An Unforgettable Afternoon with Lou Carnesecca

January 5, 2012 – Since we established, the “5 Minutes with…” feature in Yankees Magazine, we’ve been fortunate enough to bring the words of some of the greatest names in sports and entertainment — along with several dignitaries — to our fan base.

Of all of the “5 Minutes with…” interviews I’ve conducted since 2007, the one that I enjoyed the most took place on December 15. Before Yankees team photographer James Petrozzello and I flew to Michigan for the Derek Jeter story (see blog entry above), we had lunch with longtime St. John’s University basketball coach Lou Carnesecca at Acquista Trattoria — an Italian restaurant a few blocks from the school’s Queens campus.

Carnesecca, who was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992, is one of the most down-to-earth, kindest and most interesting people I have ever met.

When we sat down for lunch, I thanked the 87-year-old Italian immigrant for taking the time to meet us, and he responded by saying, “It’s an honor.”

In reality, I was the one who was honored to be in the presence of one of the most accomplished coaches in American history, a man who won 526 games at St. John’s in 24 seasons, and who is recognized for always doing things the right way.

Our lunch lasted almost two hours, as the coach shared story after story with our group, which included my father, a graduate of St. John’s School of Law.

Carnesecca’s sense of humor and wit captivated the room, especially when discussed the origin of his famous sweaters.

“You had to bring that up!” the coach said when I asked him where the tradition began. “We were getting ready to travel to Pittsburgh, and I had the flu. My wife told me to pack a sweater, so I grabbed two sweaters that were given to me by the coach of the Italian National team in the early 1980s. I thought they were ugly, and I had never taken them out of the closet, but I took them with me anyway. The arena we were playing in out there was cold, and I decided to wear one of the sweaters. When I came out of the locker room, everyone was laughing at me. But Chris Mullen hit a jump shot at the buzzer to win the game, and from then on, I had to wear a sweater on game days. I have received almost 200 sweaters from all over the world since then. People send me notes with the sweaters, saying things like, “This sweater is good for 10 wins.”

Carnesecca also discussed a piece of advice that was literally given to him by his predecessor, Joe Lapchick, many years ago. The advice, which is written on a piece of paper that Carnesecca still keeps in his wallet today, reads, “PEACOCK TODAY, feather duster tomorrow.”

“Coach Lapchick was in basketball for 50 years, and he taught me to always treat my players with respect,” Carnesecca said. “One night, after I had just received an award in New York City, he gave me this piece of paper. I didn’t read it that night, but it has always reminded me never to get a big head and to never get over confident.”

Following lunch, we walked to the St. John’s campus, where Petrozzello took two portraits of Carnesecca. The first location he photographed Carnesecca in was the coach’s present-day office, which looks more like a museum than an office.

The walls of the office are covered from floor to ceiling with mementos — including photos of Carnesecca with everyone from Pope John Paul II to many former St. John’s players.

Our last stop was at the arena, in which St. John’s plays most of its home games.

When we arrived at Carnesecca Arena, Petrozzello snapped a portrait of Carnesecca, which you will see in the April issue of Yankees Magazine.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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