Some things are lost to antiquity, and it has been 23 years—a full generation—since Lou Carnesecca retired. But Carnesecca is still with us—a blessing, that—and his 90th birthday, on Jan. 5, should not pass without some reflection on Carneseccas’s exalted status as a New York sports institution and endearing personality.
Far more than his enormous success coaching basketball, with more wins (526) than anyone else in St. John’s University history (and many more coaching high school and, briefly, the professional Nets), was Carnesecca’s passion for the job and devotion to an even-expanding circle of associates.
He reveled in the sport’s exhilarating highs and occasionally burdensome lows. He personified the stereotypical New Yorker—overreacting with outrage one moment, shrugging or spreading his hands the next. He never hesitated to loudly berate officials during the intensity of competition, but just as likely would share a whispered confidence to an acquaintance he barely knew, accentuated by a sincere touch on the arm.
“The game,” he said with obvious feeling, “I think it’s a melody. A composition. It can flow. There is a beauty to it.” But, too, “It’s an agony. It’s a suffering. And it’s still a game! Why? Why do we torment ourselves?”
“I ask myself, ‘What the hell am I getting so worked up about?’”
He was something of a benign Mafia Don in the basketball community, widely sought out and paid respects by colleagues. He kept a ragged old telephone book, stuffed with names of all his coaching mentors, longtime colleagues and former players, going back decades. When one would die, he would put an “R.I.P” next to the name—but never erase it. He was famous for sending flowers whenever someone’s mother died, or sending congratulations to celebrate a birth.
He often made light of himself, only 5-foot-6 and never more than a junior varsity player when he was a St. John’s student (though he hit over .300 for the first St. John’s team to qualify for baseball’s College World Series). He laughed at his own cartoonish gyrations while coaching, how he left his sideline seat forever empty while he slid or walked on his knees, arms outstretched; spun on his feet; turned and racewalked in the direction of an errant pass.
He said he always wore brown pants for games so the dirt wouldn’t show. He recalled a game in the late 1960s—at Madison Square Garden, against Fordham—when he raced downcourt alongside his guard, Carmine Calzonetti, eventually standing under the basket when Calzonetti completed a fast-break layup.
“I’m like those guys in a Shakespeare play,” Carnesecca said, “and they’re so caught up in it that they go right off the stage, out the side door of the theater, onto Seventh Avenue. Still swordfighting in the street!”
For St. John’s to have renamed its arena for him is the least it could do.
During an enlivening interview in his office during his final season, Carnesecca fretted about what life would be after retirement, scolded himself for taking the game so seriously—even as he acknowledged that it was an “extension of myself” and gloried in his good fortune to be healthy and still a part of the action.
He raved a bit about unappreciative fans—“the cruelty. The venom!” that sometimes spewed from the stands—even as he delighted in his answer to those catcalls in his mid-60s. “It helps that I’m a little deaf,” he said. “Look. I take out my hearing aid.” He spread the various little pieces, battery and so on, on his office couch, cackling.
He kept a feather-duster in his office because his predecessor, Joe Lapchick, had once described coaching as “Peacock today, feather-duster tomorrow.” He acknowledged the celebrity that came to him fairly late in his career, with the rise of the Big East Conference and St. John’s highly visible duels with Georgetown and Syracuse in the 1980s.
“It’s ego, a little,” he said. “It blows a little smoke. It’s nice to be recognized, to be put in the limelight.” But he wouldn’t be carried away. “It’s a veneer,” he said, and basketball was “just entertainment, not important” in the greater scheme of things.
In the end, his love for basketball mirrored his love for his native New York City, which he described as “a city that gets into you. You’re alive.”
He thought a moment. “You have to stay alive, too. You have to be on your toes.”
Happy 90th, Looie. Way to stay on your toes.