Steve with an incredible heart to open his home for others. He treats everyone like if they were his own children,” said Raymond Nunez, in-house instructor of the Lawrence Alternative Suspension program at the Bruce School. Raymond Nunez was also a poor student, and Kelley provided a tutor at the club, along with words of encouragement.
After graduating from Central Catholic, Raymond Nunez went to Tufts University on scholarship.
“I’m indebted for what he has done for me and my family,” said Raymond Nunez, who is now head basketball coach at Lawrence High School.
When not in the gym shooting hoops with boys and girls, Kelley roams the halls of the club and is stopped by kids who hug him, give him high-fives or simply say, “Hello Viejo” (Spanish word for old man).
Born in Lawrence, Kelley grew up on Abbott Street in South Lawrence. He attended St. Patrick Elementary School and graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1965. He thought of becoming a priest and joined the seminary. After a change of heart, he enrolled at Merrimack College, but left because he could not afford the $2,000 tuition. Kelley went on to graduate from University of Massachusetts at Lowell with a degree in sociology and psychology. Kelley and his wife, Sonya have two boys, Andrew, 9 and John, 6, - and thousands of other children who think of him as dad.
Robert Rooseboom of Atkinson, N.H., has known Kelley since 1960 when they were students at Central Catholic and Merrimack College.
“He was always happy, optimistic, always up for a challenge, and could always laugh at himself,” said Rooseboom, who has been teaching at Central Catholic for 45 years.
He has a heap of stories to tell about Kelley, whom he sees often when Kelley goes to Central to check on students or attend basketball games.
While at Merrimack, Kelley and Rooseboom were in the intramural basketball team. During one game, Rooseboom blocked Kelley’s hook shot and up to this day has not let him forget it.
Another story Rooseboom enjoys telling is when he made 40 copies of Kelley’s yearbook picture and had a student posted them throughout the club.
“Once you meet Steve and talk to him for a few minutes, it’s like you’ve known him for 20 years. He’s very personal and what you see is what you get,” Rooseboom said.
He considers Kelley’s best quality to be his optimism.
“He has taught the kids there’s nothing they can’t do if they’re willing to work hard. He has taught them the value of hard work and playing by the rules without taking short-cuts, working together and having respect for the game,” Rooseboom said.
Basketball’s life lessons
Kelley has only had two other jobs his life - working at Converse while in college and teaching sixth-grade at the Tarbox School and seventh- and eighth-grade English at the Oliver School.
He has worked at the Boys and Girls Club for almost 50 years and is now assistant director. He has only had two other jobs at Converse while in college and taught sixth grade at the Tarbox School and seventh and eighth grade English at the Oliver School.
While at the Tarbox School, he began using basketball as a way to lure students to do their homework.
“Basketball is one of the tools we use to get to the kids. It’s so much fun for them and for me,” Kelley said. “Basketball is the means to an end. It keeps me on track to get them the tools to be successful.”
Kelley takes pride in the fact that many of the club’s members have been accepted to such private schools as Central Catholic, Proctor Academy, Kimball Union and gone on to study at Weslayan University, Fairfield University, Mt. Holyoke College, Trinity College, and University of Massachusetts, at Lowell and at Amherst.
His alumni also include Andover High Basketball Coach Dave Fazio and Central Catholic Basketball Coash Ricky Nault, as well as the recently named Lawrence High Basketball Coach Raymond Nunez.
“It makes me feel good knowing that they are using what they learned here to instill a sense of self-esteem in the kids and hopefully, they will do the same,” Kelley said.
Kelley said he stayed at the Boys and Girls Club for so long because of the members and fellow staffers.
“The kids is the reason why I stayed for so long. They get to your heart and won’t let go,” he said.
Kelley said he has had other job offers throughout his life where he would have made more money,
“My father said, ‘Would you be happy doing that?’ There’s more to life than money,” he said.
In addition to teaching the fundamentals of basketball, he would often sit in the gym between practices to talk to the youngsters what was on their mind.
Amalia Little, 16, a junior at Central Catholic, said she remembers slacking off in middle school, until she joined the club.
“He sat me down and told me point-blank if you don’t go to school, what kind of future are you going to have? He inspired me to do better both on and off the court,” Little said.
Ashley Bautista, 13, an eighth-grader at the Parthum School, called Kelley “an incredible coach.”
“He made us have passion for the game; it wasn’t just a sport,” Bautista said.
Over the years, he has received many awards including the Family Lew Community Impact Award by University of Massachusetts, Lowell, the Coach of the Year by the National Council of Youth Sports in 2008 and naming the Boys and Girls Club building “Kelley’s Club” in 2000.