Lou Carnesecca has a face that was-not so much molded as anvilled. Everything there is sharp and craggy, much like the Apennine cliffs of Tuscany, from which his people came. Sober and often frowning, the face was marked in youth by too much dirt in street games, too much spaghetti sauce at dinner, but it can light up—paesano!—very easily, too. Well weathered at 44, Carnesecca is a product of New York City sidewalks, and he has seen both sides of the coin.
Way back he sliced the cold cuts and cheese in papa's East Side delicatessen before sneaking out to play stoopball under the 59th Street bridge, basketball up the block, and steal the flag, jump the hydrant and dodge the car anywhere he could. The area recreation was Buck Jones at the movies, Joe D.—The Clipper—at Yankee Stadium and the I-Ties beating up the Micks from two blocks away. There was stickball sewer-to-sewer and, when there was money, three-cent jelly apples and sweet potatoes sold by the vendor on the corner.
In the wintertime all hands would fill Madison Square Garden to watch the legendary teams of Clair Bee of Long Island University and Joe Lapchick of St. John's run out the competition. And it was then and there that little Lou Carnesecca found his own way. Coaching, thought Carnesecca. The old man wants me to be a doctor or a lawyer or play the accordion, but I want to coach. Just like Lapchick. Yeah, just like Joe Lap-chick of St. John's.
Last Saturday, still dodging, still moving, Lou Carnesecca had the Redmen of St. John's running out the competition again. After a 91-62 victory over West Virginia, his team had a record of 12-2; it was the reigning class of the East and, at the mid-point of the season, surely one of the year's biggest surprises.
Storied and impressive as the basketball tradition is at the Long Island school, it is something of a paradox, also. Against what, yearly, is one of the toughest schedules in the land, St. John's wins with players recruited solely from metropolitan New York. Normally, they are men who are overlooked by the bird-dog scouting systems of larger schools in the Atlantic Coast, Missouri Valley and Big Ten regions. And all St. John's has done over the years is compile a winning percentage of .710 (third only to Kentucky and Western Kentucky) and rank fourth in total victories behind those schools—Kentucky, Kansas and Oregon State—whose arguments recently about the status of games played in 1776 against pygmies from the YWCA have made a silly fiasco of their race for the magic 1,000th victory. Meanwhile, if a St. John's team fails to win 15 games or earn a postseason tournament invitation, the season is a failure and a Vincentian father might as well go throw himself on a subway track.
In the past three seasons, since he took over from Lapchick, Carnesecca has won 60 games with a collection of men who are throwbacks to the days when St. John's was the melting pot of the sport, when rosters read like the roll call in an Army barracks and the nationality of the school's stars mirrored the times: the Jewish mainstays on the Wonder Five of the late 20s, Allie Shuck-man and Rip Gerson; the Irish back-court men of the late 40s, the McGuire boys, Dick and Al, and Jack McMahon, who led the 1952 team to the NCAA finals; and finally in 1958 a Negro named Tony Jackson who began the "Jacksonian Era," a period that divined the domination of the black man and has an obvious sequel today in the persons of four black starters.
Still, the Jewish tradition is not so neglected as to prevent a publication, American Jewish Life, from naming a Catholic Redman, Albie Swartz, to its Jewish All-America team two years ago. Even losing teams at St. John's have their moments; Donnie Burks, the captain (in 1963) of the school's worst team, is now one of the featured stars of Broadway's Hair.
"A kid who comes here plays against a lot of history," says Carnesecca. Experience gained from a tough schedule and, as it turns out, an inordinate number of close games (last year St. John's won. 11 of 16 contests by five or fewer points) is partly responsible for the Red-men's astounding performance of New Year's week when, in successive games, they played the three top-rated teams in America and beat two of them.
"I have to believe we needed some luck to do that," the coach says of St. John's victories over North Carolina and Davidson. Yet it is evident that in important games the Redmen produce; against UNC they made 15 of 20 shots in the second half, and against Davidson on its court they shot 62% overall and came from five points down with 49 seconds left to win by one in overtime.
On defense, Carnesecca's teams always have been parsimonious and sticky; offensively, this year's Redmen have more impact because of the rapid development of the players' individual abilities. With John Warren and Joe DePre, St. John's has two excellent swingmen who work equally well "at both ends." Warren has guarded the opposition's top scorer for three years, attesting to his own defensive skills, while DePre is an inventive and sometimes spectacular one-on-one player who has sacrificed his scoring potential to team play. "I think that's coaching," DePre says. "That's what makes us go. We're all one-on-one schoolyard types, and he has forced us to play together."
Carnesecca plays Ralph Abraham, a solid rebounder, in the corner and alternates senior Dan Cornelius and sophomore Bill Paultz in the pivot. Jim Smyth, another who can swing, is a valuable relief man who may be the team's best shooter; practically singlehanded he held off North Carolina with nine points when, first, Warren sat down with four fouls, and then Carmine Calzonetti fouled out of that Holiday Festival game. But nobody goes anywhere without Italian leadership—Carnesecca screaming from the bench, Calzonetti, the left-handed vagabond, guiding from backcourt.
The fact that the Redmen were high school cohorts of many of the more publicized individuals they go up against must account for some of their success. "We're probably more cocky than they are," says Calzonetti, a loquacious sort who hitchhiked through Europe this past summer. "Warren and DePre are just as good as the big names we play, and the big names know it. It's great to show them that maybe they should have stayed home instead of going away to school."
"Playing against guys like Mike Maloy [of Davidson] and Alcindor relaxes us," says Abraham. "You know, we rap with them beforehand. Then it's like a playground game."
Sometimes Carnesecca, a tense, constantly fidgeting and thoroughly entertaining man, tends to sheer naiveté in his recognition of the new morality in athletics. He is actually shocked when he is told of "outlaw schools," puzzled at reports that a player is "undermining" his coach ("Only the alumni are supposed to do that," he says) and bewildered when one of his own men calls foul shooting "a psychological love-hate relationship." But he still has the best line on Lew Alcindor ("A lot of them can score. This guy scores when he doesn't shoot") and he is St. John's most colorful attraction.
Since Bones McKinney departed Wake Forest, in fact, there is no one around who can approach Carnesecca's act on the bench. He runs and jumps, slides and skids, shouts and kicks, kneels and jabs the air, falls backward, waves his arms, tears his pants, punches his assistants, stomps his feet and beats his head, all contributing to a performance that induces great cries of "hot dog" from the crowd. In fact, Carnesecca is no hot dog. He is merely that kind of man who is always going to resemble a puppet gone berserk on his strings. In a game last season he jumped atop his own bench and ran the length to peer at a play. At Davidson he kicked himself in the ankle and limped for a week. And at Virginia a few days ago he gave a virtuoso imitation of Groucho Marx with a magnificent shuffle duck walk to the water cooler and back after a St. John's transgression.
"I'm involved," says Carnesecca. "I know I'm a madman, but I'm in a different world during a game. The players say I do those things and I say they're crazy. If I ever saw myself on a replay, I'd probably be shellshocked. But I seldom berate officials and I never swear at them. I'm yelling at my kids. That's just me. If I sat there with my arms folded, it would be pure purgatory."
"Lou blocked me out on the bench the other night," says Assistant Coach John Kresse, "and he really gave me a shot. It's murder to sit next to him."
"I'm supposed to get signals coming up court but a lot of times I can't find him," says Calzonetti. "He's falling down or running around somewhere."
"His move at Virginia was the funniest thing I've ever seen in my life," says DePre.
"Am I really worse than Bones?" asks Lou Carnesecca, the New York street guy, still dodging, still moving. "My God. Now there was a real wild man."