Greatness and Character

Growing up in the ‘60s, basketball was more than just a beautiful game to me. It was a metaphor for life. How people could get along with each other, playing and working together to achieve goals despite differences in their backgrounds. The differences apparent to me back then were race, nationality, socio-economic, and religious. And self-interest.

If played well, basketball showed that the players on the court, their teammates on the bench, and their coach could all meaningfully participate and contribute to achieving goals, often with personal sacrifices being made so as not to be selfish. And with hard work, and within a framework of rules of the game.

Along with achievement come friendships, respect for others, camaraderie, as well as the benefits of physical fitness. It’s a game that respects great individual talent, but understands that teamwork trumps individuality and selfishness. The person who helps out on defense, sets a pick, takes down a rebound, makes the right pass, and moves to the right spot is a valued member.

This past Friday morning as I was on my way to the New Yorker Hotel on 34th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan for the 2015 Joe Lapchick Character Award luncheon and ceremony, I passed through Times Square.

Times Square. In the heart of mid-town Manhattan where Broadway and Seventh Avenue join, stretching from 42nd Street to 47th Street. It’s the world’s most visited place. Millions of people from all over the world visit annually. The Crossroads of the World.

It looked to me that many of the over 200 attendees at the Lapchick award ceremony grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and some in the 1940s. For them the crossroads of the basketball world was a short distance from Times Square—at Madison Square Garden.

The ballroom at the New Yorker Hotel was filled with silver and gray-headed people whose love of the game has enriched their lives and kept them youthful. In the audience were former or current coaches, players, athletic directors and administrators, scouts, basketball camp owners, fans, sportswriters, and probably refs.

For those in the audience who also believe that basketball is a metaphor for life, then perhaps the Garden was the real crossroads of the world. From 1925 until February 1968, the Garden was in full bloom on 49th Street and Eighth Avenue and since then, at 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue.

Before the building of large campus arenas and large professional team arenas, the explosion of cable television, the start of holiday tournaments in exotic locations such as Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, and the expanded powers of the NCAA, Madison Square Garden was unquestionably the mecca of men’s college basketball. The best teams from all over the country and from New York City played before large crowds and countless New York newspaper writers in the greatest city in the world.

There were the Holiday Festival, the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), and the college triple-headers. The NIT was more prestigious than the NCAA tournament in the 1940s and still considered very prestigious into the mid 1970s when the NCAA opened up its tournament to more teams. In the early 1970s, the Garden was the mecca of professional basketball as the Knicks won two NBA championships.

Jack Kaiser, the famed former athletic director and baseball coach at St. John’s, who was on the podium for the awards ceremony, had recently reminded me that Coach Al McGuire chose to have his Marquette team play in the 1970 NIT instead of the NCAA because he was upset that his highly-ranked team was going to be sent to a distant regional location instead of closer to home. Then known as the Warriors, Marquette won that NIT championship. The NCAA later made a rule forbidding a team to go to the NIT if it qualified for the NCAA tournament.

Don’t get me wrong. Given its history and location, the Garden has always captured the imagination of any basketball ballplayer and is a thrill to play in. It’s probably still the most prestigious basketball court in the world.

So it was fitting that the annual luncheon honoring the memory of Joe Lapchick and two great college basketball coaches took place a block away from Madison Square Garden and in front of an audience that comprised mostly of people who remember the Garden as the mecca of college basketball. Joe Lapchick, Lucile Kyvallos, and Mike Krzyzewski all graced the Garden court back in the day.

And for me personally, the day represented an intersection of different roads traveled.

Joe Lapchick

The Joe Lapchick Character Award was established in 2008 to honor the legacy of Joe Lapchick and pay tribute to those in the game of basketball that share his good character, commitment to excellence, and leadership skills.

In the game for over 50 years, Joe Lapchick was a great ballplayer and coach. A Hall of Famer. His stats back up his successes. A 6-5 agile big man, Lapchick played pro ball with a number of teams in the 1920s and 1930s either in professional leagues or on barnstorming tours. His teams won a number of championships in the old American Basketball League.

As coach of St. John’s, four of his St. John’s teams won NIT championships, two of which were in the 1940s. His Redmen had a 334-130 record. He left St John’s in 1947 to coach the New York Knicks and led the Knicks to eight straight winning seasons and eight trips to the Playoffs, including three straight NBA Finals. He returned to coach St. John’s in 1956 and retired in 1965.

Joe Lapchick loved the game of basketball and was successful in it. He also loved integrity and humility.

One of his former players, Gus Alfieri, who came up with the idea for the Lapchick Character Award and also wrote a biography of Lapchick, spoke at the ceremony. He spoke of when Coach Lapchick sent one of his St. John’s players home before a game when he didn’t feel well, despite willing to play because the team could have used him. Alfieri spoke about the Knicks’ President Ned Irish picking Coach Lapchick to coach the New York Knicks in 1947 over many other good and successful coaches because of his character.

In the foreword to Alfieri’s book, Bill Bradley—who was one of the honorees at the 1965 annual metropolitan sportswriters dinner, which turned out to be a Joe Lapchick “retirement party given by his many sports-media friends”—wrote the following:

As speakers came forward, and Joe Lapchick’s life unfolded before the five hundred guests, I realized how much the sports world loved and admired him, and would miss him. He was a gentleman who was always concerned for his friends and the integrity of the game he loved. As I listened to the speakers, I identified with Lapchick’s passion for the game, which sent chills up my spine.

In the book there are at least two Bob Cousy stories. Cousy talks about Lapchick dissuading him from transferring to St. John’s from Holy Cross because it was not in Cousy’s best interest. And in a Playoff game against the Celtics, Lapchick lets the refs know that a basket scored by the Celtics was not properly credited, giving the Celtics two points they deserved.

Coach Lou Carnesecca, the most beloved New York City sports figure today, was also on the podium for the ceremony. This past spring, Carnesecca summed up Coach Lapchick’s humility when the new St. John’s coach Chris Mullin was introduced to the media and the students. Carnesecca gave Mullin a small beat up card that he always carried with him. Coach Lapchick gave it to him when Carnesecca took over the coaching job at St. John’s upon Lapchick’s retirement. The card read, “ Peacock today, feather duster tomorrow.”

I remember watching on television Coach Lapchick’s last game in 1965 as the Johnnies won the NIT at Madison Square Garden in a thrilling game against Villanova. As I was watching the game, I told my mom that Coach Lapchick was coaching his last game and was being forced to retire because he was 65 years old. You know how moms always seem older than they are when you’re a kid. But she was not even 50 yet. As a mom she did not follow sports, although she did as a girl. I remember my mom feeling very bad about Lapchick’s forced retirement. It didn’t seem right.

Mike Krzyzewski

At 68 years old, Mike Krzyzewski was one of the kids in the ballroom.

This past spring he coached his Duke Blue Devils team to the NCAA championship for the fifth time. He has coached more victories than anyone in men’s Division I college basketball. His record going into this season was 1,018-310. Coach Krzyzewski is a Hall of Famer who has also coached the U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball teams to gold medals in 2012 and 2016. Simply one of the best coaches in the history of the game.

Krzyzewski played at West Point for Bobby Knight, and was a captain his senior year. He served in the army for five years before going into coaching. He became the head coach at West Point in 1975 and at Duke in 1980. Although a Chicago native, Coach Krzyzewski has New York City bona fides. West Point, New York is not far from New York City. Krzyzewski played in the Garden. And his West Point coach, Bobby Knight, had a close relationship and learned much from Joe Lapchick.

Coach Krzyzewski spoke lovingly of New York City basketball, St. John’s basketball, Coach Carnesecca, and Joe Lapchick. And when he talked about his mom, he felt tears coming on.

He joked how when he played at West Point, he and his St. John’s opponent Carmine Calzonetti, who was in the audience, guarded each other and each had done their job, holding the other to no points. And the punch line was that their coaches did not want them to shoot.

He was grateful for all the good people he has been associated with his whole career. His mom worked as a cleaning lady. Hid dad was an elevator operator who had to change his last name to make sure he would not face prejudice in getting a job.

Right before he started high school, his mom wanted to go over his bus trip to school. Krzyzewski told his mom he knew which buses to get on. But that’s not what she wanted him to learn. Krzyzewski’s mom wanted him to learn about his life’s upcoming journey. She told him that he would now be driving the bus, and it was important that he only let good people on that bus with him. And that if he got on someone else’s bus, to make sure it had good people on it.

This past Friday afternoon was the second time I had ever seen Mike Krzyzewski in person. The first time was in the spring of 1969. I was sitting in either the first or second row behind the far end of the Army bench in the new Madison Square Garden. Army was playing Tennessee in the consolation game of the NIT tournament. Remember consolation games?

It was the new Madison Square Garden that opened a little more than a year earlier. My cousin Mershe was able to get tickets for my cousin Allan and I. I wanted to see the championship game between Boston College and Temple. It was Bob Cousy’s last game as coach of BC. Although Cousy had retired from the Celtics by the time I became a Celtics fan, I wanted to root for his BC team because he had been a Celtic.

Less than a year and a half later I was in college at Queens College.

Lucille Kyvallos

Queens College was considered the crown jewel of the City University of New York (CUNY) when I attended and the years leading up to 1970. It was known for its strong academics and students who were active in civil rights and the political and social causes of the day. Queens College put women’s college basketball in New York on the map. Its women’s basketball team was one of the best in the country with national prominence. It’s a continuing source of pride to many who attended Queens College. And it was Coach Lucille Kyvallos who led the Queens College women’s basketball team to tremendous success.

Coach Lucille Kyvallos was hired by Queens College in 1966 as an assistant professor of physical education, and she taught courses in theory and sports skills. In 1968, in addition to her teaching responsibilities, she became the women’s basketball coach, and received no extra money for taking the position, just extra paid vacation days.

Raised in Astoria Queens, Kyvallos became a terrific basketball player growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. She played in schoolyards and playgrounds with boys. She played in rec leagues, the Police Athletic League (PAL), and semi-pro leagues. She played in the old Garden in a PAL championship game. She played every chance she could, often playing on numerous teams at the same time. The older she got, the farther and wider she traveled to play in games. A true hoopster.

Her high school in Queens, Bryant High, and her undergraduate college, Springfield College, did not have women’s varsity basketball teams. But that did not deter her from finding leagues and tournaments in which to play. She also found games that used men’s rules as opposed to women’s rules. During those years, women’s rules confined each player to one side of the full-court, limiting a player’s movement to half the court. Back then, women’s rules also limited the number of dribbles and limited the aggressiveness of a defensive player.

Kyvallos’ first college coaching position was in 1962 at West Chester State College in suburban Philadelphia. Kyvallos had a strong pool of women players coming out of high schools and CYO leagues that encouraged girls to play basketball and dedicated the resources to teaching the game. At West Chester, her coaching record was 54 -2 over four years.

The NCAA did not govern women’s college sports back then. There was no national governing body of women’s college basketball until the founding of the Commission of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (CIAW) in 1967 that in 1971 became the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).

Women’s college basketball had its first national tournament in 1969, an invitational tournament. In 1971 the AIAW adopted new rules that made the women’s college game rules almost the same as the men’s college game. The one major difference was the implementation of a 30-second shot clock in the women’s game. In 1971, regional qualifying tournaments had to be played in order to qualify for the national championships. Queens won its regional tournament in 1971 and played in the national championships. It ended the season ranked 11th in the nation. Queens played in the national championship tournaments again from 1972 through 1976 and in 1978.

The AIAW started having separate national championships for “small schools” in 1975. When Queens made the national championships in 1975, 1976, and 1978, it was in the top division, for big schools. At the time, the Queens College men’s varsity teams were in the CUNY Conference and were in Division III of the NCAA.

In 1973, Queens hosted the national championship tournament at Fitzgerald Gymnasium on the Queens College campus. Coach Kyvallos was the tournament director, responsible for running the tournament and managing the logistics, in addition to coaching her team. As tournament director, Kyvallos knew that sportsmanship was important. People from all over the country and with different perspectives were there.

Jill Hutchison in the book A Century of Women’s Basketball writes, “Coach Kyvallos had to urge her fans to show positive support for the Queens team, but not rudeness to their guests.”

Queens made the championship game losing to Immaculata College in the finals before a sell-out crowd. It was Immaculata’s second straight national championship. Queens was the number two team in the country that year. Almost a year later, during a regular season rematch in February 1974 before another packed house in Fitzgerald Gymnasium, Queens beat Immaculata, breaking Immaculata’s winning streak of 35 games.

It was a one-point victory that went down to the wire. Queens took the lead with 25 seconds to go and did not allow Immaculata to get a shot off in the remaining time. It was a stirring game. I was there.

Before the 1974-75 season began, Coach Kyvallos was invited by Rob Franklin, Madison Square Garden’s director of amateur athletics, to play in the Garden that upcoming season. It would be a historic game. The first women’s college basketball game ever played in Madison Square Garden. The Garden was the most prestigious stage for a basketball player.

Franklin said Queens could pick the opponent. Kyvallos called Cathy Rush, the Immaculata coach and invited Immaculata to play in that game. By then, Immaculata had won three straight national championships.The game drew close to 12,000 fans, many of whom were women. Immaculata made a comeback after being down by eight points in the second half to win 65-61.

It was an incredibly meaningful day for many young female athletes, in the stands and on the court. It validated their love of the game of basketball, a game that added meaning to their lives, and allowed them to believe their dreams could one day come true.

In 1977, Kyvallos coached the U.S. team in the World University Games to a silver medal. During her career, Kyvallos served on committees for the U.S. Olympics, the AIAW, lectured at basketball clinics, and ran basketball camps.

Lucille Kyvallos coached Queens from 1968 through 1979 and then coached Queens one more year in the 1980-81 season. Her record at Queens was 239-77. Her teams won the New York State and regional championships multiple times. She is in the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame, the Queens College Athletics Hall of Fame, and the West Chester University Hall of Fame.

Like all great coaches, Coach Kyvallos took her coaching responsibilities seriously. The practices were well organized. And long and hard. Drills, drills, and more drills. It was about teaching the fundamentals of how to move on the court, being aware of where and when to move, where to make the right pass, how to ball fake, making layups, getting down the court as fast as possible, and when to drive and when to shoot. And getting her players physically conditioned.

Her priorities were defense, rebounding, and then offense. Her teams often played tight man-to-man defense. Defense would create offensive opportunities with steals, deflections, and resulting errant passes. Offensively she wanted her teams to push the ball up the court quickly. Her teams would sometimes scrimmage in practice against men.

When all was said and done, Coach Kyvallos wanted to teach women what they were capable of if they put in the work. To play basketball with a high degree of skill, athleticism, intellect, and in a team-oriented fashion. And to compete as hard as possible, and to find better competition as they improved.

And Coach Kyvallos is proud that the lessons of teamwork, leadership, discipline, taking responsibility, hard work, thinking on your feet, preparation, and working through difficult situations on the court, carried off the court in the post-collegiate lives of her players.

At the award ceremony and luncheon, many of her former players were present. Near the end of her speech, Coach Kyvallos proudly called the names of a number of former players to stand up while announcing their professional accomplishments. Lucille Kyvallos has taught all of us, both men and women, a unique lesson. Women can love and be as passionate about the game of basketball—and when you think about it, anything else—as much as men, and for the same reasons.

Photo courtesy of Andy Lipton