Play hard and play as a team were the focal points Don Blaha stressed in his two stints coaching the Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons boys’ basketball team.
Dick Grubar bought in all the way, and his unselfish and hard-nosed ways helped him land a scholarship at the University of North Carolina in the 1960s. He went on to be a key figure on a trio of Tar Heels’ NCAA Final Four teams.
“That was the start of my basketball career,” Grubar said of his time at Bishop Gibbons, from which he graduated in 1965. “I always believed you should pay things forward. I felt it was important.”
Grubar was speaking of the $1,000 scholarship he has established that will help pay tuition for one male student at ND-BG each school year, starting with this one.
It is named the Don Blaha Honorary Scholarship, a nod to the man who played such an influential role in his athletic success and that of so many others.
“I felt he should be honored,” Grubar said of Blaha, a multi-sport star at Mont Pleasant and multi-hall of fame member, who also had success as a collegiate basketball player at New York University. “He did so much for Schenectady. I want people to realize what he did for the community.”
Blaha led Golden Knights teams from 1963-67, when they won three Diocesan League championships, and again from 1981 to 1988.
“I enjoyed both stints,” said Blaha, who grew up in Schenectady, and now lives with his wife, Diane, in Niskayuna. “I met some great kids along the way and some great families.”
The 6-foot-4 Grubar played on two of Blaha’s league title teams as a junior and senior. As a junior in 1964, he also helped Bishop Gibbons earn the prestigious Eastern New York Catholic High School championship.
“Dick was looking for a way to give back,” said the 80-year-old Blaha, an active golfer who is the president of the Schenectady Ole Timers Baseball Club. “He surprised me when he said he wanted to name it the Don Blaha Honorary Scholarship. I am so humbled and honored. It’s incredible he would do that. I appreciate it and Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons appreciates it.
“He is such a generous person,” Blaha added. “He established a scholarship at UNC as well.”
It was his unselfish, team-first play that swayed then-North Carolina coach Dean Smith to offer Grubar an invite to Chapel Hill.
“Being unselfish is something Don stressed,” Grubar said. “If you have a shot and a guy is open for a better one, give it up.”
“I asked every player to give 100 percent, and I wanted good team play,” Blaha said.
Though Grubar played forward in high school, Smith wanted him as a point guard, a position in which he would eventually flourish while a part of the Tar Heels’ Four Corner offense.
“Dean Smith wanted him badly because he was an exceptional passer,” Blaha said. “He loved what he saw in Dick as a player and as a person. You couldn’t play [varsity] as a freshman back then, but Smith said, ‘He’ll start his first game as a sophomore and every game after that,’ and that’s exactly what happened.”
Grubar averaged 22 and 23 points, respectively, as a junior and senior at Bishop Gibbons, and received well over 100 college offers including ones from Kentucky, Michigan and Notre Dame.
“He was one of the best players in our area. He could be top five or top 10 in our area,” Blaha said of the 74-year-old Grubar, a retired real estate worker who grew up in Rotterdam, and with his wife, Sue, lives in North Carolina and winters in Florida. “He was very unselfish and at 6-4 he was the best passer I ever coached. He averaged 22 and 23 but it easily could have been 30 points a game.”
At North Carolina he was on the teams that made it to the NCAA semifinals in 1967 and 1969, and to the title game in 1968 when the Tar Heels were beaten by a UCLA team led by Lew Alcindor. Grubar was second-team All-ACC as a senior when he averaged 13 points per game.
“We had good teams,” Grubar said of his run at North Carolina. “My main role was to play defense and play point guard.”
Grubar was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers out of college and played a handful of games with the ABA’s Indiana Pacers before a knee injury ended his career. He later filled assistant coaching roles at Virginia Commonwealth and the University of Florida.
Blaha also saw action in the NCAA tournament while at NYU when his team, which included Barry Kramer, made it to the Sweet 16 in 1962 and 1963. Blaha is now tied to Grubar in another way, with the scholarship named in his honor.
“Bishop Gibbons was the start of my success,” Grubar said. “I’m hoping this is something maybe other Bishop Gibbons alumni could look at and think about. Why not give it back to the school where you began?”