By Dave Hannigan
Once upon a time in 1964, Al McGuire, the then head coach of Marquette University, represented one of several colleges actively recruiting a talented youngster named Danny Nee. Seeking an edge over his rivals, McGuire fetched up at the player’s family home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his mother, Winifred, in tow. Knowing that like her, Nee’s parents were immigrants from Ireland, he figured his mother’s presence might just swing it for him.
"I walked into the little kitchen," recalled Nee years later. "Here’s Al and his mom drinking tea and eating Irish soda bread. I’m stunned. My father didn’t know where Milwaukee, Wis., was. My father wanted me to get a good job after high school and get in with the Teamsters. After the visit, my father said: ‘You should go with your own kind.’ It was done in my kitchen. That’s how I joined him."
Al McGuire’s death last Friday, at the age of 72, robbed the game of college basketball and Irish-America of one of the true characters. After a stellar 20-year coaching career during which he led Marquette to an unlikely national championship victory in 1977, McGuire became a broadcaster of such renown that the New York Times dubbed him "the James Joyce of the airwaves," a reference to his lyrical commentaries and always innovative use of language. It was the perfect compliment because McGuire was a true original.
In a lexicon that was all his own, referees were "zebras," professional agents were "backroom lawyers" and facile opponents were "cupcakes." He is widely credited with popularizing the usage of a host of phrases, including "Hail Mary pass," "aircraft carrier," "blue chip" and "prime time" that have since become the stock in trade of every sportscaster. After 23 years as a television analyst with NBC and CBS, including a spell as color commentator on New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the mid-’90s, he worked his final game last March.
From a family of landowners, his father John Richard McGuire had emigrated from Cross Key, Co. Roscommon, in the early years of the 20th century. He met and fell in love with Winifred Sullivan at a dance in New York City. A fellow immigrant, she had been born in England while her Irish parents were working there, but she came across to America in search of a better life. After marrying, the couple settled first in a flat on 167th street in the area of the Bronx known as Irish Harlem, where they ran a grill catering mainly to the local railroad workers.
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Their third son, Alfred Emmanuel, was born Sept. 7, 1928 and was named after the New York governor and 1928 presidential candidate Al E. Smith. Al was 8 years old when his parents sold their premises in the Bronx and moved to a 10-room hotel and bar in a section of Rockaway Beach known as "Irish Town." Reputedly the first tavern in the area to have television, they served the community much more than alcohol. They cashed checks for people, took their phone calls, and it was the kind of place that inevitably left an indelible mark on McGuire. He often told yarns about falling asleep as a child to the sound of Irish songs being sung in the bar, and, later in life, he worked there during the college and pro basketball off-seasons.
"McGuire’s was located at 108th Street and Rockaway Boulevard," wrote Joseph Declan Moran in his biography, "You Can Call me Al." "Wall-to-wall taverns lined the boulevard from 102nd to 108th Street. The seven-block strip was home to such old-country sounding places as the Blarney Castle, Gildea’s, Flynn’s, O’Gara’s, Healy’s, Innisfail, the Sligo House, the Leitrim House and the Dublin House. Immigrants who worked as domestics cleaning the homes of the well-to-do in Manhattan would come down to the taverns named for their respective counties in Ireland, simply to hear a familiar brogue and see an Irish face."
On an asphalt court in the 108th Street playground that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean, the three McGuire brothers began fledgling basketball careers that would eventually lead two of them, Al and his older brother Dick, to the game’s Hall of Fame. Growing up, they often played as a team, but it was Dick’s special prowess which caused that Rockaway facility to become known locally as McGuire’s Playground. Still, after captaining St John’s University in 1951, Al had shown enough talent himself to earn a professional contract with Dick’s team, the New York Knicks, in the NBA. A brief stint with the Baltimore Bullets followed his three years with the Knicks, but he soon turned his attention to coaching.
Having worked briefly with the freshmen at Dartmouth College, he moved on to Belmont Abbey, a small school in North Carolina where he cut his teeth as a head coach. It was to be his 13-year stint at Marquette, however, during which he transformed an obscure Catholic college into a national power, that made him famous. Under his stewardship, Marquette reached the postseason 11 years in a row before upsetting North Carolina, 67-59, to become national champions in 1977. At the end of that game, McGuire sat on the bench crying with joy and never coached again. Just 46 years old, he retired because he feared he was losing his edge.
As a coach he is remembered for many things. Possessed with a fiery temper that often led to histrionics during games, he also had an uncanny ability to get the best out his players, particularly blacks, a trait that some put down to the fact he had learned all about the injustices of discrimination from parents, who arrived in this country when the "No Irish Need Apply" signs were still prominent. A stickler for ensuring his students graduated from college, he prided himself on broadening their horizons by bringing them to theaters, showing them a life beyond sport and encouraging them to travel the world.
McGuire himself liked nothing more than to take off to some far corner of the world and add another obscure country to the list he had already visited. That quirk, like his love of riding motorbikes, was one more facet of a personality whose legendary sense of humor — he once turned up to cover a game at Duke University decked out in safari gear, carrying a whip and a chair — stayed with him right until the end. Through his battle with leukemia over the last nine months, he insisted to friends that it would have to be a cash bar at his wake. Besides his sons, Al and Rob, and his brother, Dick, Al McGuire is survived by his wife of over 50 years, Patricia; a daughter, Noreen, and six grandchildren
"I was always proud to be Irish," McGuire once said. "I think that we brought a comfortableness and a sense of humor to the U.S."
Of nobody was that truer than the man himself.