The Lapchick Legacy

From left, Gus Alfieri,  Clarence Gaines Jr. (accepting on behalf of his father, Clarence “Big House” Gaines) and John Kresse.
From left, Gus Alfieri, Clarence Gaines Jr. (accepting on behalf of his father, Clarence “Big House” Gaines) and John Kresse. Photo by Jim Mancari

As an original Boston Celtic and as a college and professional hoops coach for nearly 30 years, Joe Lapchick is a pillar of leadership and sportsmanship. So to keep alive the late St. John’s University coach’s memory, the Joe Lapchick Character Award Foundation each year honors deserving individuals who have left their mark on the game of basketball.

Gaines, awarded posthumously, and Kresse received the Lapchick Character Award, while Alfieri was named the recipient of the Lapchick Leadership Award.The seventh annual awards ceremony was held Nov. 20 at the Wyndham New Yorker Hotel, Manhattan, and recognized three men who have followed Coach Lapchick’s example of character: John Kresse, Clarence “Big House” Gaines and Gus Alfieri.

These three join an impressive list of award recipients including Dean Smith, Kay Yow, Lou Carnesecca, Gene Keady, Pat Summitt, John Thompson Jr., Jack Kaiser and Jack Curran, as well as several other notable basketball ambassadors.

Kresse played his high school basketball at the now-defunct Most Holy Trinity H.S., Williamsburg, in the competitive CHSAA. The point guard became a walk-on at St. John’s University, Jamaica, where Lapchick was his head coach and the assistant coach was Carnesecca.

“There was not a greater duo in college basketball with two Naismith Hall of Famers (Lapchick and Carnesecca) working side by side,” said Kresse, who was presented by longtime teammate Lou Roethel. “They just inspired and coached us so well.”

Kresse said playing under Lapchick and Carnesecca inspired him to become a coach. During his 23-year coaching tenure at the College of Charleston, S.C., he molded his teams to mirror the St. John’s teams.

“They (Lapchick and Carnesecca) did it the right way,” said Kresse, who led the College of Charleston to four NCAA Tournament appearances in the 1990s and retired with a .797 winning percentage, the 11th highest in college basketball history. “They taught fundamentals. They taught us how to treat and motivate players. I learned how they dealt with the media, how they were always accessible and how they gave them a good story.”

When Kresse showed up to St. John’s basketball practice, Carnesecca knew right away that his pupil would someday make a great coach.

“Thank God he (Kresse) went into coaching,” Carnesecca said. “John was very smart; he had a good feel for the game. He had a way about him that could get his point across without raising his voice. He talked, people listened. And that’s a great trait to have in a coach. We were lucky to have him.”

“Big House” Gaines, who was introduced by his former player Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, went on to star for the Baltimore Bullets and New York Knicks.

Gaines, who passed away in 2005, was an athlete with tremendous size, which led to him being named an All-American football player while at Morgan State University, Baltimore, and also led to his nickname.

“When he (Gaines) was going to college, he got out of the car and they hadn’t seen him,” said his wife Clara Gaines. “So he pulled his big frame out, and they said, ‘You’re as big as a house.’ ‘Big house.’ And it stuck with him, he liked it.”

Gaines coached football and basketball and was the athletic director at Winston-Salem State University, N.C. With Monroe as his featured player, he led the 1967 basketball team to a 31-1 record and a Division II championship, becoming the first historically black college to win a national championship.

Finally, after a rousing introduction by basketball guru Tom Konchalski, Gus Alfieri accepted this year’s Lapchick Leadership Award. He starred on the basketball teams at St. Francis Prep, Williamsburg, and St. John’s, where he too played for Lapchick and Carnesecca.

He later coached at St. Anthony’s H.S., South Huntington, L.I., where his teams won two state and four Long Island championships in addition to winning 49 games in a row at one point.

Sparked by the impact his college coach had on him, Alfieri conducted extensive research which evolved into his writing of the biography “Lapchick: The Life of a Legendary Player and Coach in the Glory Days of Basketball.”

“I was always curious about Joe Lapchick,” Alfieri said. “He wasn’t perfect. He was just very good at what he did, and he was the nicest guy ever.”

In celebrating the legacy of Coach Lapchick, these three honorees certainly fit the bill in living out what the legendary coach stood for: integrity, sportsmanship and an enduring love of the game of basketball.