Thanksgiving Eve at St. John's: Coach Carnesecca, Aunt Selma, and Alumni Hall
It was Thanksgiving Eve, and hearing Aunt Selma’s voice on the phone was just so special. She is the last relative from my parents’ generation. She was there for my birth, bar mitzvah, marriage, and my older daughter’s wedding. My middle name is for her father. A woman of incredible kindness who reminds me of what a good family life was like when I was a kid. Despite my fiftysomething age, I felt like a kid again when I heard her loving voice. It was comforting to know she was still there.
Later that evening, I saw another person who has transcended the cultural changes I have lived through since I was a teenager. I first saw him coach in the 1960s: Coach Lou Carnesecca. He was in the stands to watch St. Johns play Holy Cross in basketball.
Just like hearing Aunt Selma, seeing Coach Carnesecca was very special and comforting. It’s like seeing Yogi Berra at a Yankees Old-Timers Day.
Fittingly, the on-campus St. John’s basketball gym in Queens is now called Carnesecca Arena. The Johnnies have played there on Thanksgiving Eve seemingly every year. The gym looks almost the same as it did in the 1960s; the most noticeable changes are the permanent seats and benches in the lower level, replacing the light brown collapsible bleachers. It’s always been a nice looking arena, not too big or small. The gym used to be called Alumni Hall, and even the school nickname has changed from the Redmen to the Red Storm.
If you want to know what it was like to experience a St. John’s basketball game at Alumni Hall years ago, a place where NCAA tournament games were once played, go to a game there now. There are still a few opportunities, even though many of the Red Storm’s home games are at Madison Square Garden now. The crowd is a mixture of kids, teenagers, students, parents, middle-aged couples, and old-timers with the white hair. Most of the fans are well past their school days.
The fans watch the game with knowledge, concentration, and a keen eye. They are not loud for the sake of making noise; they will cheer after a good play, boo a bad call, and hold their breath during close moments. It is a place to enjoy the game of basketball among friends and root for the home team in a decent, old-fashioned way.
The student band still seems to be playing the same songs they did years ago. Although the cheerleaders and dancers are a fairly constant presence that fill every timeout, these young students avoid any hint of glitz and pretension.
If you have always been a St. Johns basketball fan, you have never left the home we now call Carnesecca Arena. If you haven't been there in a long time, you can always go home again.
Home is also where our heart is; for so many basketball fans in our great city, our heart has been with Coach Carnesecca.
Year after year, Coach Lou Carnesecca taught his players unselfish team play, tough body-up man-to-whenman defense, and to be disciplined but opportunistic on offense. Turnovers were limited, and in the days before the three-point shot, they were rarely out of any game.
All the players on his team mattered and contributed. Coach did not forget his seniors who might not have played as many minutes as when they were sophomores and juniors.
The result was his players responding with consistent high-level play, which in turn led to many winning seasons.
Years later it is easy to remember the truly great players, yet the fans also remember the good players and role players, because they were just as integral to Coach’s teams.
Lou Carnesecca had a true passion for the game, but his best qualities were his joy for life, his friendliness, and good nature. You could meet him in a restaurant and, much like my own father, be invited to sit down at his table. You could go to his office uninvited, without having ever met him, and talk to him for as long as you wanted. I am not sure if there is a nicer or friendlier person.
The late LeRoy Ellis played basketball for St. John's in the 1950s and early 1960s. One of New York City’s best players, LeRoy was drafted by the Lakers. He played for on Lakers' teams that went to the NBA finals four times, winning an NBA Championship in 1972. Ellis’ mentor at St. John's was another great coach, Joe Lapchick. When I once asked Ellis about playing for Lapchick, he referred to the assistant coach in those days: "don’t forget Mr. C". He was talking about Lou Carnesecca.
Current St. John's coach Steve Lavin and Lou Carnesecca share many of the same basketball and personality traits, one more important than all the others: that of character. Lavin does not yell or berate his players, or give them looks of exasperation. He encourages and teaches them, just like Coach Carnesecca.
St. John’s defeated a tough Holy Cross team Thanksgiving Eve. Holy Cross had a few big players who were strong, tough, agile, and talented; they clearly tested the young Johnnies. The talented freshmen and sophomores of the Red Storm are learning to play together. Each player is also going through his own individual development as a person, player, and teammate.
There are no guarantees today that players will stay four years. Nevertheless, I believe there are enough good players who will get better over time, players that will stay four years, giving St. John’s fans plenty of good basketball in the seasons to come.
It was good to be home for Thanksgiving.
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