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NWBA Mourns Loss of Beloved Marvin Lapicola

By Bob Szyman with Larry Labiak, 03/11/24, 3:45PM CDT


Marvin Lapicola Tribute (Bob Szyman with Larry Labiak)

The National Wheelchair Basketball Association Hall of Fame (NWBA HOF) mourns the loss of one of its most esteemed members, Marvin Lapicola, HOF Class of 1988. His passing leaves a void in our organization and in the hearts of all who knew him. Our thoughts and prayers are with Phyllis and the entire Lapicola Family as they navigate through this time of profound loss and sorrow. 

Marvin Lapicola (aka Marvelous Marvin) was a pillar of the NWBA for 70 of its 75-year history; such an enduring legacy he leaves. His contributions to the sport of wheelchair basketball, both on and off the court, are laudable (and legendary). 

Marvin was a freshman player on the first University of Illinois Gizz Kids national championship team (1953) and a member of the USA Paralympic Basketball Team (1964-Tokyo). He also was selected to the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament (NWBT) All-Tournament team three times during a 20-year career with the Chicago Sidewinders (Lake Michigan Conference).  

Marv was a fixture in and ambassador of wheelchair basketball for 7 decades. When he was playing, he led the way with a wry sense of humor, respect for, and camaraderie with both teammates and opponents. NWBA Hall of Fame members and others recall Marvelous Marvin: 

Gary Odorowski reminisced, “The Detroit Sparks would play against the Chicago Sidewinders at least five times a year. Every game was a knock down drag out event with over 90% of the times the Sparks winning by a basket or two. He would always give 100% effort. Emotions were very high from both teams, but always after the games especially Marv would let the tensions from the game go. People always thought Detroit and Chicago hated each other. The teams didn't talk much between games, but Marv was always friendly between times we were competitors.” 

Mike Schlappi added, “He overcame his own challenges while impacting so many for good. As a young man, he made me feel comfortable during the entire Paralympic process.” 

Noted for his scoring ability from beyond 15 feet, Marv did not garner kudos for his defensive intensity. Mike Frogley recalls chatting with the late Ed Owen and Marv. “I was sitting and listening to stories one time. Ed Owen and Marv were telling stories. Marv was talking about how he loved to shoot and was a great shooter. He said to Ed, “I was a great shooter, wasn’t I?” Ed smiled and looked at me and said, “What we used to say is there is no ‘D’ in Lapicola”. 

Past IWBF President and IPC President Phil Craven chimed in, “What a swashbuckler.” 

Patricia Thiboutot recalls Marv and Phyllis’s companionship dearly. “Tip and I always enjoyed being with him and Phyllis at the NWBT events. We were also in Paris together and he just loved being there. He had a flat tire on his chair when we were crossing the road in front of the Louvre! I have no recollection of how we got it repaired! He kept track of the Boston Celtics and would call Tip to discuss the game while the game was on TV. He was a good friend. I will miss speaking to him on the phone. When I last spoke to him, he was about to celebrate his 90th Birthday.” 

Kim Pollock, a member of the fabled University of Illinois teams of the late 1960s played against Marv frequently. “When I was with the Gizz Kids, we considered Chicago one of our most formidable opponents, especially since many of the players were graduates of Illinois. Vince Caputo and Marv Lapicola were THE kingpins of the Chicago Sidewinders. In 1966 or 67, I believe, the Gizz Kids played Chicago in the semi-finals for the national tournament. I think that's the game that Tom Brown set the national scoring record of 38 points in a national tourney that held until it was broken 4 or 5 years ago. Marv was a gentleman on the court and off the court. I have nothing but respect for the Chicago players of that era.” 

Don Vandello considers Marv to be one of his mentors. “Very sad to hear of the passing of my teammate, ‘Marvelous’ Marv Lapicola (and yes, he earned the Marvelous). I was 18 years old when I met Marv and joined the Sidewinders. Marv was winding down his career about then, still one of the best shooters I've ever seen. Never afraid to give advice, whether requested or not, maybe vigorous if it didn't appear you were getting the point. I was lucky to play with and learn from Marv. I also learned very early that Marv had a questionable move that you had to stay away from. Only player I know that could take two pushes on his rims, and one backwards on yours. I learned to flare an elbow whenever he got close.  He'd just smile.” 

“Considering the type of equipment available at the time, it amazes me what he accomplished”,  added Vandello. “We throw the term pioneer around a lot, but Marv was truly at the beginning of wheelchair basketball. Young players today seem to think history began around 2000, they owe a debt to players like Marv for securing the sport in the 1950s. Turns out later there were three Hall of Famers on that team – Marv, Vince Caputo and Bruce Karr.  Fortunately for me,  they taught me well enough to join them in the Hall.” 

Marvelous Marvin served the NWBA as its Executive Committee Vice President (1970-75) and President (1976-2000), an unparalleled 30-year tenure in the organization’s 75-year history. Fellow HOF and executive committee member Mo Gardner says this of Lapicola’s off- court leadership. “Marv often was the life of the party, but he could be serious when he needed to be. The foundations we laid back in the 1980s and ‘90s, namely, the expansion of the Intercollegiate Division, inclusion of women into the sport, and development of the youth programs, are paying huge dividends to the sport of wheelchair basketball today.”  

The legacy of Marvin Lapicola will live on in the hearts of all who had the privilege of knowing him. His contributions to wheelchair basketball and the NWBA continue to impact countless lives in positive ways and will never be forgotten.