Luigi Carnesecca is a former college and ABA basketball coach who was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992. He coached St. Johns to the Final Four in 1985 where they lost to a Georgetown team that featured Patrick Ewing.
Carnesecca won five Big East regular season titles and two Big East tournaments. He is a two-time recipient of the Henry Iba award and was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
In this interview Lou and I discuss an emotional reveal about his dad, his 1985 final four run and some of the toughest coaches he faced.
SHAFIN KHAN: Who were your basketball mentors?
LOU CARNESECCA: I would say Joe Lapchick, you should know him. I was also very fortunate to work under Buck Freeman who was probably the greatest coach St. Johns has ever had. Frank McGuire was another. These were fellas who I learned from at Clair Bee’s camp. I was very fortunate to have been able to work under and spend time with these fellas. This was all at Clair Bees camp. Clair Bee at LIU was another great coach. He had summer basketball camps that went from 9 o’clock in the morning to 11 o’clock at night and I spent two summers there. Just to give you an idea of what type of coaches went there, Red Auerbach was one of them. Fellas like that. I was very fortunate to work under some very fine coaches and assist at their lectures and observe how they handled situations. I was very lucky.
KHAN: What was your relationship like with Clair Bee?
CARNESECCA: I worked for Clair Bee for two summers. I knew coach quite well. He was a great, great coach. He was the first guy I remember changing defenses. There was a game in the Garden in 1948 when he was coaching and I remember Claire Bee started off in man-to-man and they were down ten or fifteen points. Second half Claire Bee comes out in a 1-3-1 zone which in those days you just didn’t change to much and they turned the game around. So, he was the first guy I saw that changed defenses. Then later on in the sixties they were changing defenses and then more coaches started to copy.
KHAN: What other coaches did you have a special relationship with?
CARNESECCA: Joe Lapchick, Frank McGuire, Buck Freeman. I was very close with these gentlemen. They were my mentors but also my friends. We talked basketball all the time.
KHAN: Who is the best player you saw?
CARNESECCA: That’s a hard question because there were different times and different periods. You go back to Wilt Chamberlain, you go back to Oscar Robertson and Jerry West and then Jordan. I mean these are great, great players. I will tell you another great player that played for me when I was coaching the Nets. Rick Barry. He never got the credit I thought he should have. He was a great player. When he stepped on the court he made everybody else better.
KHAN: Was St. Johns ever in the mix to land Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
CARNESECCA: We tried very hard but his mind was made up that he was going to go to LA. I think once he went out there he was interested in going to that area. I also thought if he would have stayed in New York it was out of his very wonderful relationship with Coach Lapchick.
KHAN: Were you ever aware of other teams in the Big East paying recruits?
CARNESECCA: Not that I know of.
KHAN: Talk to me about your Final Four run in 1985.
CARNESECCA: That year no one expected us to go to the Final Four. We had a great team. Unfortunately big Patrick Ewing was just too much for us. We tried all different things but we couldn’t stop him. Not only did he beat you on offense but on defense he was longer than everything but the Lincoln Tunnel. He was very, very tough.
KHAN: Do you have any regrets from your coaching career?
CARNESECCA: [laughing] Any regrets? I have a lot of regrets. I wish we could’ve won a couple more games. But hey I am very happy with the way my career went. I was very fortunate to always have coached in New York City. Being on the high school level, the collegiate level and the professional level I was very fortunate, that was a very big plus.
KHAN: Is it true that your dad came to the games you coached but never told you?
CARNESECCA: Not only is that true but he paid his own way in. I could never believe that. It was by accident that I found out. A guy named Al Swartz who had played for me came up to me one night after a game and said “Coach, I had a beer with your father” and I said “Where?” and he said “At the Garden” and I said “My father doesn’t even know where that is. He’s never been there. He doesn’t know basketball from a pineapple” and he says “Coach please I had a beer with your father” and I don’t believe him. So when I saw him I said “Pop, did you have a beer with Al Swartz?” and he was trying to get out of it. I said “Were you at the Garden last night?” and he had a little glaze to in his eyes. I said “Poppa?” I found out what he would do is he would close his store at nine o’clock, jump into a cab and go straight to Madison Square Garden. He would buy his own ticket and go in there and sit all by himself. I said “Dad of all the tickets I’ve ever given out I never gave you a ticket” and he said “I didn’t want to bother you.” That is a true story and if it wasn’t for Al Swartz I would have never found out. So, that is a true story. I wish I would have known.
KHAN: Who is the toughest coach you ever had to game plan against?
CARNESECCA: [laughing] There were a lot of great coaches. I mean I coached against all of them. John Wooden. Dean Smith. Denny Crum was good too. We played them all.
KHAN: Eddie Sutton is the only coach with over 800 wins that has not been inducted into the Hall of Fame and they have denied him repeatedly as a finalist. Do you think he deserves to be in?
CARNESECCA: I coached against Sutton. Excellent coach. Tough defensively. He was a disciple of Hank Iba. Great coach, good man. Oh yeah, I think he deserves a shot.