Father's ethic fuels Lappas
By Matt Vautour, The Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer, 5/26/2001

He didn't get it.

To Thomas Lappas, his son's career wishes didn't even make sense.

"Pos tha kanis lefta me bolo?" he asked incredulously in his native Greek, which translates to, "You want to make your living with a ball?"

For a man who had spent decades working seven days a week at a flower shop, basketball was a hobby, not a job. He'd have been no less shocked had his son suggested a career with a yo-yo.

But there before him stood his son Steve, earnest in his dream.

"Dad, I think I can do it."

* * *

Thomas Lappas' story reads like a classic American immigrant tale: the boat, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, a dream of a better life. He left Greece when he was 14, without knowing a word of English.

He settled in New York City in a diverse neighborhood that included a substantial Greek population and St. Spyridon's Greek Orthodox Church.

Many Greeks who came to America were working in the flower industry, including some of Lappas' relatives. Many of his early jobs involved working with flowers.

As a Greek-American, both halves of that nationality were important to Lappas. He was as proud of serving in World War II's Battle of the Bulge as he was of his Greek lineage.

His son, Steve Lappas, 47, who is the new coach of the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team, smiled when he recalled the stories.

"I remember him telling me the story of getting the token," he said recently. "They used to send you a token to make sure you'd get to the draft board. He was like, 26 when he got it. He still didn't know English that well and he couldn't even read the letter.

"He used to tell us stories from the war all the time. He was proud that he survived it," Lappas said. "He went to every Army reunion until the day he died. He got shot in the arm. He had the Purple Heart for getting shot. I used to ask him, 'Were you scared?' 'cause I never fought in any war. Oh yeah, he was scared. But he was proud that he did it and that he came through it."

Before he left to fight, Thomas met Louella Polezonis, a Greek-American woman from Bridgeport, Conn. They stayed in touch, writing letters to each other while he was overseas.

One of those letters is included in Tom Brokaw's new book, "Memories of the Greatest Generation."

When Thomas returned home, he and Louella got married. Together they had three sons, Dino, Steve and John.

Each morning, Sunday through Saturday, Thomas Lappas got up at 5 or 6 a.m., depending on whether he needed to go to the flower market. He took the A train to the D train to the F train on his hour-long commute to the Sutphin Boulevard Flower Shop in Jamaica, Queens, where he worked into the evening. In the summer and on weekends he often took his sons to work with him.

"I worked all the big holidays: Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, when it was really busy," Steve Lappas said. "He brought me out there purposely to show me how bad it was. He wanted to make sure there was no way his sons would be in this business. His big thing was always for us to go to school."

Looking back, Steve Lappas says he has even more respect for his father now than he did then.

"To wake up every single day and go to that shop," he said, shaking his head. "It doesn't boggle your mind so much when you're a kid because when you grow up in an immigrant neighborhood, everybody works. But for 60 years he woke up every day and went to a flower shop."

"In our house, everything revolved around the school, the church and his business because it was a family business," Lappas said. "We lived because of what he did at his store. This store was our livelihood."

The Lappas family spoke Greek at home and Thomas Lappas made sure his family knew their father's roots.

"We were going to know that we were Greek-American. He used to have us march into the kitchen and make us recite, in Greek, where he was born, in a place called Perista Nafpaktia," said Lappas, switching to a Greek accent to imitate his father. "He'd say, 'Where was your father born?' You had to know where your father was born. Nothing meant more to him than being from Perista. There was no more sacred ground on earth for him than Perista."

Family. Heritage. School. Church. Hard Work - all cornerstones of Thomas Lappas' family.

Basketball? Not so much.

Love for basketball is born

Steve Lappas
Steve Lappas discovered the game in sixth grade playing for a church squad under a man named John Kavalines.

"He was kind of the church coach. He was a great guy. He taught me a lot about the game and liking basketball," Lappas said. "He kind of got me going in the right direction."

Lappas soon was hooked on the sport. He'd walk to nearby Fort Tyron Park and play every day, sometimes for eight hours at a time.

By the time he reached high school, Lappas was a good enough student to pass Bronx High School of Science's difficult entrance exam and a good enough floor general to make its powerhouse basketball team as a point guard.

"I played in high school for some pretty good teams. We won the New York City B Championship twice. I wasn't a real good player. I could shoot and I could do the fundamental things, but I was slow and small.

"I was kind of always the coach on the floor," Lappas continued. "I was the talker, the guy trying to get guys to do the right thing, the guy you might figure would probably become a coach someday."

That might never have happened, if not for his mother.

"I remember in high school playing basketball and coming home every day around 6:30," Lappas said. "My father would say, 'What is this guy doing? Why doesn't he get a job?' My mother, who had brothers, explained that the kids in this country play sports."

As they moved into college, most of Lappas' Bronx Science classmates headed into pre-law and pre-med. At City College of New York, Lappas chose the latter, while keeping his hoop career alive as point guard for the Beavers.

Lappas admits medicine was not his first love - he still preferred sneakers to stethoscopes - but he did what most of his classmates were doing.

After getting a D in organic chemistry, though, he realized he was pursuing the wrong career path. Now he wasn't sure what to do. His father wanted him to be a teacher.

"To him, the greatest profession in the world was to be a teacher," Lappas said. "That's how he was. He became a very good (English) speaker and a very good talker. For a guy that only went through a year of high school, he was an educated guy. He read a lot and that was important for him, so he wanted us to be teachers."

In Lappas' junior year his father finally confronted him about his career plans.

Lappas said he wanted to be a basketball coach.

Thomas Lappas remained skeptical about his son's career choice, even after Steve became the coach at Truman High School, but when his team played for the New York City Championship at St. John's Alumni Hall, with a talented point guard named Rod Strickland, Thomas Lappas was in the stands.

"That was probably the first game he ever saw me coach," Lappas said with a grin, then pausing for effect. "He loved it."

The coach as a teacher

For the father, the light had come on. As a coach, his son was a teacher. Thomas Lappas clipped all the game articles from the New York newspapers the next day.

"He carried the articles with him. He went from not understanding what this was about to every time he'd see somebody, he'd say, 'Hey, here's something on my son,'" Lappas said. "For him, you could trade all the money in the world for seeing your name in the newspaper. He was a simple guy and for him that was the greatest thing in the world."

The change was a milestone in Lappas' life. The deep respect he'd always had for his father had become mutual.

"He was a very strong personality," Lappas said. "You knew he loved you, but making him respect you - that was really the pinnacle."

From Truman, Lappas was hired as an assistant coach at Villanova under Rollie Massimino. In 1985, his first year, a young Steve Lappas was on the bench watching Ed Pinckney and company lead the Wildcats to the NCAA championship.

After moving up through the ranks of Massimino's staff, Lappas got his first head coaching job at Manhattan College.

His father was thrilled to have his son back home.

"He was retired. He loved sitting there," Lappas said. "He'd come to practice every day."

Lappas' wife Harriet has vivid memories of her father-in-law's pride.

"He couldn't have been prouder of Steve," she said. "He was his biggest fan. After a win he could be seen standing on a chair waving his coat around. His parents were a bar in the airport in Austin when Villanova won a big game (UConn 1995) and his father kept yelling, 'That's my son!' and bought everyone a drink."

His son turned Manhattan from an afterthought into a contender in the Metro Atlantic Conference.

When Massamino left Villanova to become head coach at Nevada-Las Vegas, Lappas returned to Philadelphia to become head coach of the Wildcats in 1992.

While Steve Lappas was restoring the Wildcats to respectability after an 8-19 start, Thomas Lappas' health began deteriorating as he struggled with Alzheimer's disease.

When Steve visited him before leaving for the Top of the World Classic in 1998, he knew his father didn't have long to live.

Thomas Lappas died while the Wildcats were in Alaska.

But his ideals are very much alive. Steve Lappas still celebrates his Greek heritage with his family. Now he plans to run his basketball program as a kind of cross between Thomas Lappas' business and his family.

"I learned a tremendous work ethic. Having this program is like having a family business," said Lappas, who has two children, Kristen, 13, and Peter, 10, with his wife Harriet. "I like to think that I'm the father figure in this group. Respect and love are the important things that you try to bring to your team. I like to run the program as a family business, where our lives revolve around this. There's always something to do. There's always a phone call to make, something to do to make the program better.

"I like to think we run it the way he ran his flower shop," Lappas continued. "I thought he was a great manager. He managed his things well for a guy that didn't have a lot of education."

* * *

For a man whose father was a florist, Steve Lappas hasn't taken much time to smell the roses. But as he sat at the conference table in his new office in the Mullins Center, he reflected on his lifelong good fortune.

"I think I found my niche in life," he said. "This is what I was supposed to be doing."

Making his living with a ball.

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