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
Phil Chenier Article Reprinted at Legends of Basketball
Legends of Basketball, the official website of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA), has reprinted my article about Phil Chenier and added some more photos. Here is the link:Phil Chenier: A Straight Shooter
posted by David Friedman @ 11:39 PM
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.”
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
Part I 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 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