At St. John's, Carnesecca has been part of the neighborhood for nearly 45 years

January 19, 1992|By Linda Robertson | Linda Robertson,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

JAMAICA, N.Y. -- Call him Looie. Everybody does. And if you feel tempted to hug the man with the big ears and the sandpaper voice, don't worry. Everybody does.

Despite his fame, his wealth, his weekly TV show, St. John's basketball coach Lou Carnesecca is just a guy from the neighborhood, the same neighborhood he's been hanging around for most of the past 45 years.

The place on Utopia and Union is as unassuming as the coach. You got your dry cleaners, your hardware store, your pizza joints. You got St. John's University, founded by the Vicentian Fathers in 1870, expanded to campuses in Queens and Staten Island.

"It's a day-hop school," Carnesecca said. "Most of our students have to work to pay tuition."

It's the perfect spot for Carnesecca, who prefers being in "Macy's window," as he calls New York City, than some bucolic campus crawling with ivy. It's home.

Carnesecca was 21 when he enrolled at St. John's after three years serving in the Coast Guard during World War II. He turned 67 the day St. John's beat the University of Miami on Jan. 4.

Miami Arena will seem a bit slick to Carnesecca, who conducts practices and plays most games in ancient, cramped, 6,008-seat Alumni Hall, sort of a glorified high school gym.

After a recent practice, Carnesecca walked into his office with a case of Enoteca Costantini wine and a package from Montana -- gifts from fans.

"Some of the best Italian wine I've ever tasted," said Carnesecca, a connoisseur of wine, opera and books about the Wild West and war.

"I like reading about submarines," he said. "Those sailors are different. To have such camaraderie in such close confinement."

And what's in the box? "It's a sweater. All the way from Montana. They should know how to make 'em out there."

No silk ties for Carnesecca. He wears one of his customary garish sweaters -- maybe the one with the English hunting scene, or the empty rowboat with two oars in the water.

The sweater tradition started in 1984, when Carnesecca had a cold and was on his way to Pittsburgh.

"Mary says, 'Take a sweater,' " Carnesecca said, speaking of his wife. "I took out this ugly thing, looked like something out of Star Trek. We won in overtime on a jumper, so I had to keep wearing it until we lost. It's in the Hall of Fame now.

"I give sweaters two losses. Then I put them away."

Carnesecca figures to go through many more sweaters. This is his 42nd season as a coach. There is frequent conjecture as to when he will retire and whether his teams' deliberate style of play means the game has passed him by.

But the thought of not coaching frightens Carnesecca.

"I could be out of basketball tomorrow," said Carnesecca as he inserted his two hearing aids. "It could be taken away from me. At my age, a lot of things could happen. I know it's coming. Everything ends. It could be very traumatic for me."

Those close to Carnesecca say his love affair with the sport hasn't waned.

"The sincerity and enthusiasm that won me over are still there in full force," forward Malik Sealy said. "He'll have to be commanded to leave."

Carnesecca has never won a national championship. His office reflects his perspective on this: There are more statues of the Virgin Mary displayed than trophies.

"It's not like unrequited love, not winning it all," said Carnesecca, whose current team could be the best since the 1985 Final Four team. "I would be less than truthful, if I said I don't care. But that's not what keeps me going. I love the kids. I love the area. I love how frantic everybody gets in college basketball."

That atmosphere is what Carnesecca missed when he went a few miles away to coach the ABA New York Nets from 1970-73.

"I wasn't prepared for the pros, mentally," he said. "It's a job. You're a boss. In college, you're father confessor, counselor, disciplinarian."

So in 1973, Carnesecca came back home. In the 19 years since, the New York Yankees have had 19 different managers. Carnesecca is the closest thing to an institution as there is in New York.

"I feel comfortable here," he said. "New York is the toughest place, the center of all things, including criticism. But loyalty and stability are important. Sometimes you can accomplish more in your later years because you don't have all the distractions."

Carnesecca, who has endorsed 16-year assistant Brian Mahoney his successor, has paid his dues. He coached his high school alma mater St. Ann's for seven years, where he was health and hygiene teacher, and was assistant to St. John's coach Joe Lapchick for eight years.

He almost became a physician. He grew up on New York's East Side, where his father owned Carnesecca's Italian Delicatessen. His 90-year-old mother and 87-year-old aunt now live near him in Astoria.

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