The Joe Lapchick Character Award Foundation is a foundation committed to encouraging and promoting good character in the sport of basketball. Each November the foundation recognizes a group of iconic basketball figures, from all levels of men’s and women’s basketball, who have demonstrated honorable character throughout their careers much like the legendary Coach Joe Lapchick, who coached St. Johns and the New York Knicks.
On Friday November 20, Cathy Andruzzi, a former Queens College basketball player, stepped up to the podium to introduce former coach Lucille Kyvallos. The occasion was having Coach Lucille Kyvallos receive the much deserved Lapchick Character award.
“It is a wonderful honor for me to present to you and tell you about our great coach Lucille Kyvallos. Lucille Kyvallos’ story is about an individuals’ love for the game of basketball. A story of not only a great coach but also a great basketball player…a story of a woman of integrity and character.
Born and raised in Astoria, Queens, young Lucille started playing basketball with the boys in the school yard at age 14. However, her walk to the school yard was much different than yours and mine.
In 1946 it was not considered appropriate for a girl to walk through the neighborhoods of Astoria with a basketball under her arm. So as not to be denied the opportunity to play the game she loved, young Lucille used her mother’s sewing machine to make a drawstring bag for her basketball so that it would be hidden from the public.
By the time Lucille (who they called ‘Big Lulu’) was 17 years old she was one of the best basketball players in NYC. In the late 40’s Bryant High School did not have a girls basketball team so she played for several recreational teams. Comprised of young girls who loved the game of basketball, they would travel around playing in gyms throughout NYC. On weekends they played against men’s teams. She also played in the Old Madison Square Garden location with her Queens Rustics team.
In 1951, she headed to college, first attending NYU. While there she took a job coaching the Cathedral H.S. girls basketball team where her team went 37-4.
Coach Kyvallos transferred to Springfield College to study Phys Ed. Although Springfield did not have a women’s basketball team, she wouldn’t be denied playing so she played on a company sponsored industrial league team in Springfield.
In those days Springfield frowned upon their female students playing sports. If caught she could have been booted out of school. Lucille Kyvallos would have someone go with her to the game and stand by the door of the gym. If someone from the college would come by, they would tell her and she would leave the floor.
Nasmith Basketball Hall of Famer and former Springfield Assistant Director and Coach Ed Steitz once said Kyvallos was the best basketball player, male or female, who ever came to Springfield College.
Graduating from Springfield, she taught high school for a few years and headed to Indiana University to get her masters, choosing Indiana for their specialty in Motor Learning. She was hungry to learn about the scientific principles of a player’s movement on the basketball court including how to cut, timing of movements and the effectiveness of jump stops vs. lay-ups.
After coaching at West Chester State in 1962 with a record of 52-2, she joined the faculty of Queens College and became the head women’s basketball coach. In only three years coach Kvyallos had built another nationally recognized program and in 1971 Queens College was invited to play in the National Invitational Women’s Tournament in North Carolina.
Now on a mission to compete at the highest level and never having that experience, she wanted to prove women, if given the opportunity, could develop those skills. She believed that women should have the opportunity to strive to be their greatest and prove that females could be competitive athletic performers.
Seeing an opportunity to put Queens College and NYC on the national map, coach Kyvallos and Queens College submitted a bid and were awarded to host the 1973 AIAW National Championship. In March of 1973, 16 college teams from all over the country would converge on the Flushing campus and history would be made. Our Queens College team would advance to the Championship game in front of a packed standing room only crowd to play defending National Champions Immaculata.
It was an electric feeling that my teammates and I will never forget. Journalists like Dick Schaap were there at Fitzgerald Gym to watch the game, one that advanced the game of college women’s basketball nationally.
The game caught the eye of Rob Franklyn, an executive at Madison Square Garden and invited Coach Kyvallos to play a game at the Garden, saying that she could pick the team. Ecstatic and knowing the significance of this game, she needed a fitting opponent and chose Immaculata College.
On February 22, 1975 in front of 11,500 spectators Queens College played Immaculata in the first women’s college game to be played at the garden. This past January MSG celebrated the 40th Anniversary of this historic game with a re-match of the Immaculata vs. Q.C. game.
Queens College continued to be a dominating force in women’s basketball from 1971-79 and was ranked in the top 10 in the country without the aid of athletic scholarships. In 1977 Coach Kyvallos was selected as the head coach for the USA Women’s Basketball competing in the World University Games in Bulgaria, winning the Silver Medal.
As the AIAW folded and the NCAA took over in 1982, QC did not have the funding to recruit and compete at the level that she had established, the great players from NY were being recruited and offered scholarships by schools all over the country. Queens did not have dorms, budgets facilities and other resources to compete.
Coach Kyvallos retired from coaching the game she loved, in her 12 years at QC where she compiled a career record of 239-77 and was inducted into the NYC Basketball HOF, West Chester College HOF and QC Athletics HOF.
Our 1972-73 team was the first women’s team to be inducted into the NYC Basketball HOF and QC Athletics HOF. This Spring we will be honoring Coach and naming the main court in Fitzgerald Gymnasium at QC The Lucille Kyvallos Court.
For those of us that had the opportunity to play for Coach, we learned more than X’s and O’s. We learned about life. We learned about how to compete. We learned to reach for the sky and challenge ourselves. And we learned the importance of team, integrity and character.
Coach Kyvallos led by example. She never backed down or played it safe. She fought to give us every opportunity in basketball she never had. And we are grateful for her.
In ending I would like to share this last story with you. When I was going through Coach Kyvallos’ archives I came across some amazing stories about her life that I never knew, many of which I shared today. One stood out among them. On Feb. 26, 1950, George Douvis, a sports writer for the Long Island Star wrote a piece, titled ‘Lucy Kyvallos Basketball Star’. He wrote, ‘Lucy Kyvallos, a smiling 17-year-old Astoria lass, is rated one of the outstanding female players developed in New York City. A real great player who should go places. Remember the name Lucy Kyvallos.' George Douvis was right. Ladies and gentlemen please welcome ‘Big Lulu’ Coach Lucille Kyvallos.”