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SJU Legends Recall the Golden Age of Lapchick

Members of the 1959 NIT Championship team (l. to r.): Gus Alfieri ’59C, ’64GEd, Lou Roethel ’60C, ’62G, ’72GEd and Rich Engert ’59C, ’61GEd
Friday, March 14, 2014

In a small Italian restaurant on eastern Long Island, three St. John’s legends reminisce.

Teammates on the 1959 Men’s Basketball team, Gus Alfieri ’59C, ’64GEd, Rich Engert ’59C, ’61GEd and Lou Roethel ’60C, ’62G, ’72GEd enjoyed tremendous success: together, they won that year’s Holiday Festival and National Invitation Tournament. And they remember those days like they were yesterday.

“Lou had a great NIT during the year we won it all, shooting 26 of 38 for the tournament,” remembers Alfieri, who still possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. “We won the championship match 76-71 in double-overtime over Bradley. It was close, but that year we really clicked as a team.” 

Engert and Roethel nod in agreement, as more stories come flooding back: the miraculous hook shot Roethel hit at the buzzer to beat Utah in the 1958 NIT; a raucous road game in Richmond where Engert could hardly hear himself think; and Alfieri’s recollections of guarding all-time greats like Jerry West, Lenny Wilkens and “Satch” Sanders.

Most of all, though, they remember the man who coached them: the legendary Joe Lapchick.

“When it came to Xs and Os, Lapchick always knew how to help us,” Roethel explains. “But it’s the other stuff – in terms of dealing with people and living your life – where the man was truly a genius.”

Lapchick was a hardwood legend and had just been coaching the New York Knickerbockers for 11 seasons when he decided to return for his second stint at St. John’s. The college basketball world was reeling from a point-shaving scandal in the early ’50s, but Lapchick’s return to SJU provided a much-needed boost to the popularity of the sport.

“Fans were devastated by the point-shaving scandal,” Alfieri says. “Madison Square Garden was drawing pathetic crowds, but when Lapchick returned, it was like a jolt in the arm.” 

Lapchick led the Johnnies to a number of successful seasons, reinvigorating the Garden with his teams’ tenacious style of play. But for all their victories, Alfieri, Engert and Roethel remember Lapchick even more for what he inspired them to do off the court. 

All three players were the first in their immediate families to graduate from college, and all three went on to receive postgraduate degrees – the true epitome of the term “student-athlete.” 

“When we became leaders on the team, there was never a need to police anyone,” Engert says. “I never had to tell Gus to get to bed early the night before a game. He just did.”

“Exactly,” Alfieri agrees.

We always went to class, because why else did we go to school? None of us came from wealth. We wanted the education just as much as we wanted to play basketball.”

Engert was a member of the University’s Skull and Circle Honor Society and landed a teaching job after graduating cum laude from St. John’s. He also coached basketball and was involved in local politics, all while raising a wonderful family. 

Roethel, meanwhile, became an esteemed mathematician, working at Nassau Community College soon after it was founded in 1960. While there, he established the college’s basketball program and watched as NCC’s enrollment grew from 632 students to over 20,000.    

And Alfieri taught history – his academic passion – for over 27 years, all while coaching basketball at St. Anthony’s High School. During his tenure, he brought St. Anthony’s from a doormat program to the number-one Catholic team in the country, number-one team in New York and number-five overall team in the country.

“I guess we did pretty well for ourselves,” Alfieri says, smiling at his two former teammates. “Three guys who went to class, got our degrees and also happened to win on the court for a very successful coach.” 

In 2006, Alfieri authored Lapchick: The Life of a Legendary Player and Coach in the Glory Days of Basketball, a loving biography of his St. John’s mentor. And as all three of these men recall, Lapchick’s influence on their careers was enormous. 

“I was turned down at first from the job at Nassau Community,” Roethel recalls. “They called me back soon afterwards, though, and hired me. I didn’t learn until later that Coach Lapchick wrote me a letter of recommendation, and that carried a lot of weight.” 

“He was a wonderful letter writer,” Alfieri adds. “He wrote a letter one time recommending me to be the director of a basketball camp, a position that I really wanted, and now, 45 years later, I’m still directing the All-American Basketball Camp on Long Island. I owe that partly to Lapchick.”

The Italian restaurant thins out as afternoon fades slowly into early evening. Alfieri, Engert and Roethel say their goodbyes, but make plans to keep in touch. It’s been decades since they played together, but they remain friends, proud of their St. John’s education.

“You know, it’s funny,” Engert says. “We were never the closest of friends when we were on the team – we had our own circles back then – but when we stepped on the court, it was like we were glued together. And those bonds between us still exist.”

It’s been 55 years since their NIT championship, their greatest victory, but one thing remains clear: these three St. John’s legends are still winners.