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Basketball Coach in the Fast-Break Lane

LOUIE: IN SEASON by Lou Carnesecca New York: McGraw-Hill 219 pp. $17.95 COLLEGE basketball has been called a coach's game. A team's identity is so bound up in the coach's that the bench bosses are often perceived as the true superstars. Georgetown versus Villanova becomes John Thompson versus Rollie Massimino; Indiana versus Notre Dame a confrontation between Bobby Knight and Digger Phelps.

Another of the ``names'' in the sport belongs to Lou Carnesecca of St. John's University in New York. His Redmen didn't fare so well this season, prompting some observers to conclude that lovable Louie had lost his touch. But as Carnesecca's coaching story, ``Louie in Season,'' explains, athletic talent of the players, not coaching, determines success in his profession.

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Without belittling his own abilities, he makes the point too often to be feigning modesty. It was really driven home for him during a three-year stint at the pro level, coaching the New York (now New Jersey) Nets.

In his first season, the team went from an also-ran into a finalist for the American Basketball Association championship. The next year, without star forward Rick Barry, the Nets lost 50 games.

From this and other lessons has sprung Carnesecca's most basic rule of thumb: ``If you play for me, I want you to know one thing: I need you more than you need me. That's the way I was always taught. That's the way it has always been.''

Without talented players, he figures he'd be slicing salami in a deli somewhere, as his Italian immigrant father did for many years in his Manhattan grocery store.

Carnesecca is a New Yorker through and through, likably tenacious and savvy, colorful and loquacious.

His book, written with New York Daily News sports columnist Phil Pepe, isn't the blockbuster that Knight's - of Indiana - was. Still, the insights and anecdotes drawn from more than 40 years of coaching in New York merit attention.

It's easy reading, too, a fast break in print, which is often what happens when a newspaper columnist like Pepe is placed at the elbow of a raconteur like Carnesecca. The biographical material is wisely limited, leaving ample space to discuss his players, great coaches, overseas basketball, and ethical issues.

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Carnesecca, who earned 1985 national Coach of the Year honors, has never had to look far for players, since the Big Apple is a noted basketball breeding ground. But getting skilled shooters and dribblers to stay put hasn't necessarily been a snap, not even for the nation's largest Catholic university.

The New York address has a down side, namely an environment that can morally contaminate. In the 1950s, crooks led City College of New York (CCNY), one of the best teams in the country, into a shocking point-shaving scandal.

Carnesecca calls basketball the most vulnerable sport to this type of corruption. His reasons: each player can have a direct bearing on the outcome; suspicion is easily avoidable given the helter-skelter action; and players can sidestep deep guilt by slicing the margin of victory rather than throwing games. CARNESECCA talks about drugs, too, yet what eventually brought down Chris Mullin, perhaps the school's greatest player, was alcoholism. As much as Louie tries to wear all a coach's hats, including that of father-confessor, he was surprised when Mullin interrupted his pro career to ``dry out'' at a rehab center.

Carnesecca doesn't mind admitting to any number of his own mistakes. One of his worst was refusing to sign Julius Erving because he couldn't abide Dr. J's decision to drop out of college. Some years later, after a change of heart, Carnesecca refused to discourage St. John's star Walter Berry from making an early entry into pro ranks. Ironically, it turned out to be a bad move even by Berry's admission.

Throughout the book, the little coach sounds off on various subjects. He campaigns briefly for a red-white-and-blue ball, like the ABA once used, because it would be so readily visible (hardly a problem with a basketball, it seems). He makes a more compelling, if somewhat whimsical, case for casual attire on the bench. Too many coaches, he argues, dress as if for an inaugural ball.

Carnesecca shed his sports jackets partly because he felt compelled to wear a sweater given him by an Italian coaching colleague. That funky sweater, the brunt of jokes, became a good luck charm and now hangs in the Basketball Hall of Fame, where Carnesecca may someday be enshrined.

For the time being he'll continue humbly on, occasionally glancing at a reminder in his wallet, given him by his predecessor at St. John's, which reads: ``Peacock Today, Feather Duster Tomorrow.'' Ross Atkin is on the Monitor staff.

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