St. John’s basketball has a rich history and tradition, which was honored on Tuesday in a celebration for the 1959 and 1965 NIT champions at Carnesecca Arena.
Jerry Houston was the captain of the 1965 team, the last one coached by Joe Lapchick. Houston still walks around with the letter the coach gave him the day of the NIT title game and was emotional when recalling Lapchick’s words of encouragement before he made the free throws that iced the game in a 55-51 win over Villanova. “Whether it was 25 years later or 52 years later, it always touched an emotional chord in my body,” Houston said. “The realization of what I was a very small part of and just having somebody like Coach Lapchick and Coach Carnesecca in my life, I was truly, truly blessed. And when I think back to the emotion of that moment, it kind of hits home and I realize how lucky I was.”
The St. John’s teams of the late 50s were pioneers for the school in a way because the Queens campus was new. Home games not played at Madison Square Garden were played at Van Buren High School. “We came here, it was one building,” said Richie Engert, a senior forward on the 1959 team. “The arts building. There was no Alumni Hall.
It didn’t open until October. It was still building. Everything was mud, there was no grass. It was like nothing. And I come back here now, I tried four exits to get into this place.”
The 1959 team had a backcourt of Gus Alfieri and Alan Seiden, while Tony Jackson was MVP of the NIT Tournament. “St. Johns back then was the basketball school,” Engert said. “They all were. NYU was a great basketball school.
LIU had great teams. New York was basketball back then. All the other colleges used to come to New York to get their players. We couldn’t play any other sports. There were no fields. The football field, the baseball field, they all has glass on them, you know how the city was. You played basketball.”
The 1965 team featured Houston, the McIntyre brothers, Bob and Ken, and Sonny Dove. The players came away with an NIT title and the lessons learned from Lapchick. “I think coach helped instill that in you, that respect for your teammates, and to trust your teammates and treat your teammates well, play hard, work together and a lot of nice things can happen,” Houston said. “And you know what? He was right. A lot of nice things did happen.” Houston is an assistant to his younger son at Pearl River High School and assists the JV coach, who happens to be his older son.
Lou Carnesecca and Lapchick’s daughter, Barbara, were at the celebration. More than just the winning teams, it was a celebration of how the program was when the majority of players still wanted to stay in the city and the TV game of the week wasn’t competing with 500 other channels. “Everything they say about Lapchick is true, and then I meet Lou Carnesecca too, who was our assistant coach and is a guy who has never changed, never let the fame go to his head, and that’s the way Lapchick was,” Engert said. “Both of them are the same and they both really made their mark in sports. And those were the good old days. And what’s what St. John’s is trying to get back to. So far they haven’t made it yet. They have a long way to go.”