Part I of an Interview with Gus Alfieri, Author of LapchickGus Alfieri was the point guard on the 1959 St. John’s NIT Championship team. That squad was coached by Hall of Famer Joe Lapchick, who had a profound influence on Alfieri and many others. Alfieri’s biography of his coach, titled Lapchick: The Life of a Legendary Player and Coach in the Glory Days of Basketball, will be in bookstores soon. I recently did a wide-ranging interview with Alfieri about Lapchick’s life, basketball history and the current state of the game. Part I of this interview describes Alfieri’s first impression of Lapchick and discusses Lapchick’s playing career. You can find Lapchick’s Hall of Fame bio here. To learn more about Alfieri and Lapchick-and for information about how to order the book-check out this website.
Friedman: “How did you meet Coach Lapchick and what was your first impression of him?”
Alfieri: “I was a high school sophomore and I really didn’t meet him but I kind of saw him. He was a tall, distinguished looking man—six foot five and a quarter—and I was a 6-1 or 6-2 high school guard. I was walking into the 69th Regiment Armory (the home of the New York Knicks from 1946-1950). He was coming out and I was going in to play a game because high school playoff games were played at the 69th Regiment Armory. So I saw him and I was kind of awed by him because I recognized this person I had seen on television coaching the Knicks. I guess that I must have been around 14 or 15 years old, seeing this tall, distinguished looking individual who I recognized. To me, even though he didn’t look like John Wayne he had that kind of impact because he was a celebrity, he was a famous person and I was a young kid trying to learn how to play basketball. That was the first time I actually saw him in the flesh so to speak, in person.
I didn’t meet him until later on. He had just left the Knicks in January of 1956 and at that point I was a freshman at St. John’s University. In those days they would have certain freshman teams play the preliminary game of a college doubleheader, which was really a huge thing at the time. He came to the game--we had heard rumors that he was going to coach St. John’s--and he was sitting in the promenade seats holding a cigarette; I guess you could smoke in the stands then. His legs were crossed, he had a blue suit on and looked very distinguished. We were playing and it was like, ‘Wow, Joe Lapchick is watching us play.’ We annihilated either Manhattan or NYU, some freshman team from the city, and shortly afterwards it was announced that he was going to be the coach at St. John’s. So that was my introduction to Joe Lapchick.”
Friedman: “Describe the kind of player that he was and how important Joe Lapchick was to the success of the Original Celtics.”
Alfieri: “The significance of Joe Lapchick was that he was the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of his time. That sounds odd to say but (at that time) an average basketball player might have been 5-8 or 5-9 and he was six foot five and a quarter, so that gave him a huge advantage. But the real advantage was that the way the game was played then—and until 1937—was that after every basket there would be a center jump. So if he was jumping against somebody who was 6-1, 6-2 or 6-3, he probably was able to control most of the center jumps, which made him very valuable. He played with the Celtics and when he was younger he played with a lot of different teams and my research showed that in his first game with a team from Massachusetts he shot 11-11 from the free throw line. So he was also a good free throw shooter. He was a good rebounder, he handled the ball well for a bigger man and he was a smart player. The advantage that the Original Celtics—the team that he really made his reputation with—had was that they signed players to exclusive contracts, which sounds very simple today but in the old days that never happened. When Jim Furey, who was the manager/owner of the Original Celtics, came up with the idea to sign his players to exclusive contracts, the advantage that he had was that these players played together all year round and got to really know each others’ games. That made them that much more effective as a team. That probably was the key reason that the Celtics were so successful. Lapchick was effective because of his size, his smarts, his ability to handle the basketball, his ability to shoot free throws and his ability to play the game on a level that is obviously more sophisticated than the way the game is played today. Today, we are being beaten by the rest of the world. At that time, they knew how to pass the basketball, they knew ball handling. So Lapchick was keyed into ball handling and shooting the ball intelligently. I don’t think that he would be the Michael Jordan-type scorer of that era, but nobody was. He was one of the three highest paid players in professional basketball in the 1920s, earning more than $10,000 a year, which was a phenomenal amount of money at that time. That’s how I see him as a player—an Original Celtic who could handle the ball, who could jump, who had a built in advantage because of his size and who could make free throws and play a smart game.”
Jim Furey's unusual career could be the subject of another book. He had an interesting way of generating the money to pay those exclusive contracts, as Alfieri explains.
Alfieri: “The book deals an awful lot with the history of the game and there are a lot of different aspects weaved into to it. One thing a person will get when he reads Lapchick is a pretty clear picture of what was going on as basketball developed. The Celtics’ owner, this Jim Furey, was absolutely a character. Here’s a fellow who put together this team and was able to pay these salaries but what I guess the players didn’t realize is that he embezzled close to $200,000 from Arnold Constable, where he worked, and that is how he paid those salaries; it was a department store that he worked for starting as an 11 year old. He worked his way up and he got more and more responsibilities. He got infatuated with basketball and he wanted to run this team. He needed money and was able to finagle with the books, until he finally got caught. The New York Times reported that it was actually $187,000 that he embezzled and he went to Sing-Sing for three or four years for that. This kind of thing happened-gangsters owned teams and the guy who took over the Celtics after Furey was a bootlegger who got shot on 10th Street and was riddled with machine gun bullets. It was quite an era, but this is how the game developed in the United States and this is really the grassroots of basketball. Lapchick, by being one of the Celtics, was part of the barnstorming, kind of the ‘Johnny Appleseeds' of basketball who went around the country and really taught the rest of the country how to play the game of basketball. It really is interesting."
The Great Depression meant the end, at least for a while, of $10,000 a year contracts.
Alfieri: "Like everything else in this country, when we hit the Depression in 1929, the bottom really fell out of professional basketball. Lapchick resurfaced in Cleveland and then that team went out of business, so he got a hold of a few of the Original Celtics and they barnstormed from town to town. I have one letter in the book from when they were in Beaumont, Texas and he wrote back to his wife that they only made six dollars the previous night and that they didn’t think that they would make much more than that tonight, so I’m not going to be able to send you any money. So, like a lot of Americans, he went from living high on the hog to being really pressured during the Depression to make a living to support his wife and two children. It was an interesting reflection of our society and what was going on in the country and how the Depression affected everybody. There were only a few teams-the Celtics and later on you had the Harlem Globetrotters and then later on in the 30s you had the New York Rens. So there were a few teams that were able to barnstorm and come into towns and play where it was a kind of entertainment—for 30 or 40 cents they could see a good game and forget their troubles, like going to the movies. It was the equivalent of going to the movies for people during the Depression. They were really unhappy with their situation but for two or three hours they could go into a movie house and live a luxurious life or fantasize that they were not having problems. So Lapchick and the Celtics during the 30s provided that entertainment. They went from town to town for whatever they could get and played games and played against the local players-college players or semi-pro players, whoever they could get. When I interviewed John Wooden, he had some good stories that I included in the book. Of course, he played against Lapchick in the 30s after he graduated from Purdue. As a historian, I found it very interesting to write about how basketball survived and grew into the international game that it is today.”
posted by David Friedman @ 5:06 AM