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Friday, September 22, 2006

Part III 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 III of this interview discusses Lapchick’s coaching career at St. John’s University, including his 1959 NIT Championship team and the college basketball point shaving scandal of 1961, during which two players from his 1957 squad were implicated. 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: “Who was the best player that you faced while you played for Coach Lapchick? Also, what was the best team that you faced? Obviously, if you want to name more than one in either category, feel free to do so.”

Alfieri: “That’s a good question. I’d have to say that I didn’t play against him; he played with us-Tony Jackson. Tony Jackson just passed away last October. My senior year (1958-59) we won the Christmas Festival and the NIT and he was the MVP as a sophomore in both events. He was an outstanding player and the only reason that you don’t know that much about him is because in the era that we played there were a lot of scandals going on. A lot of players were contacted by gamblers to dump games. He evidently was contacted, it was still a touchy time, and (Maurice) Podoloff, who was the NBA Commissioner at the time, probably quietly-I can’t say this officially-but he was probably blacklisted. He didn’t get a chance to play in the NBA. He played in the ABA. I’m telling you, this guy was a fabulous player.”

Jackson averaged 15.9 ppg in two ABA seasons. You can see a picture of him and read more about his career here. Other blacklisted players included Doug Moe, Roger Brown and Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins. Moe played in the ABA for five seasons before beginning a long coaching career; he is currently an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets. Brown played his entire pro career in the ABA, receiving an out of court settlement from the NBA but declining to jump leagues because of the tremendous loyalty that he felt toward the Indiana Pacers and the ABA for giving him an opportunity. You can read more about Roger Brown here. Hawkins played with the Harlem Globetrotters and then played in the ABL and the ABA before settling a lawsuit with the NBA and joining that league in 1969.

Alfieri: “Jackson had to be one of the best players who ever played the game. He could really jump, he could really shoot-he had a soft jump shot and he could jump like four feet off of the ground. We had two guys who boxed out while Tony cleared the boards. He got huge numbers of rebounds for a 6-4 player. You can look at that period and say how many 6-4 guys can do well in the NBA today but he was an outstanding player.

I played against Jerry West when he was a sophomore at West Virginia (1957-58). He was an outstanding player but that particular night he scored 21 points and he had a good game but Tony had better games as a sophomore (in 1958-59) than West had as a sophomore. Of course, in the NBA West turned out to be one of the best players ever.”

Friedman: “Did you guard West?”

Alfieri: “I think that I probably guarded him for a while. They were the number one team in the country when they came into the Garden. We were tied at halftime and I think we lost by about eight. It was a good game. There were factors that I don’t want to start mentioning because it will sound like I am making excuses.

When we were juniors we didn’t have great personnel. We had Alan Seiden, who was a very good player. I was a very decent player. I averaged about 14 ppg as a junior, so I wasn’t chopped liver. We had guys who were hurt but we still got to the semis of the NIT that year. We played very well. The next year we had Jackson and then we were really very good. We were outstanding. I think that Jackson was a third round draft pick for the Knicks but he never played in the NBA. I think that he is one of the greatest players that I dealt with in my lifetime. Jerry West would have been another.

As far as the best team, I guess the best team probably was coached by Harry Litwack-he coached at Temple. They had a guy named Guy Rodgers (who later became a four-time NBA All-Star and twice led the league in assists). They had a really powerful team, but what made them really powerful was that they were coached by one of the first real Xs and Os guys, Harry Litwack. He was playing combination zones in the late 1950s, which was unusual.

The best way to explain it is like a match up zone today. Whoever comes into your area, he becomes your man but you stay in a position; you don’t move. You just match up to the guy in your area. He was doing that in the 1950s and it was confusing because you can attack a zone two ways: one is standing still and the other is moving players. When you stand still, you move the ball. When you move players-you can also move the ball, too-it kind of tells the coach if they are playing zone or man to man. But (against Litwack’s teams) when you moved players the defenders stood still, so the coach would say that they are playing a zone. But then they would match up to you and it was a great idea. Litwack was a bright, scientific basketball coach.

Dr. Jack (Ramsay) was another brilliant mind from this era who we played against-but we had a lot of success against him. When Lapchick first took over we had a problem with Litwack’s teams but then we eventually took care of them; they lost some of the quality players that they had. We always seemed to do well against Ramsay and St. Joe’s.”

Friedman: “Did you ever play against Oscar Robertson?”

Alfieri: “No, but before the first game of my senior year Oscar played the preliminary game against NYU and he got 45. Tony played his first game as a sophomore and scored 23 and the newspapers compared the two. The comparison was that Tony had a better outside shot but that Oscar was a better all around player. The comparison between Jackson and Oscar was made by a lot of people but we never played against Oscar and Cincinnati. We played against Bradley, which was in the same league, in the finals of the NIT. They had beaten Cincinnati with Oscar and then lost to them in the Missouri Valley Conference playoffs, so they wound up coming to the NIT while Cincinnati went to the NCAA Tournament. But the NIT in 1959 was still a very powerful tournament and that didn’t fade until the mid-1960s."

Hall of Famer Kenny Loeffler of La Salle was another great coach from that era.

Alfieri: “Loeffler was a scientist, too, in a sense because he was the guy who said that when you shoot free throws the less movement, the better the shot. The old timers shot underhanded and when Rick Barry shot he just used a slight flick of the wrist. So Loeffler was right. When I correct kids at my camp who come to me for individual instruction, the kids who are moving too much you try to get them to move less: ‘Don’t move your hands and your body so much. Get set and get a rhythm but don’t move too much.’ I think that is a good rule in shooting. Loeffler knew about it and La Salle players followed it and Rick Barry did it when he shot free throws.”

Sadly, the story of that era in college basketball cannot be told without discussing the 1961 point shaving scandal. Ten years earlier, a previous point shaving scandal almost destroyed college basketball and led to several players being banned for life from the NBA, including Dale Barnstable, Ralph Beard and Alex Groza, one of the league’s top players and the brother of Cleveland Browns’ Hall of Famer Lou Groza. Jack Molinas, who reputedly had a 175 IQ, was one of the top rookies in the NBA in 1953-54 before the league banned him for life for fixing NBA games. He then turned his attention to bribing college basketball players to shave points. The scheme unraveled in 1961, when 37 players were implicated for point shaving in at least 43 games between 1957 and 1961. Two of the players, Mike Parenti and William Chrystal, were Alfieri’s teammates on the 1956-57 St. John’s team. They were seniors and he was a sophomore.

Alfieri: "Molinas was a vicious guy. I talk about him in my book and he’s a very unsavory character who met a very unsavory death. He was just bad news and there are stories about him in my book because he was around (college basketball in that era)."

Friedman: “What did Coach Lapchick do when he suspected that some of his star players were fixing games?”

Alfieri: “That’s a good question. It’s a very, very touchy issue. I wanted to talk to Jack Ramsay. I met him down in Florida and he said to look him up, that his number is in the telephone book, but I tried to look him up recently and he had changed his number so I didn’t get a chance to speak with him. When he coached at St. Joe’s he coached (Jack) Egan and (Vince) Kempton and a couple other guys who were dumping (games).

What Lapchick said-he did a thing with Jimmy Breslin for the Saturday Evening Post and he did one with a sportswriter out in South Bend, Indiana-boils down to this: if you don’t have proof how the hell do you (discipline the players)? In other words, if I say that you are dumping games and I bench you but I’m wrong-that’s not right. If a guy is not playing well and I take him out—these are seniors who are very good players, a 6-5 guy and a 6-7 guy, huge rebounders and scorers, so how do I justify benching them other than that they are playing poorly? He would take them out and substitute for them but he never had any proof.

The first ones to find out about a dump are the media people. They get it from the bookies. The bookies tell them that this game is off the board. If a game is off the board, that means that somebody is fooling around. Lapchick was very close to the media people, so they were coming to him. Ike Gellis was the sports editor of the New York Post and he would come to Lapchick and tell him that St. John’s game was off the board. Lapchick wasn’t stupid but the point is what do you do about it? I’ve got this hot potato, what do I do? Do I go to the president of the university and say ‘I think they’re dumping’? Nobody wants a scandal. It’s a very difficult thing to handle…I have to say that when they wanted to fix a game they didn’t necessarily have to lose it but most of the time the team did lose because they were not emotionally involved in the game; it was against the game. So they did actually lose games, not just fix them.”

Friedman: “I’m gathering from what you are saying that Coach Lapchick wasn’t sure (at the time) if they were dumping games, so maybe the other players weren’t sure at the time. When this came out in 1961, as a teammate of theirs how did you feel? Did you believe that they had been dumping games? What was your reaction to that?”

Alfieri: “Yeah, we believed that they dumped games. My whole sophomore year was very unusual, as I document in the book. Don’t forget that we (the sophomore players) were guys who were very intense players. We had come from an undefeated freshman team and we were all All-City players: I was an All-City player at St. Francis Prep, Alan Seiden was an All-City player at Jamaica High School, so we were all used to winning. Now we get on this team and it was like, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ There was a senior-sophomore dichotomy but it was more than that. We had a meeting in the hotel room before the game with Bradley in Peoria and I remember going up to one of the guys who we suspected and I said, ‘I don’t feel you out there.’ That was a great line. If I’m playing basketball with you and I feel you that means that you and I should be able to know when we’re playing that if I look at you and take a step forward then you can instinctively feel that I am going to be making a back door move. There was none of that feel when you played with these seniors. They were in a different stratosphere.”

Friedman: “Did your group of sophomore players-and I realize that at that time you were 19 years old, you were very young-go to the coach and say that something is not right here?”

Alfieri: “No. We had the meeting--”

Friedman: “Was the coach in the meeting?”

Alfieri: “No-just the players and, as I wrote in the book, nothing came out of it…Here’s the thing, here’s the lesson. I think that it was Jack Ramsay that said this someplace when he was talking about the scandal: if I were to ask you, how would you go about dumping a game? If you and I were going to go on the court tonight and dump a game, how would we do it? The most obvious answer is that we would miss shots or throw the ball away, which is something I’m sure that they all did do-but the best way to dump a game is on defense. You let the guy score; that happens all the time. This is what Ramsay said. That is what Lapchick said to Breslin in one of the interviews: how do you separate when a guy is having a bad game from dumping? It’s really a good question. I grind on that in the book because I felt concerned about what did Lapchick actually know and was he holding back. I think that he knew that there was something wrong but he just couldn’t prove it. Therefore, the thing went on through the end of the year and kind of got lost because it was over and the next year we did everything he wanted.

We won our first nine games and we were off and running (in 1957-58).We get to the NIT despite all of our (injury) problems and in the semis we’re tied with Dayton at halftime. We had a great year and then the next year we win (the NIT) and it’s the first time any team in New York won since the (1951) scandal. Not only did we put New York and New York basketball back on the map but we kind of put Lapchick back on the map because he worked nine years with the Knicks…Lapchick was eased out of the Knicks job and he comes to St. John’s and now he had his moments of doubt, too. The book is written from that point of view. Lapchick was not superman; he was a human being. When we win the NIT and we win the (ECAC Holiday) Festival and we had that spirit, he was back on the map. He was on top again. It’s like Sinatra in From Here to Eternity-he was a big celebrity and then his voice goes and then all of a sudden he gets back on the horse and becomes better than he was before. So Lapchick had a wonderful, wonderful run but he was human.”

The first three parts of my interview with Gus Alfieri looked at Joe Lapchick's playing career, his influence on other coaches-most prominently Bobby Knight-and his tenure at St. John's. The remainder of the interview deals with Lapchick's role in helping to integrate the NBA and Alfieri's take on what Lapchick would think of basketball today, particularly Team USA's play in the FIBA World Championships. Check back here early next week for those insights when I post Parts IV and V.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:59 AM

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