Lapchick: The Life of a Legendary Player and Coach in the Glory Days of Basketballby Gus Alfieri
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.
- Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
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LapchickThe Life of a Legendary Player and Coach in the Glory Days of Basketball
By Alfieri, Gus
The Lyons PressCopyright © 2006 Alfieri, Gus
All right reserved.
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.
Excerpted from Lapchick by Alfieri, Gus Copyright © 2006 by Alfieri, Gus. Excerpted by permission.
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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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