By Sabina Mollot
Longtime Stuyvesant Town resident John “Butch” Purcell, known to many of his neighbors as the mayor of Stuyvesant Town, was honored last weekend by the Brooklyn USA Athletic Association for his career coaching basketball players.
On Sunday, he was inducted into the group’s now 37-year-old Basketball Hall of Fame at a ceremony held in Brooklyn’s El Caribe Country Club.
A number of National Basketball Association players have also been honored, which, said Purcell, is “why it’s a great honor to be inducted.”
Purcell, now 72 and retired, coached athletes from 1972-1992 at Harlem’s Rucker Park tournaments as well as for the New York Pro Basketball League. During those 20 years, he estimated he’s coached over 75 NBA players, including Julius “Dr. J” Erving. A big part of his job involved training the summer league, “keeping players in shape, keeping them in tournaments, keeping them ready for fall,” Purcell said.
Other players he coached included Charlie Scott, Billy Paultz and Kenny Charles.
Purcell, who earned his mayor nickname from being from one of the first black families to move into Stuy Town in the 1960s, always played basketball. One of his mentors was Holcombe Rucker, for whom the Rucker Park basketball court is named. However, Purcell never went pro as a player, instead getting into coaching at age 27.
At the Athletic Association event, Purcell was honored alongside Lou Carnesecca, another retired coach who led the New York Nets for three seasons and coached at St. John’s University. Also at the ceremony were a few of Purcell’s neighbors, including Stuyvesant Town General Manager Rick Hayduk.
“It was great to see Butch recognized by the Brooklyn U.S.A. Athletic Association for helping people,” Hayduk said later. “The game was basketball, but Butch changed lives.”
Along with coaching, Purcell also had a 45-year-long career in drug counseling at Beth Israel Medical Center. He worked directly for the NBA for a couple of years in the 1980s, counseling players, and then continued to counsel players as well as many more people through Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s methadone treatment program, from 1967-2013. Prior to that, Purcell worked for Stuyvesant Town’s recreation department for two years.
After retiring, Purcell got into acting and extra work. He’s appeared as an extra in TV series like “Law & Order” and “Third Watch” and recently finished shooting eight episodes of Tracy Morgan’s upcoming TBS comedy series, “The Last O.G.” as an extra, playing a homeless man. Purcell got that gig through his agent and assistant director T. Sean Ferguson, who’s also a neighbor.
Last year, Purcell appeared in a commercial for Fannie Mae with a scene in Stuyvesant Town to give the perspective of a resident.
He knows what he’s talking about too. Next year, he will celebrate his 50th year in the community. He has been married to his wife Mary for nearly that long. The couple have a son, also named John.