[This blog was launched in February 2021 to bring online some of the best hard-to-find pro basketball articles from 20th century magazines and newspapers for everyone to enjoy. There are some exceptions to the pro basketball-only rule, and this story is one of them.
New York reporter Phil Pepe talks with Joe Lapchick about his 50-year journey through pro and college basketball, with most of the focus on the latter. In the final analysis, it just didn’t make sense not to run this piece. “Gentleman Joe” was a true pro basketball pioneer, and his reflections, even if weighted heavily to the college game, are definitely worth sharing with everyone. Pepe’s article ran in the magazine Basketball Special 1968-69. While I’m at it, time to shill one of my favorite basketball books, Gus Alfieri’s Lapchick. Grab yourself a copy, if you haven’t already!]
From the vantage point of his years, Joe Lapchick can look back on a half century of basketball and see it all. The years and the changes are a kaleidoscope, but in his mind’s eye, Joe Lapchick can see it all—the birth, the early struggle, the growth, and the ultimate recognition, acceptance and overwhelming success of basketball, the one truly American sport.
He sees it as a player, a young professional in what was considered by many an illicit sport. He was a callow youth in those days, a frighteningly tall 6-foot-5, the first big man of basketball and considered a giant in a world of pygmies.
Woodrow Wilson was the president of the United States, and the great World War—the first one—had just ended when Lapchick played center for the Original Celtics, probably the most dominant team in any sport, in any era. He remembers the games played in dance halls and the interminable road trips on bumpy buses and slow cattle cars.
He sees it as a young college coach, when the game was played in tiny gymnasiums before modest gatherings of exuberant students. He sees it as a pro coach, when the pro league was in its infancy and struggling for its survival.
And he sees it again as a college coach, at a time when the game had grown and reached the pinnacle of success. The years have been kind to Lapchick, but he has more than repaid that kindness. He has made a vital contribution to the sport with his dedication, his forthrightness, and his sense of fair play.
Consider that St. John’s U. is now the largest Catholic college in the world. Consider that nothing has earned more national recognition for the school than the game of basketball. And consider, too, that when you talk about St. John’s basketball, you are talking about Lapchick.
It is not easy to reflect over 50 drama-packed years and single out a great thrill, the moment of the greatest satisfaction. Lapchick has tried because he has been asked many times and, he admits, he has probably had a different answer each time he has been asked the question.
“I guess from a purely personal view, it would have to be the moment I retired,” he said. “When the kids won the NIT. But my greatest satisfaction is to see how the game grew in esteem. In my day, the writers would give you one inch on the fourth sports page—if they had nothing else to write about. Now we have reached a point where Bill Russell earns $100,000 a year, and Lewis Alcindor will be a millionaire before he plays his first professional game.
“In our time, we had to fight for space in the newspapers and for a few dollars more in our paychecks. In those days, any sport in which the players wore short pants was suspect. Now the game has come to be recognized for what it is: a skillful and demanding game. Perhaps it’s the most skillful and most demanding. And it is the fastest game in the world, and don’t tell me that hockey is because in basketball you are not skate-propelled.”
There is no bitterness in the man because he played in a time when the game was not appreciated, and the rewards were relatively few. “We were happy with what we got in our time,” Lapchick points out. “And our rewards are in knowing that we made a contribution towards making this the great game it is, and the successful sport it has come to be.”
The passing of time cannot dim the memory of Lapchick’s first coaching job. It was in 1936, and he was finishing out a great playing career in pro basketball. “I was 36 years old, and I knew I didn’t have much playing time left, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. Then I got a call from Father Rebholz of St. John’s, who said he wanted to interview me for the job of basketball coach.”
Lapchick got the job and was paid $2,500 a year to coach freshman, jayvee, and varsity basketball, plus varsity baseball. He approached the job with apprehension, anxiety, and trepidation. “I had a strange feeling,” Joe recalls. “Here I was a grammar school kid [having never attended high school or college], trying to teach college kids. I had put them on a pedestal. But the day finally came, and I had to put up or shut up.
“I was in awe of these mental giants standing there in front of me, waiting for me to give them some words of wisdom. “‘All right, boys,’ I said, ’go out and shoot.’ They shot and shot, and then it was 5 o’clock. ‘Ok,’ I said, ‘that’s all for today.’
“For two weeks, all they did was shoot, shoot, shoot. I didn’t know what else to have them do. I didn’t know anything about drills. We never used that stuff with the Celtics. The only practicing we did was shooting. I had read somewhere that a coach should be up high in the crow’s nest while his team was practicing so he could look down on them. So I climbed up to the top of the seats in the old DeGray Gym, and I just walked around looking at them.
“’You phony so-and-so,’ I said to myself, ‘you don’t have the slightest idea what to do next. What are you doing here anyway? You don’t belong here.’
“Finally, after two weeks, Jack Shanley, the captain of the team who became chief police inspector, came to me.
“’We’re tired of shooting, Coach,” he said. ‘Can we do something else?’
“’Ah, all right,’ I said. ‘Let’s scrimmage.’
“After the first five weeks, Father Rebholz asked one of the players what he thought of his new coach. “Father,” he said, ‘he stinks. He doesn’t know anything.’ And he was right.”
Lapchick’s first St. John’s team posted a satisfactory 13-8 record, but in characteristic fashion, Big Joe pooh-poohed the record. “We didn’t win any important games,” he said.
Joe might not have known much about coaching a college team, but he knew enough to play a lot of sophomores and juniors, looking ahead to the future. The kids learned, and the coach learned with them. And he learned well. Over the next three years, Lapchick’s Redmen won 48 and lost 12.
He has seen them all come and go, the greats of college basketball, the near-great, and the not-so-great. Picking the five or 10 best is no easy task, but Joe Lapchick has never been known to shrink from the difficult. He ventures where others fear to tread.
“When you talk about all-time, all-star teams in college, you’ll never go wrong if you pick Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor,” he said without hesitation. “They changed the game. For example, George Mikan was picked as the top player of the first half century, and 18 years later, he couldn’t make the squad.
“At center, you have to say Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Who’s better? I’d have to take Russell.”
While on the subject of centers, Lew Alcindor’s name was dropped. Is it inconceivable that he will be among the all-time greats? “It is quite inconceivable that he won’t,” Joe replied. “I don’t know what the records are, but if you’re looking for a ‘show me’ clause for Alcindor, here’s a guy who has lost only one game in high school and one game in college.”
It is characteristic of Lapchick, just as it was with his teams, that records and points and All-America ratings are not important. Winning is.
“Another forward of mine,” Joe continued, “would have to be Bob Pettit. He came out of Louisiana, where they weren’t supposed to have basketball players, and he not only was All-America and a great player, he was a No. 1 draft pick in the pros.
“For another guard, a lot of people would automatically say Bob Cousy, but when you talk about college, Cousy was not that great at that time. In fact, the best player on that Holy Cross team was George Kaftan. Jerry West would have to be considered in there, but I would go with Hank Luisetti. Still, I don’t know how you can eliminate Tom Gola or Maurice Stokes or Bill Bradley, the latest and most-famous name to come along.”
In summation, it becomes an 11-man squad, topped by Robertson, Baylor, Russell, Pettit, and Luisetti, followed by Chamberlain, Alcindor, West, Bradley, Stokes, and Gola.
When he talks about players he’s coached and his personal satisfaction, Lapchick has an entirely different criterion. “Listen to this for a moment,” he said. “Vince Boryla . . . Carl Braun . . . Harry Gallatin . . . Dick McGuire . . . Bill Van Breda Kolff. . . Freddie Schaus . . . Gene Shue . . . Fuzzy Levane . . . They all played for me, and they all coached in the pros. That’s the kind of thing that makes a coach proud.” And the list does not include Dick Holub, Gerry Bush, Al McGuire, and Lou Roethel. Lapchick alumni who became college coaches.
A trip down memory lane with Joe Lapchick unearths many memories and thrills, but you do not have to go very far back in those 50 years to find his most-rewarding moment. It came on March 20, 1965, in the last game he ever coached.
No coach ever won four National Invitation Tournament championships and, if you had to look for a favorite in the 1965 tournament, you would not land on the St. John’s team that Lapchick brought into Madison Square Garden. It was not one of Joe’s best St. John’s teams, but it had fire and determination and purpose.
The team had started the season well, won the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference’s Holiday Festival in a stirring upset, but faded at the end of the season, losing three of their last five to finish with a 17-8 record. The Redmen were considered an also-ran in the NIT, but they crushed high-scoring Boston College and upset second-seeded New Mexico in the quarterfinals.
Next it was Army, which went down in the semis, and now the Redmen had momentum. Coach Lapchick was as nervous as a teenager on his first date as he fidgeted while waiting for the final game against Villanova. Win or lose, it would be his last game as St. John’s coach because he had reached the mandatory retirement age of 65, and he wanted to bow out a winner.
They all came to help pull Coach Joe through his final game, all the boys he had coached. There was Gallatin and Braun and Dick McGuire and all the rest. The game was close, but the Redmen knew there was no way they would lose this game. They knew how much Lapchick wanted this one, but before the game, he did not ask them to win it for him.
“He could have,” said captain Ken McIntyre. “He could have psyched us out of our minds. He could have told us he really wanted to win this one and asked us to win it for him, but he never did. All season, he’s told us to win for ourselves. He can ask you to run through a wall, and you’ll say, ‘Which wall?’”
The Redmen could not lose this one, and they did not lose it. The final buzzer—and hundreds of St. John’s students swarmed on the Madison Square Garden court. Players swept Lapchick off his feet and lifted him on their shoulders and under the St. John’s basket. Two St. John’s cheerleaders wept for joy.
“That’s some retirement,” said Gallatin, coach of the New York Knickerbockers. “If I could ever get my guys to play their guts out like that for me, I’d be happy . . . they gave everything . . . from their toes to the hair.”
Later, much later, when he could talk without stammering and without choking, he faced the press in a dressing room that was, at once, wildly jubilant and poignantly sad. His voice was an emotion-filled whisper, and the room was blast furnace loud and, unless you were right next to him, you could not hear the five words Joe Lapchick said that spoke volumes.
“What a way to go out,” he said hoarsely.
[Here’s a slightly expanded take on Gentleman Joe’s Madison Square Garden farewell from United Press International]
Stringbean Joe Lapchick grabbed little Tates Locke, the 28-year-old Army basketball coach, and grinned: “It’s not snowing outside, Tates, the sun is shining.”
Locke had come into the St. John’s dressing room to congratulate the 65-year-old Lapchick on directing the Redmen to the National Invitation Tournament championship. St. John’s 55-61 victory over Villanova also marked the end of Lapchick’s coaching career, which spanned 29 years.
Outside Madison Square Garden, the snow was piling up on sidewalks, but Lapchick, with his shirt drenched with perspiration, was oblivious to it. “What a way to go out,” he exulted. “I think I’ll go out and really celebrate.”
Lapchick, surrounded by a mob of reporters and well-wishers, refused to let the atmosphere become sentimental because of his retirement. “Your nerves have got to suffer if you want to do it good,” Lapchick once said, and Lapchick had “done good,” suffering with 335 victories and 139 losses in 20 seasons at St. John’s.
Coach Jack Kraft of Villanova said he’s never felt this way over a loss before. “This is the first time that the sting of a defeat has felt this way,” he said. “It’s difficult to lose, but if I had to lose it, I wanted it to be for Joe, who is one of the finest gentlemen and coaches and has contributed more to the game of basketball than anyone I’ve been associated with.”