The playgrounds of New York have served as training grounds for
many generations of St. John's best basketball players. As coach of
St. John's men's basketball team for 20 years before retiring in
1992, Lou Carnesecca knew this well.
He expected his assistant coaches to know it, too. "Lou would
tell me you don't need a car to recruit," former assistant coach
Ron Rutledge once recalled. "You could get on the subway and get
five guys to win the national championship."
A native son of New York City, Lou owes his faith in
home-grown talent to personal experience. Born in 1925 on
Manhattan's East Side, he grew up playing ball in the city's
streets and playgrounds. His father ran Carnesecca's Italian
Delicatessen, and young Lou attended Our Lady of Perpetual
Help elementary school.
He played basketball for two years at St. Ann's Academy (now
Archbishop Molloy High School), where he earned his diploma in
1943. World War II still raged in Europe and the Pacific.
Carnesecca enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, serving until his
discharge in 1946.
A Beautiful Friendship Begins
After the war, Carnesecca returned to New York to attend college -
and play ball. In 1946 he enrolled at St. John's, which was still
located at its original campus in Downtown Brooklyn. It was the
start of a beautiful friendship that lasts to this day.
An English major, Carnesecca played basketball for three games
on St. John's 1946-47 junior varsity team. Switching to baseball,
he excelled as a utility infielder under then-coach Frank McGuire.
The team reached the College World Series in 1949.
Carnesecca graduated from St. John's in 1950. He began teaching
health, hygiene and civics at St. Ann's Academy. He also
coached the basketball and baseball teams, leading St. Ann's to
four National Catholic High School Championships - three in
basketball, one in baseball.
While working at St. Ann's, Carnesecca earned his master's
degree in School Counseling at St. John's. In 1957, he returned to
St. John's as an assistant basketball coach under Joe Lapchick.
Lapchick had played on the original Boston Celtics before coming
to St. John's in 1936. During his tenure as coach, the NIT and NCAA
began their tradition of holding postseason tournaments. St.
John's played in more of those tournaments than any other college
According to Carnesecca, working with Lapchick was a
formative experience. "He's probably one of the giants of
basketball," says Carnesecca. "He had the rare ability to handle
diverse personalities - and he could make them blend." Lapchick's
talents, Carnesecca added, would have served him well in any field:
"He could have been president of a bank or a big shot on Wall
Lapchick was part of a winning tradition that distinguished St.
John's basketball since the team's founding in 1907. Though the
"Johnnies" lost their very first game, to NYU, in 1908 the Brooklyn
team garnered victory after victory. From Buck Freeman to
Frank McGuire to Joe Lapchick, St. John's coaches were known for
intensity as well as nurturing their players.
Under Lapchick and Carnesecca, St. John's won NIT championships
in 1959 and 1965. Played at Madison Square Garden, the 1965 victory
over Villanova - St. John's fourth NIT championship -
was Lapchick's last game as coach.
Stepping Into Giant
When Lapchick retired, one man was tapped to follow his footsteps.
On December 4, 1965, St. John's played its first game with
Carnesecca as head coach. Playing in Washington, D.C., the team
beat Georgetown, 64-62. In Alumni Hall three days later, St. John's
went on to beat George Washington, 100-62.
By 1970, Carnesecca won his 100th game, as St. John's defeated
Boston College, 71-64. That spring, he accepted an opportunity
to coach the New York Nets in the former American Basketball
Association. For three years, Frank Mulzoff compiled a record of
victories as St. John's coach - including one that ended Oral
Roberts' 26-game winning streak in the NIT quarterfinals in March,
Despite the excitement of professional basketball, Carnesecca
knew that St. John's was in his blood. He returned in
1973. Under his leadership, St. John's basketball went on to
achieve a level of excellence that forever emblazoned its name
in the annals of college athletics.