Pete Carril, Jim Phelan among honorees

NEW YORK -- Pete Carril was working the room, shaking hands like he was running for office.

It wasn't about politics. It was about coaching.

Carril, Jim Phelan and Debbie Ryan, all longtime college basketball coaches, were presented Thursday with the fourth annual Joe Lapchick Character Awards.

The banquet room at Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River was packed with those who played for, worked with or just admired the recipients of an award named for the Hall of Fame coach from St. John's and the New York Knicks who has always been considered one of coaching's great examples of character.

Almost 40 years after his death, Lapchick is still someone who is praised for what he did decades ago.

"Joe Lapchick set the standard known for the way he coached the game," said Ryan, who was the women's coach at Virginia for 34 years, winning 739 games and achieving three Final Four appearances. "It was not necessarily the skills he taught, but how he handled his players. That's why he was a great coach."

Carril, who coached Princeton for 29 years and won 514 games and 13 Ivy League championships, had 25 or so former players at the luncheon and stories filled the room.

"It's been the experience of a lifetime for me," said former Princeton player Geoff Petrie, the Sacramento Kings' president of basketball operations. "It is one of those things in life, if you're lucky to have it happen to you that you have someone who goes from being a coach to being a mentor to an adviser to a friend for the ages. That's been my relationship with Pete."

Phelan was at Mount St. Mary's for 49 years, winning 830 games. After talking about his relationship with his players, Phelan recounted how long he and Carril have known each other.

"We never played against each other in college, but when we were in the service after school, we did meet on the court," said Phelan, wearing one of his trademark bow ties. "I was with the Marines based in Quantico and Pete was in the Army at Indiantown Gap. Our teams met twice during our time in the service. We got them twice."

Former NBA player and coach Fred "Mad Dog" Carter talked lovingly about Phelan.

"He found me in summer league in Philadelphia," Carter said. "He decided to take a chance on me and he made sure I had the experience of going to college. He would check in on me. Forty-six years later he's still checking. I owe everything to my surrogate father."

Ryan grew up in New Jersey and her father took her along one day for a business breakfast meeting with Carril.

"I was in high school and I didn't know what I was going to do with my life," she said. "That day Coach started talking about his passion for coaching. He was so instrumental in my starting in this career."

Since her retirement, Ryan has become a fundraiser against pancreatic cancer, a disease she was diagnosed with in 2002. She can rip off a list of those who have succumbed to the disease -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs being the most recent -- that has a single-digit survival rate.

Jenny Boucek, Ryan's former player at Virginia and now an assistant coach with the WNBA champion Seattle Storm, quickly summed up her feelings about Ryan.

"She doesn't have character," Boucek said. "She is character."

There was one brief moment of basketball strategy, however.

Carril was talking about his famous Princeton offense, in which teams work patiently for a good shot that often comes on a backdoor cut. Many high-profile opponents facing the offense have left the court wondering what just happened, as a team with less athletic ability either beat them or threw quite a scare into them.

"When we started running that a long time ago," Carril said, "I just told my players it was judicious use of our time."