Whenever I bumped into John Purcell in our local Starbucks, on First Ave. and East 17th St., I knew that the chance meeting was both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because I was about to engage in a conversation with one of the city’s great raconteurs and a curse ... for pretty much the same reason.
You see, I go to Starbucks to work in my little office away from home, such as when I have to write an article for publication or grade students’ papers or create a syllabus for a course. If I had assigned myself a deadline to finish a writing task at the coffee house, it went right out the window as soon as “Butch,“ as everyone endearingly called him, walked through the door and came over to say hello.
The time was always well spent. Butch was a friend to anyone who was fortunate enough to meet him. He passed on Jan. 12, a few weeks shy of his 75th birthday.
He is survived by his wife, Mary, and son, John Jr., a director at YES. “My father was a wonderful man who touched many lives on and off the basketball court,” John Jr. was quoted as saying in The New York Post. “His legacy will live on through me, his loving family and an abundances of friends.”
Purcell drew a large, loving crowd at a funeral service on Friday. As the Post reported: “There is a lot of love here,” said Knicks legend Earl ‘the Pearl’ Monroe as he exited the Immaculate Conception Church on East 14th St. in Manhattan after the funeral Friday morning that drew basketball players, politicians, journalists and neighbors from Harlem, where he was born and played hoops for Rice High School, to Stuyvesant Town.”
The Real Mayor!
Indeed, the man had numerous friends and admirers. Actually, Butch was not his only nickname. We all also knew him as The Mayor of Stuyvesant Town. He earned the title. He was, as Keith Kelly wrote in The New York Post this week, “a playground basketball legend.” Butch took pride in having coached dozens of young people, including a very young Julius Erving.
Fittingly, Kelly paid tribute to Butch, as Keith introduced me to Butch several years ago in – where else? – that same Starbucks. We struck up an immediate friendship over our mutual love of basketball.
Butch loved talking hoops. I got a kick out of teasing him whenever his favorite current player, LeBron James, suffered a career setback, particularly when the Golden State Warriors bedeviled James’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals in recent years.
I delighted in telling patrons and employees of Starbucks, “This fellow Butch here is a great man, for sure – but he doesn’t know ANYTHING about basketball.”
He always laughed at the joke. Of course, Butch knew – a lot. He counted former New York Knicks greats like Monroe and Dick Barnett as his friends. Butch was a city guy and basketball has always been the city game.
Butch came honestly to his high status in our neighborhood of Stuyvesant Town. He was a drug counselor for 45 years at Beth Israel Hospital. He became a Stuyvesant Town resident in 1968, “among the first wave of black families to call the then newly desegregated development home,“ the Post pointed out.
Playground 9 in Stuyvesant Town had been renamed in Purcell’s honor in 2019 by the current owners of the housing complex. It was an honor that fit the man. He taught his disciples to respect the sport and play the game right. He respected players who displayed strong fundamentals more than those who made their reps on throwing down showy, made-for-Sports Center slam dunks.
“Butch was the best,“ Allan Kreda, a Stuyvesant Town neighbor and New York Times hockey writer, told me after Butch passed. “He was always there for everyone as a friend, confidant and positive life force.”
It figures that Butch was a drug counselor. He got right to the heart of one of the biggest problems in this, or any, city. His work depended on strength, patience and wisdom – all of which he had in ample supply.
It takes a special breed to do this kind of work. It takes someone like Butch Purcell.
It’s easy to wax poetic about our city’s unsung heroes, the people who selflessly make others’ lives better just by being good-hearted, caring, kind folks. We all know people who fit this description. They could be teachers, bodega proprietors, pharmacists or baristas. They could even be politicians.
They don’t have to donate millions of dollars in televised ceremonies or appear in splashy press releases to make their impact felt on the town.They don’t hire publicists.
They simply convey a spirit of generosity and giving. They quietly go about their lives, well out of the view of television cameras and interviewers. They do the unheralded work because they want to. Their work is to make our lives better. We will miss our friend, “John “Butch” Purcell, the Mayor of Stuyvesant Town.