George Skezas could fill a room with his spirit, with a voice as pronounced as his jet-black hair and handlebar mustache.
And he could fill a doorway with his 6-foot-3 frame and broad shoulders.
Yet one of the most interesting things about the longtime Dixon High School vice principal and basketball coach was how he avoided attention, even when he was the center of it.
He was touched by the news he would be a Dixon Athletic Hall of Famer, the latest honor of his much-decorated career. But Saturday’s induction was somber. Skezas died earlier in the day because of complications from a stroke after suffering a brain hemorrhage when he hit his head in a late-night fall in the summer of 2013. He was 71.
Skezas’ death was felt around the region. The news hit me hard, too. My first newspaper job was covering Dixon sports in the mid-1980s for the Davis Enterprise. Skezas showed that coaching was more about people skills and dealing with adversity than layups and trapping defenses. He let me ride the team bus so I could get to know the athletes, and he made players accessible after victories and losses. He was more gracious in defeat than many pro coaches are in victory.
Skezas and I remained friends long after I left the Enterprise. He would read a story in The Bee about McClatchy running basketball opponents ragged with back-door plays, for example, and then go watch the team play. He would attend games as a fan, forget his notepad, and scribble notes on a napkin. Then he’d wonder hours later if someone could transcribe his mess amid a howl of laughter.
“Basketball – the civil, indoor sport – is the best activity in the world,” Skezas used to say.
“We lost a giant,” Sacramento State men’s basketball coach Brian Katz said Monday afternoon. “I’m just so sick and sad to hear this. I really feel that the high school basketball coach should epitomize his school and community, and George did that better than anyone. Dixon is a hard-working town, with hard-working kids, working-class people, very proud, and that was George Skezas. He was them, and Dixon was him. Great coach, great competitor, great man, a pillar of what’s good in this sport.”
Katz got to know Skezas after suffering perhaps the area’s greatest playoff upset.
In 1987, Katz was coaching Center, ranked No. 1 by The Bee and No. 1 in the state in Division III, with a 25-game winning streak behind 6-foot-10 Rich Manning. Skezas coached up the mental aspect of the game, taking his Rams to see “Hoosiers,” telling his nervous group they could win for every underdog small-town team in the state. And they did, beating Center 69-61. Manning scored 35 points, but he was the only Center player to reach the free-throw line.
“I would always introduce George like this, ‘Here’s the guy who blasted me right out of high school coaching and into the college game,’” Katz said. “He was the best I ever faced.”
Skezas grew up in Pennsylvania, the only child of a painting contractor, and moved to California in his early teens. He played center at Watsonville High in the late 1950s, once going up against Paul Silas of McClymonds of Oakland (“The Earth moved when you ran into Paul,” Skezas once said.) Skezas served four years in the Air Force, including 18 months in Korea, and graduated from San Jose State, where he met his wife Joann. They raised daughter Teri and son Todd in Dixon.
Skezas enjoyed watching his children compete, Teri for the girls basketball teams in the early 1990s and Todd for him in 1994. The Rams didn't make the playoffs in 1994, but Todd pleased his father with his leadership and guard play. And Todd received no preferential treatment as a coach's kid. Todd didn't become a starter until his senior season, "I had to earn it," he explained.
The highlight of that 1994 season was Todd's game-winning three-pointer on Jan. 19, his dad's birthday. Coach and son embraced, the old man weeping.
Todd, who now lives in San Diego, and his sister, Teri Gonzalez, who is married with two daughters in Roseville, carry their dad's lessons with them daily.
“I can still hear his voice when we played, ‘Rebound!’ – and Dad was such a fan of the game and us kids,” Gonzalez said. “People tell me the life lessons and skills Dad gave them, and it touches me. His greatest gift was he connected with everyone, especially the underdog, kids with issues at home. Everyone was important.”
Scott Stacey and Tavo Lizarraga accepted the Dixon Hall of Fame honor on Skezas’ behalf to a standing ovation. Stacey was inducted as a special contributor to Dixon sports, including 20 years as Skezas’ assistant coach, manager and confidant. Lizarraga was a team captain on Dixon’s 1980 Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship basketball team.
“The Boss,” Stacey said Sunday, “would’ve been so touched by this, but a bit embarrassed.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify events in the 1994 season.
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.