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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Part V 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 V concludes the interview by offering some observations about the modern game of basketball and explaining the most important quality about Joe Lapchick that every reader should understand. 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: “You made the point that because Manhattan had the same team together for several years-because they did not have the elite individual players who were going to the NBA early-that by the third or fourth year together they would be very, very competitive in the NCAA Tournament. One of the things that I think hampers Team USA in FIBA competition is that we put the team together in less than a month and, even though these are very talented players who have had a lot of success in the NBA, they have never really played together other than maybe in an All-Star Game situation. So we put the team together, we have a coach who has previously coached only a few of the players on the team and then we go into a situation in which they are playing with a different lane, a different three-point line, a different way that the game is officiated, no restricted area and so forth-so many rules are different. I agree with you to an extent about the situation with the fundamentals but don’t you think that it also hurts Team USA to some extent in FIBA competition that it hasn’t been together? Now that they are planning to keep this team together for three years under Coach K, there is a good chance that this team could win gold in the 2008 Olympics; just by virtue of having that cohesion the defense should improve because they will be practicing more together.”

Alfieri: “What you said is interesting. What you said about 30 seconds ago is really funny. You said, more or less, that if the United States does all of these things that you mentioned then they have a chance to win. That is really interesting, because in the past we would pick college all-stars at the end of the college season, roll the ball out and everybody would roll over and play dead. Now-and I’m not saying that you are making excuses-but it sure as hell sounded like the party line: it’s the lines and the ball-“

Friedman: “I’m playing the devil’s advocate.”

Alfieri: “I know. What I’m trying to say is that there are a lot of reasons that we lose. One of them is, how do you motivate a multi-millionaire to bust his chops during the summer when he wants to be vacationing someplace? Carl Braun was one of the finest players in the NBA. He scored 47 points in an early NBA game in 1947 against the Providence Steamrollers. You know, 47 points was a hell of a lot of points back then. He was a silky smooth shooter who I can picture as I talk to you now. He used to use the rim like the backboard; the ball would teeter and go in. This guy played for 15 years and coached in the NBA. In other words, he might have played about 12 years as a player and then some years as a player/coach and then he was a coach for a while. He earned $150,000 in 15 years. OK, money was different but it still shakes out as peanuts. His quote, which I have at the beginning of one of my chapters, is: ‘We would go anyplace to play. We loved the game.’ I don’t get that feeling of love anymore. I get the feeling of, ‘Hey, we’re in business, we’ve got agents, we’ve got other things on our minds.’ Who among our best players really cares about international play?

The reason that I see is that the rest of the world has caught up. There is not the magic in American basketball that we had at one time. I was part of it, too. In 1979, I—and a million other people—went to Europe. I went to Rome and lectured for eight days to 300 Italian coaches. They asked a lot of questions and I worked with the Italian Junior Olympic team. It was great—I love teaching—and they absorbed it. They used it. You know the old story—we used to send scrap metal to Japan before World War II and they sent it back in bombs and planes. They used what we taught them and they diligently exercised the lessons while we sat back…We’re not hungry anymore. All these things kind of weave together. As far as different rules, yeah, I can see it being a factor. The fact that they have not played together, sure, that’s a factor—when things are even. That’s what’s happening now; when it’s even, that makes a difference.”

Friedman: “Right. That’s what I was alluding to. You mentioned that in the past we would just send college all-stars or the AAU players back in the 1950s and the 1960s and we would generally win easily but you can’t completely ignore that the international players have improved. So, while there has been a stagnation or regression of fundamentals in terms of the American players, at the same time there has also been a tremendous improvement in the international game. If we could use a time machine and send Jordan, Bird, Magic and the rest of the 1992 Dream Team to play against these current international teams I’m sure that the Dream Team would win gold—they would not lose a game—and they might very well win every game by at least 10 points but I don’t think that they would win by 40-45 points a game like they did in 1992, even though their fundamentals were sound. I guess what I am saying is that I give some credit to the international players for improving while not disputing the fact that there are real problems in terms of American basketball as well. But we can’t just focus so much on the problems at our end that we don’t give sufficient credit to the opposition. As you said, they have taken in the coaching from when you went over and Hubie Brown, who I’ve spoken to—so many people have gone over and really helped to develop the FIBA game. So we have to give them some credit, too, for learning these lessons.”

Alfieri: “Oh yeah. The Greek team knocked off the United States and you look at their team—none of their players are in the NBA, which is an interesting statement. If you look at them individually, they didn’t look spectacular but as a team they were so fundamental and they were so focused and they played so well together that all of those factors came together to make them a superior team. To tell you the truth, they are much more interesting to watch and to root for. I mean, we are Americans, but if we are looking for quality basketball, these people play the game the right way—and we taught them. That’s the part that hurts. What also hurts is that you just get the feeling that they (USA Basketball officials) talk and talk and talk but the bottom line is that they can’t do much about it—these are the best players and they are going to give you what they want to give you and if you don’t like it, too bad. International play is not as nationalistic or something that is a patriotic involvement (to the players) and in some ways it is probably a nuisance to them. I mean, if I was making all that money I don’t know if I would want to spend all that time playing during the summer. That’s kind of the problem; our best players are not willing to give the juice that is really needed to win…You don’t mind losing in sports if somebody is giving their best. I don’t get that feeling (about Team USA). It’s been happening for more than one or two years now. A lot of people recognize that, fundamentally, we have regressed and the rest of the world is really focused and playing hard. That’s the way I see it.”

Alfieri’s book paints a vivid portrait of Joe Lapchick and takes the reader on an epic tour of the formative years in basketball history but there is a simple, powerful message about Joe Lapchick that he wants to make sure that everyone understands:

Alfieri: “That he was such a wonderful man to have known. He was so pleasant. He was interested in you. He never made you feel like you weren’t important. One of the stories that I finished the book with said that if Lapchick had an important meeting with somebody it was probably you and he would treat you like you were somebody who is important in his life. Maybe this story kind of sums it up. At the end of his career, he was in the lobby at the old Garden, where he had performed all of his great games. He was talking to two players who were on that 1964-65 team that won the Festival and the NIT like we had done. It was after the last game, the win over Villanova, and he’s talking to these two players, Ken Wirell and Jerry Houston; Jerry Houston told me this story. Howard Cosell came barging into the conversation and gets between Lapchick and the two players with his back to the two players and starts talking to Lapchick. Lapchick says, ‘Wait, a minute Howard. You just interfered with a conversation between two young men and me, two young men who made me a famous coach. I’d like to finish that conversation.’ So he turns his back to Cosell and continues to talk to the two players for two or three minutes, shakes their hands and then turns to Cosell. We’ve all had the experience of talking to somebody who you know who is an important person. They kind of shake your hand but they are looking over your shoulder, making you feel like you are nobody because they can’t wait to get to the person or persons that they want to talk to. Lapchick would never do that. If I were talking with you and you came over and I said, ‘Coach, I want you to meet Dave Friedman,’ he would shake your hand and look you right in the eye and say, ‘Gus has told me a lot about you. I’m very pleased to meet you, Dave.’ He’d let you talk and let you have your moment with him. He would never cut you short or make you feel like you are a nobody. That’s the quality that I admired the most in this man and that’s the quality that I think people will see after they finish the book. Yeah, he was a human being and he wasn’t the best coach who ever coached basketball but he was one of the nicest men you are ever going to meet. He did so much for so many people and he was a pioneer in the game of basketball. He wasn’t just traveling through on someone else’s pass; he made history but he was nice about it. That’s the quality that other people should realize.”

posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM

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