Books | Sports

January 1, 2007

Basketball's Forgotten Legend

Joe Lapchick was a star in the earliest years of pro basketball, coached successfully at St. John's, helped integrate the NBA—and is mostly forgotten today. His biographer talks about his eight-year project to revive Lapchick's name.

Carl Bialik

Gus Alfieri was so profoundly affected by his four years of tutelage under coach Joe Lapchick at St. John's that nearly 40 years later—and nearly 30 years after Lapchick's death—he embarked on what would become an eight-year journey to chronicle his former mentor's career. Lapchick follows its subject as he transitions from being basketball's best big man in its earliest days of professional competition, to nearly 30 years of successful coaching in college and the pros. Lapchick faced several challenges in his half-century in the sport, from easing the path of one of the NBA's first blacks, Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton, into his Knicks to dealing with the point-shaving by some of his players at St. John's who were beholden to gamblers. Yet through it all, Alfieri has nary a bad word to say about Lapchick, nor do any of the late coach's former teammates, colleagues, opponents, and beat writers. He insists that's not because he left out any negative details, but because there aren't really any. "Nobody's perfect," Alfieri, who coached state championship basketball teams at St. Anthony‚Äôs High School on Long Island, says of his subject and mentor. "But he was damn good, I'll tell you that."

Gus Alfieri
All images courtesy
Gus Alfieri
Alfieri spoke to Gelf by phone about why, if he hadn't written a Lapchick biography, no one else would have; how the book has already helped restore his subject's fame; what it would take to rehabilitate New York's prominent place in college basketball; and what Lapchick would have made of today's Knicks. Following are edited excerpts from the interview. (Also, you can hear Harris and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, January 3, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: You spent eight years on this project, and finished it 50 years after you played for Lapchick and 35 years after he died. Why did you want to write a book about him, and why now?
Gus Alfieri: Someone who is 20 or 30 years old today doesn't know Jackie Robinson or Julius Erving, let alone Joe Lapchick. But when I was 15, he was a celebrity. I used to watch him on TV, coaching the Knickerbockers. I used to compare him to John Wayne. He was somebody very important.
He was also a great letter-writer. There was no email at the time. He would write letters from wherever he was. He always kept in touch. I kept about 12 of the letters, read them 40 years later, and realized what I had missed. He was a great person. He was such a wonderful guy. So I became very curious about his life, and decided to write his biography.

GM: What sort of experience did you have as a writer?
GA: I had gone back to school for what wound up being a second master's degree, and then I went for my doctorate. I wrote a 500-page dissertation on a writer from the 1920s. I had to discipline myself to write, and write very well, because it's just not that easy to get a doctorate. And my subject was not sports, it was really literature.
I now write for a sports magazine on Long Island, Long Island Ultimate Athlete.

GM: Who was the '20s author you wrote about?
GA: Thomas Beer. When I was finished, I debated whether to write about Beer or Lapchick. Beer was also an unbelievably fabulous subject for a biography. Maybe I'll write that in the future. But Lapchick proved to be a terrific journey.

GM: Did you know entering the journey that it would take eight years?
GA: I had no idea. Everybody said, you've gotta have a contract. But I said, this is going to be so much fun. So I didn't worry about it.
I was an athlete and a coach, and really a very good coach, and a pretty damn good player. I'm not saying other writers don't have the tenacity I had, but I had an awful lot of it. You have to have a pretty good level of tenacity to hang in there, when you don't have a contract. Did I know for absolutely sure it would get published? I didn't. But I knew I had to keep faith, and that I only had to get one hit.
The difference here that makes the book more interesting is, I was his player, but I also was a coach for 23 years, at a pretty good level. I was able to bring those insights into it. And I was able to interview anyone I wanted to.

GM: Were there any interviews that were tough to land, or people whom you wanted to interview, but couldn't reach?
GA: No. With Wilt Chamberlain, I had some connections with the NBA office. Chamberlain called me and spoke to me for an hour and a half. John Wooden called me twice. Bobby Knight spoke to me for 55 minutes. There was nobody I called who said, Get lost, kid, we don't want to bother.
I probably got more of a hard time from anyone, from a cheerleader at St. John's. I probably called her four or five times—I was pretty thorough. I wanted this other insight into Lapchick, and she was around him all the time. But every time I called her, there was something—her house burned down, or there was something with her kids #0133; — I just gave up.
Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was not the easiest guy to talk to, did respond, and I did speak with him. He might have been the toughest, because he didn't help that much. But no one said no.

GM: If you hadn't written a biography of Joe Lapchick, would someone else have written it?

Joe Lapchick

Lapchick was a basketball rarity: a star player who coached successfully in college ball and in the NBA.
GA: No. There never would have been a biography of Joe Lapchick. Nobody would have taken the time. The story was there. It's like the line from the TV show Naked City: "There are eight million stories in the Naked City." There are probably a million good stories out there. People are not motivated to write them all.
I don't think anyone would have written about him. It wasn't like anyone was going to lose any sleep over it. His name had disappeared.
And yet, the book has revived him So many wonderful things have happened because of the book. The expression that perception becomes reality is overused, but it absolutely applies here. Joe Lapchick is an interesting figure now: The book has come out to good reviews, and I've been doing TV and radio. And now people say, Joe Lapchick, he's interesting.
Who had written about Seabiscuit before Laura Hillenbrand did? That was the opening line of our book proposal. No one had heard of Seabiscuit. I loved that book [Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit]. She took 11 years to write it. And then it became a movie.
People who knew him said, Yeah, Joe Lapchick was a good guy. But no one would have sat down and written a book saying what he was like and what he did for fun.
Although every writer will tell you parts were removed for space and money. There was another 250 pages of this book that I had to take out. Especially for this book, as a first book, you have to please a lot of people. So a lot of personal stuff about Lapchick was taken out. There is always more to the story.
After it's all said and done about him, he was just a terrific person. That's why some of the honors are coming about as a result of the book. He's being honored in a lot of nice ways, so I'm very proud that I'm part of his legacy—that I've created an environment that's interested in knowing about him.

GM: What honors are coming about?
GA: We've gotten two inquiries to make a film of his life. Now, as you know, an inquiry and a film are maybe a thousand yards apart. But it's only been out a couple of weeks, and we've gotten two interesting phone calls about making a film. And right now, sports films seem to be hot: Glory Days, We Are Marshall
The other thing is even bigger: The NCAA and the National Association of Basketball Coaches are considering having a national character award in Joe Lapchick's name. They would give an award each year at the Final Four. Jim O'Connell of the Associated Press and I met with Jim Haney, executive director of the NABC. It most likely will be introduced this year and go into action next year at the NCAAs.
[NCAA president] Myles Brand is ecstatic about the idea. It will not be one person. They're going to pick out 25-30 people who emphasize character—women's coaches, men's coaches, at the youth level, in high school, college and professional, and people associated with the game.
They're going to get a sponsor. We're discussing having a Lapchick Lunch each year, and we'll invite all these people. It would be a celebration of character, but also a celebration of Joe Lapchick.
Very few people can say something like that about a book they write, that it has that kind of legs, that it can live 100 years from now.

GM: You mentioned that you had to cut 250 pages from the book, much of it with more of the personal side of Lapchick. I'd like to know some of the details you had to cut—more about what he was like away from the court.
GA: One thing about him is, he was extremely handy and a very fine craftsman. To focus his crafts, he would give them to people he had affection for. He gave one to Bill Gallo, of the New York Daily News, who listed Lapchick as one of two to three men in life he had the most respect for. Lapchick would craft these spice racks out of discarded pieces of wood. He was a very frugal man, he didn't waste anything. He made at least 25 to 30 of these spice racks in his lifetime.
He was also a gardener, and he was very proud of his garden in Yonkers. And he was a lifeguard at Tibbetts Park for many years; he was in charge of lifeguards. He was a very meticulous dresser. For a 6'5" man, he dressed very carefully. He sent Bobby Knight to his tailor in the city, when Knight was at West Point.
What was also interesting was his relationship with the press. It was unreal. I had a whole chapter on it had to cut out. They just treated him like, well, it was unheard of. The sports editor of the New York Post, Ike Gellis, was a very good friend of Lapchick's. Gellis once said something like, If Joe Lapchick assassinated John F. Kennedy in Times Square in broad daylight, no one would write about it the next day.
The chapter starts with a guy named Schechter. He came to the editor of the Post with a story that wasn't complimentary, when Lapchick was coaching at St. John's. The editor, said, we can't run that story. Schechter asked why not, and was told, Because Lapchick is a friend of mine. As it turns out, his research wasn't accurate, but that wasn't the reason the was turned down. The editor turned it down because he didn't want the story to hurt Lapchick.

GM: So was there dirt about Lapchick that his sportswriter buddies suppressed, that you found out about? Or was he as good as you make him sound in the book and this interview?
GA: I asked Lenny Koppett, a sportswriter from that era, Did you ever get the feeling Lapchick was using you guys to get good stories? He replied that everyone does that, but Lapchick was real, and we loved him.
He just was a wonderful, wonderful man. I played with him, and he never yelled at us. Coaches all yell and scream and threaten their team. He never, ever yelled. Sure, he got sore; he'd see things he didn't like and he'd say them to the papers the next day. He would call a spade a spade. He was an honest guy.
But he was involved with so many good things: the integration of the Knicks, the establishment of the NBA. He would sell the league wherever he went. Lapchick was a celebrity person for basketball.
Michael O'Keeffe [of the New York Daily News] asked me, Why did Lapchick fall through the cracks, become somewhat forgotten? The only reason we could think of is, we only want to hear bad stories today—about steroids, or a football player crunching someone's head with spikes.
That's why the character award is a great award. Lapchick proved you could be a nice guy, and win. We always give those nice-guys awards to losers: The sportsmanship award goes to the coach in the scholastic league who never wins. But Lapchick hated losing. Yet he never reamed out an official publicly. He would sit with the opposing coaches before the game and talk with them. He was just a gentleman. Everybody wants to win. He wanted to win, but he was always conscious of having class. He did so many good things for so many people. Nobody's perfect. But he was damn good, I'll tell you that.

GM: If he had a worse relationship with the press, might the episode of point-shaving by his players have hurt him more?
GA: At the same time Lapchick was coaching at St. John's, Dr. Jack Ramsey had a couple of players on his team [at St. Joseph's] dumping games. But nothing ever hurt him, and it was exactly the same thing as Lapchick.
Would Lapchick have had a better chance of being like Ronald Reagan, a Teflon man? Yes, because the press did like him. They could have bypassed some stuff that came out.
But how do you tell the difference between dumped games and just bad games? Most people think you can dump a game by missing shots and making really bad passes. But that's kind of a red flag. If you're going to throw a game, you let people score on you. You can make it look like you're hustling. Lapchick couldn't tell the difference. His friends in the press were telling him games were being dumped.
A lot of coaches did get ruined: Claire Bee, Nat Holman. But that was the 1951 scandal [ESPN]. I don't think anyone got ruined by the 1961 scandal, because I don't know of any coach who was looking the other way. I don't know of anyone who blew the whistle on his team.

GM: It was fun reading about a time when college basketball was huge in New York, when half a dozen schools had national-power teams and Madison Square Garden was the mecca of the sport. I've been to plenty of games at MSG in recent years, and it doesn't feel that way anymore. What would it take to revive the sport in New York?

Gus Alfieri at St. John's

When Alfieri played for Lapchick at St. John's, New York was at the center of college basketball.
GA: What would really revive basketball in New York is a very good St. John's team. St. John's was always a national power or at least pretty close to it, from Buck Freeman in the late '20s to Lapchick's first go-around and his two NIT championships, to Frank Maguire, then Lapchick, and then Lou Carneseca. Their teams were always respected; no one ever took St. John's games for granted. But those are kind of the last successful names at St. John's. With the exception of a brief little glimmer with Mike Jarvis, and a sliver with Fran Franschilla, the rest has been mediocre.
To get it back, you'd need a big-name player coming to St. John's and kind of turning the program around. Then if St. John's does well, there's a chance other New York schools will come back.
The Garden was once a mecca. It still is a great place to play, but many of the best teams coming to play are not from this area.

GM: Speaking of St. John's, was Lapchick nicknamed the Big Indian because the team was called the Redmen?
GA: Yes.

GM: What did you think of the school changing its teams' name in 1994 to Red Storm [New York Times]?
GA: I didn't care for it. The name Redmen was not given because of Native Americans, but because of the color of the uniforms. Maybe it was a play on words. Though there were Indian symbols on our uniforms, so no doubt they were tied in to American Indians. But I didn't really see it as hurting anybody.
But public institutions don't like people coming and yelling at them. If you want to put an ornament on your house that offends people and is despicable, I guess it's your house and you can do it. But if you're a school, you don't want people to make negative noise.
A lot of alumni were upset. Maybe some people saw the name change as breaking the tradition of the university. Other universities [with Native American-inspired nicknames] didn't make the changes.
Can you look at the year they stopped calling themselves the Redmen as a turning point, the year they started going down? It doesn't score you any baskets, and it doesn't commit any fouls. We would settle for Red Storm if they had a couple of All-Americans playing for them.

GM: You write that Lapchick, with the Knicks and with the Redmen, was especially good at bringing together players and establishing team chemistry. What would he have made of this year's Knicks?

Joe Lapchick with the Knicks

Joe Lapchick, pictured here with the 1953-1954 Knicks, led three straight Knicks teams to the NBA finals in the league's early years.
GA: He was a wonderful chemist. Lapchick knew how to get people to play together. Even if you met him when he was 70, and in the last year of his life, you would be attracted to him by how he conducted himself, the types of answers he gave. That's the part that's missing from the Knicks this year. I think he could go into the Knicks dressing room… Some 20-year-old guy on the Knicks might say, Who the hell is this old guy trying to talk to us? But if they knew of his reputation, and he was able to relate to them, I think he would get them to play well.
But if he was Rip Van Winkle and was brought back to the Garden today, and watched a Knicks game, with all the pizzazz and the cheerleaders and the commercialism, and the players giving up so many points and not hustling and taking bad shots, Lapchick would be disappointed in all that. The Knicks drove out of basketball one of the best coaches of all time, Larry Brown—whatever the reason, whether Larry the was biggest horse's ass of all time, or they were the biggest spoiled brats in basketball.
But he had so much love for the game that if he was actually coaching them, with good assistants, I think he could have done alright. Everyone I spoke to in interviews, from his teams, they all said the same thing: We didn't want to let him down.
How many people have been really good players, a good pro coach, and a good college coach? Lapchick was able to dance at every level. He had flexibility, character, and the ability to command respect.

Related on the web

•Official site for Lapchick.

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- Books
- posted on Aug 09, 07
Jim Senich

Coach Lapchick was college basketball and later pro basketball in New York when I was a young man in the '50s. His teams were a joy to watch. Fundamentally solid. Made good decisions on the court.
"St.John's basket - Tony Jackson."
It rings in my ears when I think of St. John's basketball. What an era!
Thanks for the memories.
Jim Senich

- Books
- posted on Oct 22, 08
Gus Alfieri

Hi Carl,

Thanks for posting our interview. lots of good people worked to get the Character award out there, and we did it after two years.

I see you are still bringing in good people. Keep it up; there's not too many like you out there.

I'll see you when my next book comes out.

Stay well.

Gus Alfieri

Article by Carl Bialik

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