NEW YORK -- The room at Madison Square Garden was overflowing with people honoring three award recipients.
It wasn't long before another name dominated the proceedings, someone who passed away 38 years ago but whose impact was overpowering.
Pat Summitt, Dean Smith and Lou Carnesecca, all Hall of Fame coaches, were presented the inaugural Joe Lapchick Character Awards on Thursday. The 100-plus people all congratulated and praised the winners, but they made sure people understood why Lapchick's name was on the award and why the word "character" was part of the title.
"He was such a special people person. He had time for everybody. He never thought he was too big for anybody," said Carnesecca, who was an assistant to Lapchick at St. John's for nine years before succeeding him in 1965. "He knew how to teach. He knew how to get the best out of someone for that player and the team. I always thought 'class' when I thought of Joe Lapchick. 'Character' is right on the money as well."
The awards, presented by a committee started by Gus Alfieri, who played under Lapchick at St. John's and then became a successful high coach on Long Island, are to honor those in college sports who have conducted themselves in a way Lapchick did throughout his playing career as one of the sport's first big men and then as a coach in two stints at St. John's around one with the New York Knicks.
Lapchick was credited as one of the leaders in integrating the NBA, and the stories about that were told over and over Thursday.
"He had tremendous strength in a quiet way. He had a great sense of justice," said his daughter, Barbara Lapchik. "In recent years as the stories of what my father did in the early years of the NBA started being told again, I wondered why I didn't have better memories of what he did. But I realized what he did to him was no big deal. He always did the right thing."
She was interrupted by people -- there were 20 of Lapchick's former players there -- who wanted to relay their thoughts on her father and what he meant to them.
"Dad died in 1970. Thirty-eight years later, to have him remembered this way is an honor for him and our family," she said.
Lapchick was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player with the original Celtics in 1959 and then was inducted as a coach seven years later. He compiled a 334-130 record and won four NIT championships at St. John's.
The numbers of the recipients dwarf his.
Summitt is the winningest coach in college basketball history having won 984 games in her 34-plus seasons at Tennessee. Her teams have won eight national championships. Her most impressive statistic is that 100 percent of the players who played for her for four years graduated.
Smith retired from North Carolina at the top of Division I's win list with 879, a figure since surpassed by Bob Knight. His graduation rate of almost 100 percent over three-plus decades and recognition as a teacher rather than a coach is why he was selected.
"There are so many people who could have been here," Smith said. "This was a great idea and a greater honor."
Summitt was unable to attend as the Lady Vols prepare for a game on Friday.
Jack Kaiser, the former athletic director at St. John's, played for Lapchick at St. John's and then served as an assistant under him, the only person who can make that claim.
"Coach Lapchick made an unbelievable impression on everybody he came in contact with," Kaiser said. "It is so important the younger generations get a chance to know him and his work through those of us who were lucky enough to have him make a difference in our lives."
Jerry Houston was Lapchick's last captain at St. John's and it was his free throws in the final seconds that gave the Redmen a victory over Villanova in the NIT final and let Lapchick be carried off the Garden court after his last game.
"It was all about how he could deal with people," Houston said. "To hear these people talk about him today, almost 40 years after he died, is all you need. A man like him should not be forgotten and through coaches like those honored here today, he won't be."