A statue of legendary St. John’s coach Joe Lapchick was unveiled on campus before the Red Storm’s 90-55 victory over Sacred Heart on Saturday afternoon at Carnesecca Arena.
Lapchick coached the Redmen from 1936-47 and 1956-65. His St. John’s teams won four NIT titles, including one in his final season on the sidelines. He won 334 games in 20 seasons at St. John’s, with a .720 winning percentage.
Lapchick also led the Knicks to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances in the early 50s. He also helped break the color barrier in the NBA, signing Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton.
“Literally my first memory as a five- year-old boy was looking outside our bedroom window in Yonkers and seeing my father’s image swinging from a tree, and people under the tree picketing because they didn’t want to see African-American players in a league that is now nearly 80 percent African-American,” Richard Lapchick said.
“Arguably, coach Lapchick was one of the most important figures in the history of St. John’s,” said Kevin Reed, a chair of the board of advisors for the business school at St. John’s. “Yes, he was a great basketball coach but he was an even better man.”
Reed was a driving force behind the statue. There had been a documentary broadcast about Lapchick’s life and it occurred to Reed that there was virtually nothing on campus about the coach. Reed reached out to former players Gus Alfieri, Richie Engert and Lou Roethel, to see what they could get done.
“Coach Lapchick emphasized the importance of his players taking advantage of the opportunity they were given, and was never more proud of them when they received their college degree from St. John’s,” Reed said. “The life lessons they learned from coach Lapchick over 50 years ago are still being practiced and handed down by them today.”
There was a turnout of St. John’s basketball legends including Lou Carnesecca, who was an assistant under Lapchick.
Jerry Houston, a member of the 1965 NIT champions was in attendance, as were other St. John’s greats Billy Schaeffer and Mel Davis. Members of the Joe Lapchick Character Award Foundation, including Dan Sacco and Jim McTighe, were also at the unveiling.
“This is obviously a testament to my father’s legacy that this would happen 47 years after his passing,” Lapchick said. “Gus’s book came out 39 years after his passing. People continue to recognize the person he was.”
Richard Lapchick shared stories about his father, including one when the coach turned down a bigger salary to go to the Knicks, because he had promised three of his players at St. John’s that he would stay with them through their senior season. “The lesson that my dad taught me then is to be loyal to whoever it is you’re working for.”
There was the story of legendary guard Bob Cousy writing to Lapchick, telling the coach he wanted to leave Holy Cross and go to St. John’s. Lapchick told Cousy that he should stay where he was, as the school had a good coach that would prepare him for the pros and that Cousy would get a fine education at Holy Cross.
They would cross paths again when the Knicks, now coached by Lapchick, met Cousy’s Celtics in the playoffs. During one game, Cousy looked like he had two points, but the ball was knocked out of the basket by a Knick. Lapchick called a timeout and told the refs that the basket was good and to give two points to Boston. “When my dad passed away in 1970, at the wake all those Knick players were there, and each of them came up to me separately and said that on that day in Boston Garden we thought your father was a lunatic for telling the referees that, but it was the most important ethical lesson that they had ever learned in their life because they knew how important winning was to my dad,” Richard Lapchick said.