BY DAVID RUSSELL
After playing basketball for St. John’s in the late-50s, Gus Alfieri coached at St. Anthony’s High School on Long Island. The 1973-74 title team he led is the subject of his new book “The Heart Of A Champion”.
“Nobody knows they existed besides a couple of people who lived in the past,” Alfieri said. “But a lot of people are finding out and I’m very happy and proud about that.”
Alfieri wanted to write a book about one of his teams, and decided to use the 74 team, whose title game win was the 39th consecutive win in a streak that reached 49. “They were the team I wanted to write about because of their success and because they were almost impossible to beat,” said Alfieri, who will be speaking on October 18 at Book Revue in Huntington, where people like Hillary Clinton and Joe Torre have talked. “And for 39 games they were.”
The book looks at the Golden Age of Long Island basketball from the late-50s through the mid-80s, when the island was turning out 25-30 Division I players every season. The 74 title team is used as a microcosm of the golden age. Before that, city teams had rolled over Long Island teams but that was no longer the case.
When Alfieri took the job in 1968, one of his first calls was to St. John’s head coach Lou Carnesecca, who was still an assistant when Alfieri played. Carnesecca asked, “Are they still using a square ball out there in Suffolk County?” The call proved to be motivating. “That really riled me up,” Alfieri said. “I said, ‘Hell, I’m going to show Coach Carnesecca and everybody else by the time I’m finished, they’re not dealing with any square ball.’”
Outside factors make coaching today a little trickier than it used to be. “The job of a coach is threatened by parents who think that Michael Jordan is sleeping upstairs in the bedroom,” Alfieri said. That wasn’t the case in the mid-70s. “It was an era where that wasn’t quite happening yet. The parents would come up to me and ask ‘where do you want my kid this week?’ They were on board.”
Alfieri says scholar-athletes will like this book, “Because it’s showing you what hard work will produce, which today a lot of kids don’t buy into, they’ve got a lot of distractions.”
Ten years ago, Alfieri wrote his first book, “Lapchick”, about the life and career of former St. John’s coach Joe Lapchick. Alfieri played for Lapchick on the 1959 team that won the NIT title. Lapchick also played a role in his coaching. “I would be in a game situation in the book and I would flash back to a situation that occurred when I was a player for Lapchick, who I thought educated me on what I should do in the game at that moment. It’s an interesting technique I thought made the book more compelling.”
Alfieri would like to see a statue of Lapchick, who won 334 games at St. John’s in two stints from 1936-1965, in front of Carnesecca Arena. The school site posted in December 2013 that the statue would be unveiled in a ceremony scheduled tentatively for spring 2014, but it hasn’t happened yet. According to Alfieri, the statue has been built but is currently in a New Jersey warehouse. Alfieri wonders, “Why don’t we put it there where it belongs instead of sticking it where no one can see it?”