Finally, with five seconds left, a seven-point lead and Bill Wennington going to the line, finally, Looie Carnesecca decided it was safe. You could see it plain as day; you could read his lips from 2,000 miles away. "We're going!" Looie said. "We're going!" He called his best and favorite player, Chris Mullin, over to the bench, gave him a high five -- and at 5 feet 7, these aren't easy fives for Looie to give -- put his arms around him and hugged him like you would a life preserver in a stormy sea. "We're going, Mo! We're going!"
After so many years, after so many sideline shots of him looking so rumpled, like he'd absent-mindedly worn his big brother's clothes, after so many close-ups of that unforgettable beefsteak tomato of a face, with its soft lines and folds and creases, a face that always seems to be melting before your very eyes, after so many years of putting in, he was getting the chance to be taking out, after all this time Looie was going to the Final Four. He said it felt like "Heaven" to be getting the chance to go, but that didn't make the point strongly enough, so he said, "I've seen 1,000 games. But when I'm going down in my grave, this one I'll remember."
And he smiled.
You have not seen joy until you see Lou Carnesecca smile.
" 'Envy' is too strong a word," he said today. "All these years I wished I was there. You always want to be there." He put one finger in the air, like a teacher getting ready to explain something important. "But you always want more, too. And when you get there, you want to stay there."
He is a good man, which ought to count at least as much as being a great man. At 60 years old, he is a curious and welcome combination of imp and sage, the Yoda of college basketball. His raspy voice, which always sounded so hushed and reverential -- like a sinner at a prayer meeting -- is such a whisper now, it's almost impossible to catch, even from the front row; it was always a struggle to hear Looie, but now that he's wearing a hearing aid, he's the only one who can. You have to pay careful attention. And who's to say that isn't a good idea?
Of the many fine seasons Looie has had in his 17 years at St. John's, this is the finest. His team is 31-3, and has not lost, except to Georgetown, since December. Today, at Madison Square Garden, he picked up a "Coach of the Year" award (for those of you who are fashion conscious, he wore a gray suit, a white shirt and a red tie; The Sweater isn't dead -- it's resting), but after 35 years of coaching high school, college and pro basketball, Looie believes more than ever what Buck Freeman, the fabled St. John's coach, told him in 1950: that the coach is worth 15 percent, the players are worth 75 percent, and there's 10 percent worth of luck in winning a game. It was so then, and it is so now, Looie said. "I did the same things this year that I did over the years. I said the same things. Except we won. Remember that. I'm saying the same things I said 20 years ago."
On Saturday in Lexington, St. John's and Georgetown will go at each other for the fourth time this year in a game Looie has labeled "La Rivincita," an Italian expression used mainly in the old Kentucky sport of bocce, that translates into "the rubber match." Someone asked Looie today if he wanted to play the same team four times in one year, and he wisely said, "It depends on which team." Little Sisters of The Poor? Sure. Georgetown? Pass. In the unlikely event that St. John's should win, when he's going down in his grave, Looie will have another one to remember. But for now, he's happy just to be going to the ball; he isn't worrying about whose big feet will be stepping on his slippers.
"Are you kidding me? I ain't gonna come down for three months," he said.
And he smiled.
"I don't need wings."
Depending on how you look at things, Looie got back home from the West Regional in Denver either very late last night or very early this morning. After landing, he took his staff and some friends out to Dante's, a restaurant near St. John's, on Union Turnpike in Queens. They sat around for a couple of hours, eating pasta, drinking wine, trading stories and telling lies; you could have felt the warmth across the river. "It was like a family dinner on Sunday afternoon," Looie said. "Except we did it at 2 in the morning."
There are lots of stories Looie has accumulated over the years. There are stories that are told about him becoming so involved in the flow of the game that he wandered the sidelines without regard to where he belonged, lost track of the geography, and ended up finally sitting down either on the opposing team's bench or in the lap of a fan in the first row. These are true stories, although as Looie points out, "As time goes on, they tend to get better."
And there are stories he tells about himself. One is about winning and losing. In 1972, when he was coaching the Nets in the ABA, his team lost the championship series when the best player on the court, Rick Barry, inexplicably took his eyes off a pass, fumbled it and knocked it out of bounds, costing himself a clean shot at what should have been the winning basket. "I was the picture of comportment that night," Looie recalled. "They thought I was a real sport. The fans were waving at me. 'There's Looie. Looie knows how to lose. A real gentleman.' " Looie smoothed out his suit and did his best to look like an altar boy. "What those fans didn't know was that later that night," Looie continued, holding his sides to keep from laughing, "my trainer had to keep me from jumping out the window."
One more Looie story. About the first time he ever used the "when they lay me in my grave" phrasing.
"We were playing Syracuse. I got Reggie Carter playing for me, and the kid Louis Orr goes in for a layup, and he puts his knee way up, right into Reggie's chest. The ref calls, 'Basket good! Block!' " And once again Looie is smiling through those soft-boiled eyes of his, as he remembers it so vividly. "And I say, 'As I'm going down into the grave, I'll say it was a charge. A charge. A charge . . .' "