Al McGuire never liked funerals. "Why wait until the guy's dead?" he'd ask. "Buy him a drink while he's alive!"
So with McGuire lying in a hospice outside Milwaukee—leukemia whittling him to 115 pounds and dropping—let's raise our glasses: Here's to Alfred Emanuel McGuire of Rockaway Beach, N.Y. There never was, never could be, never will be anybody else like him.
They say he was born 72 years ago last Thursday, but don't believe it. McGuire dropped straight out of Guys and Dolls with a martini in one hand and a basketball in the other.
It wasn't just that he took an obscure Catholic school called Marquette to the NCAA basketball title in 1977. It wasn't just that he was Dick Vitale 10 years before Vitale was Vitale. It wasn't just that he was to college hoops what Bill Veeck was to baseball. It was how much damn fun we had watching him do it.
He was coaching's street genius, but coaching was only "a coffee break," he always said, compared with tending bar at his father's tavern in Queens, N.Y., jumping feetfirst over the bar to finish fights. Or to start them. To McGuire, basketball was a circus tent, and he was the barker. He'd spend all week selling the game ("I always check the four corner seats [in the arena]," he'd say. "If they're sold, I know I've done my job"), yet he'd only show up seconds before tip-off. When he beat Dean Smith and North Carolina for the title, the same night Rocky won Best Picture, he left the bench seconds after the game was over—out of coaching forever at 48—and wept.
You could learn more about life in a weekend at McGuire's elbow than in a year at Oxford. No matter where he was, he'd find the bar nearest the bus station because, he said, it would have the best jukebox in town. He liked "the paper napkin places, not the cloth," and he always checked the waitress's ankles. If they were dirty, the chili was going to be good. "Al loved mystery meats and secret sauces," says his former assistant Rick Majerus, who's now the coach at Utah. You had to drag McGuire out of his house to recruit a kid across the street, but he'd ride hours on his Kawasaki to get to a flea market, where he'd haggle over toy soldiers and old magazines and stained-glass windows, which he'd ship off to friends, a little chunk of beauty, C.O.D.
"We call him Fox because he's always a tough negotiator," says his best friend, Jerry Savio. "The next nickel he loses will be his first. He'd run you over for a $2 Nassau, but if you asked him for $10,000, he'd give it to you in cash—out of a jar." He had millions but drove a Ford Falcon. With no radio. He made millions from NBC and CBS, but wherever he'd shop, he'd ask the salesman, "Do you honor the clergy discount?"
Yet he cared 100 times less for millionaires than he did for the 12th guy on his bench. He built his program with mostly inner-city kids, and he kept his promises to them. He'd take them to plays. He'd get their teeth fixed for free. When star forward Jim Chones became one of the first underclassmen to go pro, McGuire shrugged and said, "I looked in my fridge, and it was full. I looked in Jim's, and it was empty. Easy choice."
If you knew him, you'd swear he was one of the best friends you had, but he probably couldn't remember your name. Hell, he needed name tags for his family. A fat player was Butterball. A tall one was Treetops. Dean Meminger became The Dream. He was hopeless broadcasting the 1988 Olympics. The play-by-play of a game involving the Soviet Union turned into "Igor the Terrible passes to the Red Machine!"
McGuire popularized such sports terminology as Hail Mary pass, aircraft carrier, prime time and blue chip. As a pit-bull New York Knicks guard in the early 1950s, he once showed up at center court with a knife, fork and plate and hollered, "I'm gonna eat Cousy for dinner!" As an NBC broadcaster he showed up at Duke in safari gear, brandishing a whip and a chair in front of the students. On the air he championed the Wyoming State Porcupines, 26th-best team in the country, not bad considering he and his pals invented them.