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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Part II of an Interview with Gus Alfieri, Author of Lapchick

Gus 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 II of this interview discusses Lapchick’s coaching style and his influence on the game, including his role as a mentor for a young West Point coach named Bobby Knight. 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: “Describe Coach Lapchick’s style of coaching both from a strategic standpoint—what kind of game he wanted his teams to play—and then also how he would interact with his players and how he would instruct and guide his players throughout the season.”

Alfieri: “Joe Lapchick was obviously a pioneer coach. His roots in the game go back to 1915-or maybe just a little bit after that-when he started playing as a young professional. He was a great chemist. He understood how to get teams to play together. That is a quality that is priceless today in coaching. Not many coaches can do that. He could get his teams up and ready to play for a game. He motivated them. That was his strength as a coach as I saw his career unfold through my research and as I think back to my experiences as a player. He never yelled at us. He got us to play hard without yelling and screaming as so many of these coaches today do. How the hell did he do that? He used to say this to us a lot: ‘I want you guys to be five coaches on the floor. I want you to be out there, in a sense, coaching yourselves.’ So he wouldn’t interfere-he wasn’t what you would call today an ‘Xs and Os’ coach. Lou Carnesecca would have been a perfect example of that; most of the modern coaches are known more as ‘Xs and Os’ type coaches and are really interested in the scientific game. For his time Lapchick was also interested in that but he was more interested in the motivational aspect of the game. He wouldn’t interfere-if the play was going wrong, he let it go; if the flow of the game was good, he let it take its course.

There was a great player who played for him at St. John’s and then with the Knicks, Dick McGuire. Lapchick used to say, ‘Dick McGuire can create plays on the floor that I can’t diagram on the board.’ That was the way he would look at the game. He would let it unfold. Does that mean that he didn’t coach the team and that he would just roll out the ball and let them play? No, not at all. I interviewed Al McGuire and I have a great quote from him in the book. Al McGuire played for Lapchick with the Knicks and he used to say, ‘Lapchick didn’t know basketball. He felt it, just like me.’ If you go back and check how Al McGuire coached at Marquette, it was very similar to Lapchick’s style. Butch van Breda Kolff, who played for Lapchick (with the Knicks) and probably made his greatest name coaching the Princeton team with Bill Bradley, coached the same way.”

Considering Lapchick’s mild-mannered demeanor, one might think that he and Bobby Knight would have nothing in common-but Alfieri explains that Knight reveres Lapchick and considers him an important mentor:

Alfieri: “Bobby Knight was a very strong disciple of Lapchick, probably the biggest name person who Lapchick mentored; Lou Carnesecca also benefited, but Knight more so. When I interviewed Knight, he made a statement that I put in the book: ‘You could put all the technical basketball that Joe Lapchick knew on the back of a postcard but it would take encyclopedias to contain all the knowledge that he had of basketball.’ Lapchick was an intuitive type of coach who could feel what was going on.

I remember talking to Coach Carnesecca about when he first started coaching in high school at St. Ann’s, which later became Archbishop Malloy and a very powerful high school program in New York. The first year that he coached at St. Ann’s, he was about 25 years old and he over coached. That is a mistake that a lot of people make. They bury players and teams because they confuse them. Lapchick just seemed to do the right thing at the right time. He was very impressive as a person and that ability as a man transcended his coaching. I interviewed people from different eras-Fuzzy Levane from the 1940s, my teammates from the late 1950s, Bobby McIntyre, who was one of the players from his last team in 1964-65-and they all said the same thing: they didn’t want to disappoint him; they didn’t want to lose and let him down. I think that was a great quality he had, that he could get you to do what he wanted you to do. In the book I used the term ‘conning,’ which can have the connotation of being a con man but ‘conning’ really goes back to maneuvering a ship and Lapchick had that ability to maneuver you into the position that he wanted; I have many examples of that in the book.

As a kid from Brooklyn, I looked up to him literally and figuratively as a wonderful role model. He never did anything that didn’t make sense. You know, a lot of coaches are jerks; you take them away from the basketball court and they wouldn’t know how to get home. This guy always made sense and did the right thing. He was a wonderful father figure for me and for many other people. (Carl) Braun said that next to his father Lapchick was the most important male influence in his life. Ernie Vandeweghe said that he loved his father and he loved Coach Lapchick. I felt that way. Guys on my team felt that way. He reached a lot of people and he motivated them. His basketball was wonderful but his personality and character were greater.”

Friedman: “The coaching style that you are describing sounds a lot like the way Phil Jackson coaches—someone who is not overly involved with Xs and Os and who is not necessarily going to call a timeout if a play goes the wrong way. My understanding is that Red Holzman, who Jackson played for, was that kind of coach. It seems to me that the way that you are describing Coach Lapchick’s coaching style would fit in with the way that Red Holzman coached and that Phil Jackson coaches the same way—he could be a modern exemplar of the type of coaching that Joe Lapchick did. Would that be an accurate statement?”

Alfieri: “It is something that is a possibility. You can look at that and see similarities. It surely makes sense.”

Friedman: “So it’s a reasonable analogy?”

Alfieri: “Yes, I think that it is pretty good and you could use that. I love to do that, too. You have a vantage point where you have dealt with a lot of different areas of basketball and you can see the similarities and the differences and the analogies and that is what makes it interesting. The personality of Phil Jackson does not come across as being a grab a player by the jersey and throw him against a locker kind of guy.”

Friedman: “You said that Coach Lapchick was a great mentor for Bobby Knight.”

Alfieri: “Absolutely.”

Friedman: “When you talk about Lapchick’s coaching style-not yelling at the players, not being overly concerned with Xs and Os but kind of feeling the game-I don’t know if you follow Star Wars but this almost sounds like Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi-you know, ‘feel the Force,’ ‘feel the correct way to play the game.’ When you talk about Bobby Knight-“

Alfieri: “It sounds like a contradiction. Let me tell you what I put in the book that Knight told me. Knight coached in West Point and Lapchick was in Yonkers, which was about 20 minutes away. Knight spent many an evening in Lapchick’s living room talking basketball. I have letters from Lapchick in which he would say that he and Bobby never talked about Xs and Os. If you study Bobby Knight, he had all of these different mentors-Henry Iba and Pete Newell-but Lapchick had a very strong place in his heart, for a lot of reasons; that would be another conversation. He surely looked at Lapchick as a father figure, no doubt about it. What Lapchick taught him was not Xs and Os but how to handle personnel. Knight told me that Coach Lapchick taught him a rule that he still uses to this day. The rule, kind of simplified, was this: if a player does anything to embarrass the school, the team or me, he has to answer to me…He didn’t make specific rules and neither does Bobby Knight to this day. He claims that he got that from Lapchick.”

Lapchick’s idea was that if he had too many specific rules with specific consequences that he would paint himself into a corner and not retain the flexibility to handle each situation based on the particular circumstances that are involved. Alfieri believes that this focused the players on doing things the right way.

Friedman: “When you talk about not having specific rules but having the players respect the coach and really want to play hard for him, it reminds me of John Madden, who just recently was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I saw a feature about him once and he said that when he was coaching he had three rules: (1) be on time; (2) pay attention; (3) play like hell on Sunday.”

Alfieri: “Lapchick was an eighth grade graduate. His formal education ended at 13 or 14 but whenever I speak with anybody I always say that the smartest man I ever met was Joe Lapchick. Does this kind of ridicule our education system in America? No, he was just a man who wanted to succeed and his philosophy was that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. He was a loveable individual, a nice man and he got results.”

Friedman: “I believe you when you say that he influenced Coach Knight, but the stylistic dichotomy is so striking-Lapchick wouldn’t yell at his players and Bobby Knight yells at players, he’s choked players and he's kicked chairs. I understand that what you’re saying is that Knight had a number of mentors, so he took something from Lapchick, something from Iba and then, for whatever reason, he has a personality that is a lot more volatile, so he incorporates these ideas but he has his own way of expressing them, for better or worse.”

Alfieri: “Knight and I spoke for 55 minutes five or six years ago and he cried on the phone. Lapchick influenced him in other ways. Bobby Knight wasn’t a clothes hound. Lapchick was a very careful dresser. I’m not going to say that he was a fashion plate but he was very careful. He got Bobby Knight to go to his tailor. Lapchick would influence him on things other than basketball. ‘Bobby, you should do this,’ or ‘Bobby, never do a speaking engagement for less than $100.’ He gave him these rules.

Knight told me that before an NIT game in Lapchick’s last year-St. John’s was playing West Point and this was really the big time for Bobby Knight, who was a 25 or 26 year old assistant coach to Tates Locke-he went up to Lapchick and said, ‘Hey coach, take it easy on us tonight.’ So Lapchick came up to Knight and took his hand and rubbed it along the side of Knight’s face like when you’re checking if you have a beard and said, ‘Bobby, Bobby, don’t try to give me a barber’s job’-in other words, don’t try to BS me. Bobby Knight never forgot that and he told me that after that he never went up to a coach and tried to BS him or anything like that. He tried to do that with Lapchick because he thought that he was being cool, but Lapchick’s response was don’t pull that (crap) with me. Lapchick did it in a nice sort of way with a smile on his face, but he got the message across.”

Alfieri’s passion to spread the word about Coach Lapchick is palpable but in this day and age of short attention spans he wonders if people will take the time to find out about a man who passed away 36 years ago. Still, a few recent events give him hope.

Alfieri: “Steve Mills of the Knicks is behind a movement to hang a banner in Madison Square Garden honoring Joe Lapchick and his 660 wins-he had about an equal amount of wins as the Knicks coach and as the St. John’s coach. Another thing is that there is a movement to have a national character award in Lapchick’s honor, which would bring attention to a quality that is really fast fading in sports in this country. We don’t have too many people about whom we can say that this is a person of character. Today in this country you have to have eight copies of everything and sign your name to ensure that you are going to do something. Lapchick shook your hand and he would do things. He was just a different person. You can say that it was a different period, but I think that we can use a character award in this country. Recently, Madison Square Garden Cablevision picked the 50 Greatest Moments in Madison Square Garden history and they selected Joe Lapchick’s final NIT Championship win against Villanova in March 1965 as one of those 50 and they had everybody in the world going to the city to tape a segment about that.”

posted by David Friedman @ 3:45 AM



At Wednesday, October 22, 2008 5:35:00 PM, Blogger Gus Alfieri said...

Hi David,

Thanks for keeping Joe Lapchick out there.

We talked I'm sure about the character award and after two years of hard work, by a lot of good people, we did it.

I hope it helps keep the focus on people in sports who try, and succeed in doing things the right way.

Again, thanks, and stay well. I'll be back when my next book comes out.

Gus Alfieri


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