LoBalbo isn't household name, just a basketball teaching legend

November 18, 1990|By Barry Horn | Barry Horn,Dallas Morning News

UNION, N.J. -- There is every chance in the world you never have heard of Al LoBalbo, the basketball coach.

It is no crime, but it is a sin.

It is almost impossible to watch a basketball game today college or professional that has not been influenced by LoBalbo, a stoop-shouldered, boney, white-haired gentleman who views the world through thick wire-rimmed glasses and teacher's eyes. Coach Lo is 70 but claims to be 68, lest anyone get the idea he should retire from teaching his beloved X's and O's.

Officially, Al LoBalbo is a part-time assistant coach at New York City's St. John's University. Once, he was the head coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Before that, he was an assistant at Army. He started as a high school coach in suburban Newark. But those stops on his resume tell you little.

It is the names of men he has drilled with his concepts of the game his everything.

Richie Adubato, Bobby Knight, Hubie Brown, Mike Krzyzewski, Dick Vitale, Dave Bliss and Mike Fratello are just a few.

"There should be a Hall of Fame for legendary teachers," says Brown, NBA coach turned network analyst. "That is what Al LoBalbo is."

Adubato, the Mavericks' coach, was a skinny high school point guard when he fell under the spell of LoBalbo. So, too, was Brown, who first played for Coach Lo at St. Mary's High in 1947.

Vitale, television's most loquacious college basketball analyst, coached his first high school game against LoBalbo and never stopped studying Coach Lo's formula for success.

"I was a kid coach when I walked out on the court that night," Vitale says. "I was in awe. I was speechless."

Villanova's Rollie Massimino, Cal-Berkeley's Lou Campanelli, CBS basketball analyst Billy Raftery, once the coach at Seton Hall, have been willing students all of LoBalbo, the godfather of New Jersey high school basketball. And then there is Mike Schuler, coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. Herman Kull is an NBA assistant in Sacramento. Brian Hill is an assistant with the Orlando Magic.

Bobby Knight was still wet behind the ears when he asked Al LoBalbo to join his staff at Army. LoBalbo coached Duke's Krzyzewski at West Point. At Army, he worked with Dave Bliss, the former SMU coach now at New Mexico, and Indiana State's Tates Locke, as well as former Tennessee and Florida coach Don DeVoe. For the last decade, LoBalbo has sat, if not calmly, alongside Lou Carnesseca on the St. John's bench.

"Many ideas of Coach Knight had their insemination with Al LoBalbo," Carnesseca says. "He is an excellent teacher. When the subject is basketball, he draws pictures with his words. He relates to kids the same way today he did 40 years ago. They love him."

And you never have heard of Coach Lo. LoBalbo's clinics on the intricacies of man-to-man defense and his blueprints detailing how to thrive offensively against defensive pressures remain as popular today as ever.

"It is probably one of the great horrors that this man has been one of the best-kept secrets in the game," says Locke, once the young coach at Army who timidly requested an audience with LoBalbo.

The college coach asked the already legendary high school coach from tiny St. Mary's in Elizabeth, N.J., if he might come up to the Army gym one afternoon to watch and critique a practice.

"His criticism was severe," Locke recalls. "The critique was longer than the practice. But I couldn't get enough. I was blind. He taught me how to see."

It wasn't long after teacher and new student met that Locke invited LoBalbo to join him as his assistant. LoBalbo turned him down. Locke then turned to a kid in the Army reserves who had played college basketball at Ohio State and came with a good recommendation from his college coach. Fred Taylor suggested Locke hire Bobby Knight.

It was Knight, Locke's successor at Army, who finally persuaded LoBalbo to move up to the college game.

"His chain of students, guys like Knight and Hubie Brown and the rest, has been the lifeblood of the game," says Locke, who has coached at Army, Miami of Ohio, Jacksonville, Clemson and now at Indiana State. "In my heart, I know that it all goes back to Coach Lo."

LoBalbo's face turns crimson when he hears the praise. He slinks back in his chair. His eyes dart around the room as if looking for a lane of escape. He is eating a pasta lunch and looks as if indigestion is about to set in.

He tries to change the subject. But his students' words have done precisely what the master of defensive strategy has taught them to do. They have left their mark with no way out.

"You know," he finally says, "I've just been doing what I love."

It has been a five-decade love affair between Coach Lo and his X's and O's. But it has not been a perfect game plan.

Coach Lo's dedication to the game has cost him his only son. And his top recruit, the one he was going to build his program around at Fairleigh Dickinson and jump to the big time, was killed in a late-night car crash at mid-season.

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