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Lapchick: The Life of a Legendary Player and Coach in the Glory Days of Basketball

Lapchick: The Life of a Legendary Player and Coach in the Glory Days of Basketball

by Gus Alfieri

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Joe Lapchick. The name is legendary in the history of basketball. As a Hall of Fame player and member of the original Celtics barnstorming team, a coach of four national championship teams at St. John’s, and the first coach of the New York Knicks, Lapchick made a lifetime of contributions to the game he loved. In this, the first and only biography of


Joe Lapchick. The name is legendary in the history of basketball. As a Hall of Fame player and member of the original Celtics barnstorming team, a coach of four national championship teams at St. John’s, and the first coach of the New York Knicks, Lapchick made a lifetime of contributions to the game he loved. In this, the first and only biography of Lapchick, Gus Alfieri not only tells Lapchick’s life story but also provides a priceless look at the history of the game—from its early rule changes and barnstorming and club teams, to dramatic National Invitational Tournament games (when the NIT was the tournament in the country) and college basketball point-shaving scandals, to the formation of the National Basketball Association. Perhaps most significantly, Lapchick’s signing of the Knicks’ Sweetwater Clifton, the first African-American player to sign with an NBA team, led the way in the movement to integrate the league. Both an inspiring story of a pioneer sports figure and a nostalgic look at the era in which he played, Lapchick is a must-read for any basketball fan with a passion for the game.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Alfieri offers a good-hearted, reverential homage to basketball great Joe Lapchick that's colored by the author's own experiences playing for Lapchick at St. John's in the 1950s. A lanky kid from Yonkers who grew up with the game as it was growing up in the early 1900s, Lapchick was a pioneer as both a player for the traveling Original Celtics and later as a coach at St. John's and with the New York Knicks. Alfieri's book rings with respect for Lapchick's career and demeanor both on the court and along the sidelines. While its strength does not lie in thrilling or lyrical prose, it's carried forward by the energy Alfieri clearly brings to the subject. The extent of his research coupled with his own firsthand recollections allow him to dip into occasional re-created scenes and conjure images of the game's past, including bygone protective padding and oversized balls that got beat out of shape during a single contest. Still, testimonies from people as disparate as Bobby Knight and Bill Bradley make clear that the author is not alone in his admiration of Lapchick. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The history of basketball as seen through the life of Joe Lapchick, an original Celtic, the first coach of the New York Knicks and the longtime roundball patriarch of St. John's University. Alfieri, who was a point guard at St. John's, helped win a national championship for Lapchick in 1959. His book-mostly biography, a little memoir-relates the life of a man who helped shepherd the game of basketball from the 1920s into the '60s. He covers Lapchick's glamorous but wearying days as center for the barnstorming Celtics in the '20s and '30s; his tough-but-humble approach in his first decade at St. John's, when the Redman and Madison Square Garden became synonymous with college hoops; his struggles in the early days of the NBA, where he supported integration; and his last decade as the wise overseer of a perennial powerhouse back at St. John's. Alfieri does a yeoman's job in concisely presenting the 50 years of Lapchick's storied career without succumbing to tedium and trivia. Nor does the author paint a completely rosy picture of the sport's history as he addresses directly the exploitation of athletes, racism in sports and gambling scandals. The narrative stalls a bit when Alfieri focuses on his own experiences playing in college. But at his best, the author provides, through one pivotal figure, a clearer understanding of the issues behind the development of modern basketball, of its style of play, of its social significance and of its maneuverings to become profitable entertainment. Lapchick respected basketball, and fans of the game will respect this warm and intelligent biography.

Product Details

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt


The Life of a Legendary Player and Coach in the Glory Days of Basketball
By Alfieri, Gus

The Lyons Press

Copyright © 2006 Alfieri, Gus
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781592288694


My most vivid memory of the legendary basketball coach Joe Lapchick was watching him being carried off the court by his St. John’s players in Madison Square Garden. His team just defeated powerful Michigan, the number one team in the country, by one point in the final of the 1964 Holiday Festival. Joe was in his mid-sixties and enjoying the attention and the partisan crowd’s affectionate response. The pioneer coach was proud of the victory, but his announced retirement made it that much sweeter.
Afterward, as he accepted the winner’s cup to cheers and photographers’ flashing lights, I thought of what this legendary figure meant to basketball. The next day the newspapers called the come-from-behind victory his greatest moment, but most readers had no idea Lapchick had one more miracle left in him.
I first heard about Joe Lapchick in the 1950s as a youngster in Crystal City, Missouri, when I began to take basketball seriously. I attended basketball camps run by my NBA heroes like Ed Macauley and Jerry West, who taught me fundamentals I never forgot. I watched Joe Lapchick’s New York Knicks play the St. Louis Hawks in Kiel Auditorium. I knew all the pro names, and he was well-known at the time.
When I attended Princeton, my coach, Butch Van Breda Kolff, talked about Joe Lapchick, his coachwhen he played for the early Knicks. “Coach Lapchick taught pride and class,” Van Breda Kolff said. He described the tall, lean coach as “tough, but fair.”
Most significantly, Lapchick pioneered NBA integration when the Knicks signed Sweetwater Clifton, one of three blacks who entered the NBA in 1950. Again, Joe Lapchick demonstrated fairness, regardless of race. As a man of character, Lapchick treated his tall forward fairly in a world still unequal for blacks, making Clifton’s transition seamless. As a pro player, Lapchick traveled throughout the country during the 1930s playing many games against all-black teams. He admired their ability at a time in America when it was unpopular to interact with minorities.
Because of my play in the Holiday Festival, I was voted the best visiting college performer by the Metropolitan sportswriters and invited to accept the award at their annual March dinner. When I arrived that evening at the Hotel Americana in New York City, I saw a large group of sportswriters busy interviewing Joe Lapchick. It didn’t take long for the honorees to realize we would take a backseat to the dinner’s main focus: Bill Russell, Coach Jack Ramsey, and I were happy to be part of Joe Lapchick’s retirement party given by his many sports-media friends.
After Lapchick finished his interview, he walked over to greet me. As we talked, I realized we were about the same height at 6'5". Neatly dressed with a blue suit, white shirt, and striped tie, he looked every bit the success he had been his entire life. He talked softly and listened carefully, making me feel as if I were the only person in the room.
As speakers came forward, and Joe Lapchick’s life unfolded before the five hundred guests, I realized how much the sports world loved and admired him, and would miss him. He was a gentleman who was always concerned for his friends and the integrity of the game that he loved. As I listened to the speakers, I identified with Lapchick’s passion for the game, which sent chills up my spine.
“Joe Lapchick was a great Celtic,” one sportswriter reminded the audience. As an Original Celtic, Joe Lapchick was considered the best professional big man of the 1920s. I learned that the Celtics were the New York Yankees of the era and looked upon as World Champions. Another sportswriter spoke of Lapchick’s thirty years as coach of St. John’s and the Knicks. Old pro players told humorous stories, while others spoke of how he had reached out to help them.
But there was humility to this man that I appreciated. When I entered the banquet room, I overheard some of his interview where he talked about his limited formal education and how retirement would now allow time for his handicraft work that he enjoyed. There was nothing lofty or self-inflating about him. He was a regular guy unimpressed with his stature and impressive in his simplicity. As I tried to encapsulate what made him successful, I sensed that his experience to intuitively know people coupled with the advantage of being a pioneering professional player made him an effective coach. He instinctively understood that coaching required solidarity and that successful coaching grew from player camaraderie. There were few better at creating team chemistry than the tall coach.
Al McGuire was once asked what made Lapchick a successful coach. “Joe Lapchick didn’t know basketball,” McGuire leveled at the shocked sportswriter. “He felt it . . . like I did.” Joe Lapchick was a natural because basketball was in his blood. No one would have to spend time teaching him about the game. His first reaction was often correct about it.
I curiously kept track the rest of the season, to see how he would complete his career. In the last game of his career, his St. John’s team sent their coach out a winner by defeating a strong Villanova team in the final of the 1965 National Invitational Tournament. After the game he was quoted saying, “What a way to go,” while sportswriters reported the victory was his fourth NIT championship. It was a fitting tribute to a good man. Few coaches ended their career winning a major championship. Joe Lapchick was a man who devoted more than fifty years to basketball as a paid player and college and professional coach, had been inducted in the Hall of Fame twice, and was admired by the basketball world.
In a sense, Joe Lapchick was every American’s success story, proof that in our country opportunity and hard work pay off. Lapchick demonstrated that a man could educate himself, learning to match his skills with the nation’s best. His life encompasses much of the early history of basketball, and yet his work is still very much a part of the modern game. He believed enough in the basic decency of Americans to help champion the introduction of blacks into pro basketball and endured frightful encounters for this fundamental belief in equality. This sorry but extraordinarily important chapter from basketball’s history is explored thoroughly in Gus Alfieri’s account of Coach Lapchick’s life.
Yet with all his honors, Joe Lapchick’s most striking quality was that he was a man of character, someone respected by his peers. I’ve learned, partly from Lapchick’s example, that neither money nor hype can add this quality to a person’s reputation. It must be earned. It is a legacy that every basketball player--every American--should strive for.

--Bill Bradley


Excerpted from Lapchick by Alfieri, Gus Copyright © 2006 by Alfieri, Gus. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gus Alfieri played for Lapchick at St. John’s University and was point guard for the school’s 1959 national championship team.

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