Lou Carnesecca delivered a telephone message yesterday by saying, "Call me back. I'll be at St. John's." It left one to wonder: Where else would he be? Where else will he ever be?

As far as basketball is concerned, Carnesecca is not just at St. John's, he is St. John's. He has called the New York City school home for most of the past 45 years -- first as a student, then as an assistant to legendary coach Joe Lapchick, and finally as Lapchick's successor.

Now, after 22-plus seasons and 499 victories as the Redmen's head coach, Carnesecca is as identifiable with his program as any of the game's most domineering sideline personalities -- tied inextricably to his school in the mind's eye like Dean Smith and North Carolina or Bob Knight and Indiana.

And when fifth-ranked and Big East Conference-leading St. John's meets No. 18 Georgetown tonight at Capital Centre, a building the Redmen have owned like no other visiting club, Carnesecca could become the 30th coach in NCAA history to reach the 500-win mark.

If he accomplishes the feat tonight, Carnesecca will do so against one of his many friendly rivals -- Hoyas Coach John Thompson, whom he once tried to recruit -- and undoubtedly will celebrate the moment with the on-court energy and off-court wit that have made him one of the game's most endearing figures.

"I would be less than honest if I said I've been able to put it out of my mind," Carnesecca said. "Five hundred, it's a nice number. It shows you've been around because those things don't happen overnight. . . . It shows I've had some pretty good kids and some pretty good guys on my staff to get those kids."

And, insist Carnesecca's longtime associates, it shows that this sweater-wearing, sideline-pacing, one-liner-delivering, raspy-voiced 66-year-old can coach with the best of them.

"Lou is one of the great people in the game," Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "But let me tell you, he's one of the great competitors too. He's a nice guy, but once the game starts he's as fierce a competitor as they come for those 40 minutes."

Carnesecca has won more than 74 percent of his games at St. John's. He has 17 seasons of 20 victories or more, has taken the Redmen to postseason play every year he's been in charge and has coached two national players of the year, Chris Mullin and Walter Berry. In 41 years of coaching at the high school, college and professional levels, he has more than 800 wins.

Yet he still is just "Looie," the neighborhood kid made good. The Carnesecca lore is plentiful, and almost everyone's favorite Looie story deals with his animated sideline posture.

In his younger days -- before the coach's box tied him a bit more closely to his team's bench -- Carnesecca would run up and down the sideline with St. John's fast breaks, professing to know his team was too slow when he'd beat its point guard down court.

Former Providence coach Dave Gavitt, now a Boston Celtics executive, tells of the time Carnesecca was easing his way down the sideline while berating a referee. Gavitt brushed past to yell some instructions to his players on the court, and when he turned around Carnesecca was sitting in his seat on the Providence bench.

And there was an episode at McDonough Arena, when Carnesecca and Thompson found themselves inching closer to one another near midcourt in the heat of the battle. The 5-foot-6 Carnesecca tried to wipe his face with Thompson's trademark towel, and the 6-10 Thompson held it higher and higher, out of Carnesecca's reach. So Carnesecca improvised, wiping his brow with Thompson's tie instead.

The Thompson-Carnesecca meetings have been as memorable as the games that showcased them. During the 1984-85 season, when Georgetown and St. John's were ranked first and second in the nation for much of the season and met four times -- including Hoyas' triumphs in the Big East tournament final and at the Final Four -- the antics were more theatrical than ever.

Carnesecca wore a particularly loud sweater that season, and Thompson had a replica made for a late-season meeting at Madison Square Garden. So for the conference tournament, Carnesecca emerged with a 10-foot towel draped over his shoulder.

"There's always been a good relationship between me and John," Carnesecca said. "I enjoy John; he's a good man. There's mutual respect between us, and I think there's always been mutual respect between our teams."

Carnesecca says he still remembers his first victory at St. John's -- a 64-62 overtime decision over Georgetown to open the 1965-66 season, before Thompson had arrived -- and proved it yesterday by reciting the play-by-play of the final moments.

From his beginnings on the East Side of Manhattan, where his family operated Carnesecca's Italian Delicatessen, to the recent awarding of the title "Cavaliere" -- bestowed by the Italian government upon a prominent Italian American who has distinguished himself -- it has been a long, glorious ride for Lou Carnesecca.

After spending four years in the Pacific with the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, Carnesecca enrolled at St. John's in 1946. He played three games for the junior varsity basketball team, but was a better baseball player. His coaching career began at his former high school, St. Ann's Academy (now Archbishop Molloy), and he returned to St. John's in 1957 as an aide to Lapchick.

Eight years later, Lapchick retired and Carnesecca took over, and -- save for a three-year stint as coach of the American Basketball Association's New York Nets -- he's been there ever since, heading a program that never has known a losing season nor the slightest hint of scandal.

"It's funny," he said. "It seems like just yesterday that this all began. It doesn't seem like I've been coaching 40 years. I remember so many people, so many games. I remember my first game at the Garden, the ABA years, the good teams we've had here.

"You know time is running short, that you can't go on coaching forever. But you keep going as long as it's fun. And it's still fun to win."

The Redmen (15-2, 6-2 in the Big East) have been doing a lot of that lately, riding a five-game streak; the last four victories have been by a total of 14 points. They have one of the Big East's most explosive scorers in forward Malik Sealy, averaging 24.4 points per game.

And they've had unequaled success here. Of Georgetown's 14 defeats -- against 122 wins -- since the Hoyas made Capital Centre their home court in 1981, St. John's has inflicted six (in nine games). The Redmen won here last season, by 63-62, on guard Boo Harvey's full-court dash and three-pointer in the final seconds.

"Looie's won an awful lot of games, and there's no doubt he'll win 500," said Thompson, whose team is 12-5, 4-3. "We just have to hope it doesn't happen {tonight}. . . . But knowing Looie, getting 500 wins is a lot less important to him and his team than getting one win, in this game."

..........ALL AT ST. JOHN'S.........

Yr.........Rec......Pct.....Big East

























NOTE: Coached ABA's New York Nets 1970-73; *-Won Big East title.