Part IV 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 IV of this interview discusses Lapchick’s contribution toward integrating the NBA with the signing of Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton in 1950; it also offers Alfieri’s take on what Lapchick might think of basketball today as it is played in NCAA, NBA and FIBA competition. Part V will conclude with some more thoughts about the modern game of basketball. 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.
According to NBA.com, “(Earl) Lloyd, (Chuck) Cooper, and (Nat) Clifton entered the National Basketball Association in 1950 and became pioneers for today's African-American basketball players. Cooper was the first African-American to be drafted by an NBA team. Clifton was the first to sign an NBA contract. And on Oct. 31, 1950, Lloyd, a member of the Washington Capitols, became the first African-American to play in an NBA game when he entered a game against the Rochester Royals.”
Nat Clifton, better known as "Sweetwater," had previously played for the Harlem Globetrotters. He was a gifted athlete who played minor league baseball before deciding to concentrate his efforts solely on the hardwood. Globetrotters’ founder/owner Abe Saperstein receives a lot of credit as a pioneer of integration but in his book Alfieri argues that Lapchick’s role has been neglected and understated.
Alfieri: “Lapchick would treat anybody fairly—you, me, whatever religion, whatever color; in other words, Lapchick was an egalitarian who would be fair to everybody. In the case of Sweetwater, (Knicks owner) Ned Irish pushed to get a black player in the NBA because he saw it as a good business proposition. Lapchick had to handle the first black player playing with an all white team in the NBA…
Let’s talk about Lapchick and integration. In the 1930s he barnstormed in the Midwest and they went to St. Louis and he was able to do things to show his feelings for minorities when he played against the New York Rens. They were a black team who was barnstorming like the Original Celtics were. In the book there is a scene when after the game the promoter wants to give Lapchick $500 in cash and wants to give a $500 check to the Rens. Lapchick realizes that there is no way that a black team is going to be able to cash a $500 check in St. Louis, a segregated city. So he says to the promoter that he should give the Rens the cash and give him the check. It was a small thing but it was an important way that he showed his support. The guy who ran the Rens, Bob Douglas, was like Jim Furey had been with the Original Celtics, the owner/manager—he was the man involved in that story. There was another situation involved in Louisville, Kentucky when the Celtics went there in the 1930s to play a game and the Rens were playing the day before. The Rens went to the arena and Lapchick walked on the court before the game and embraced Tarzan Cooper, a tall black man who was the Rens’ center, and the place went silent. The Celtics were more or less run out of town because of the show of affection for a black man in a city like Louisville.
When Sweetwater Clifton came to the Knicks, Lapchick was able to apply the same chemistry that I mentioned that he did with us (later at St. John’s). By the way, Tony Jackson was only the second black player to play for St. John’s University. We never realized it, because we never missed a beat. As kids, we never said that Tony is the second black player; we never even realized it. With Clifton, Lapchick did everything that was necessary to make things flow. Clifton was someone who you respected; he was a big, strong guy. Lapchick tried to prepare him for the NBA. In one situation, he told him, ‘Sweets, you have to defend yourself out there; otherwise, these guys are going to run you out of the league even though you are a very strong player.’ So Lapchick encouraged Clifton to defend himself. Once, Lapchick asked him if he could fight and Clifton said, ‘A little.’ Lapchick kind of rolled his eyes and thought that Clifton was going to get hurt out there but what Lapchick didn’t know was that Clifton had fought with fighters like Joe Louis and Bob Satterfield—he used to spar with them in Chicago. So he was very familiar with handling himself and he had huge hands. There was a famous incident with the Boston Celtics when a guy threatened Sweetwater Clifton and Clifton decked him. The Celtic team just kind of ran away from him because they realized that he could really hurt them. I mentioned that Lapchick didn’t like to pin himself down by making a lot of rules and he did that with Clifton, too. The team very often traveled by plane but some guys traveled on their own. Ernie Vandeweghe was a doctor and he would often get there right before the game because he was just getting done with his work as an intern. Lapchick let Sweetwater drive up to Boston by himself and didn’t make regulations that would tie him up in a knot. He wouldn’t say that we're all traveling at the same time and I want you there. He made it very flexible for him and I think that that helped the integration of the NBA, too. What really made the whole thing work for Lapchick is that he didn’t try to do anything that would limit Clifton from doing what he would have to do. When they got to a city, if it was a segregated city then sometimes the team would say that we don’t have to stay in this hotel. Chuck Cooper with Boston was a little more fragile, but Sweetwater had been traveling on the road for years as a baseball player and Harlem Globetrotter and he really knew how to handle himself. When he got to a city he had millions of friends and he didn’t need the Knickerbockers to watch over him. His ability to do that helped make his transition to the NBA a smooth one.”
Lapchick’s involvement in professional and college basketball spanned five decades and he competed at a championship level as a professional player, a collegiate coach and an NBA coach. What would he think of how the game of basketball has developed over the past 40 years at the NCAA, NBA and FIBA levels? In the wake of Team USA settling for the bronze medal in the FIBA World Championships, Alfieri answered this question by first talking about why the United States no longer dominates the FIBA game.
Alfieri: “Lapchick used to say that there are three facets of basketball that should be emphasized: ball handling, rebounding and defense. If you had two out of the three then you would have a pretty good team. Notice that what is not mentioned there is shooting or scoring. It was understood, even then, that when the average ball player goes to the schoolyard and picks up a basketball that he is not going to play defense against it—he’s going to shoot it. So shooting and scoring points are things that a player works on individually but he doesn’t really work on the other skills unless he’s really forced to do it by a coach. So Lapchick understood the essence of the game: handling the ball carefully and playing good defense. I still remember when Al McGuire would do color commentary on TV and he would say that no team in any sport wins unless they play good defense—whether it’s basketball or baseball or anything...
I think that the modern player is a great athlete who jumps and runs very well but doesn’t handle the ball that well and, very surprisingly, doesn’t seem to shoot that well and yet kind of gets by because of his athleticism. But getting by now has caught up to America because the rest of the world-well, let’s not make it so clear cut: let’s say many of the European teams in particular-will take young players who are 10, 11, 12 years old and put them in their system so that they learn the fundamentals all the way through and stay in that fundamental game. What’s happening in America is that we have gotten away from the fundamentals and don’t teach the fundamentals anymore. I’ve run a basketball camp for 40 years—I still run it—and we still teach the fundamentals. We still have people come in and lecture and we make sure every day that the kids get at least two fundamentals at each teaching station. In other words, we are conscious of what Lapchick said. A lot of camps don’t teach anymore. They just play a lot of games.
Everybody is thrilled by the three point shot and the dunk and we have forgotten how to play the game of basketball. That, I’m sure, is what Lapchick would say, because he was a wise owl when it came to making observations. He would have been a great interview for you because he would have really hammered it home with a million other points. I’m sure that he would feel that the game has gotten away from us. We thought that putting together Krzyzewski and Colangelo would make a difference but from what I saw—and, to tell you the truth, I don’t care to watch that much of it—the other team collapses in the three second area, guys launch three point shots and when they go in they win and when they miss they lose. They don’t seem to be that fundamentally sound and the 24 second clock has surely gotten them into a rhythm that doesn’t allow much ball handling or the development of an offense and it really makes it a bad game…
I think that college basketball is still exciting because March Madness gets our attention. What you’ve got in college basketball today is parity to a great extent because so many great players are being siphoned off. What you have left are some teams-I always think of Manhattan College when Bobby Gonzalez was there, before he went to Seton Hall-do have players for three or four years and by the time you get to that third year playing together-sort of like Jim Furey’s idea with the exclusive contracts for the Original Celtics-those teams can be pretty good. They could beat what would be considered bigger name schools because they played together as a team. Today, even Duke and North Carolina lose so many good players after their first or second year that it is almost like they have to keep starting over again. Collegiate basketball has found a level of parity, like professional football. That aspect makes it interesting but the quality of the basketball is not always up to what it was 20 years ago when all those great players would wait until they were seniors before they were drafted into the pros. I think that Lapchick would have been conscious of that and would have surely been quoted about it because he was surely one of the most quotable individuals in sports. That is absolutely a fact that I realized when I did the research for the book.”
The current plan for Team USA is to select the 12 man active roster from the same 24 player pool for a three year period. In recent years, Team USA completely retooled the roster for each FIBA event, so the improved continuity created by this new method of roster development is expected pay dividends down the line. Will this plan work or does Team USA have fundamental problems that cannot be solved by simply having more practice time together as a unit playing under FIBA rules? That question will be addressed in Part V, the conclusion of my interview with Gus Alfieri.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:45 AM