The opening game of that winter sport, professional basketball, comes as unexpectedly as a first snow, bat a good deal earlier. Thus, the World Series had hardly ended and football little more than arrived last week when the nine teams of the National Basketball Association stopped exhibiting their talents in such byways as Fort Dodge, Iowa, Monett, Mo., and Morris, Ill., and moved into the big cities to start their fast and fierce spectacle once again.
They came, as always, with new plans, new hopes and new players. In the East the long-suffering majority of teams were anticipating that the champion Boston Celtics and their aging Bob Cousy might stumble at last, while in the West the worry was that the St. Louis Hawks would not stumble, partly because their massive and aggressive men in the forecourt had gotten no smaller over the summer, and partly because the squad had a brash rookie for its backcourt with the apt nickname of "Machine Gun." There was a new team, the Chicago Packers, which was sure to be trampled. And there was a new policy, that coaches must remain at their bench, which was certain to be broken—this being the volatile NBA where not only coaches, but players, owners, timekeepers, trainers and ice cream vendors consider it their God-given right to harass officials.
But none of these new aspects of the coming season compared in significance with the arrival in the league of a learned, strong and striking personality from the ranks of the college coaches, Francis Joseph McGuire. His job is coaching the Philadelphia Warriors. His challenge is to develop further and properly use the game's greatest individual talent—and toughest problem—Wilt Chamberlain. And his eventual effect may be to measurably change the character of professional basketball from the brawling, hustling, cigar-in-the-face and eye-on-the-till game it has been for decades to the major league sport which it longs and deserves to be.
A number of able college coaches have at one time or another joined the pros. Fred Schaus ( West Virginia) of the Los Angeles Lakers and Eddie Donovan (St. Bonaventure) of the New York Knickerbockers are two of the most notable recent ones. But never before has the NBA gotten a coach who was as famous, esteemed and skilled at handling athletes as Frank McGuire. In his nine years at the University of North Carolina he consistently produced a national basketball power. He did it with players he brought south from the streets of New York, and that he could do this despite the intense competition for metropolitan-area boys is indicative of the personality of the man. McGuire was born and raised in New York's Greenwich Village, the 13th child of an Irish cop. He worked on the docks, he played pro basketball (in the unassuming American League), he coached at his alma mater, St. John's University, and he made lasting, loyal friends by the hundreds. It was through his friends that he recruited New York's best basketball players for a school and team 400 miles away.
An organizer, a disciplinarian and a good teacher of manners and morals as well as basketball, McGuire developed five All-America players at North Carolina. He won two conference titles, upset Wilt Chamberlain's own Kansas team to win a national championship, and earned the favor of Carolinians, initially suspicious of a city-slicker Yankee, with his easy charm. "The best public-relations man we've ever had in North Carolina," said Governor Luther H. Hodges in 1957. This in spite of the fact that McGuire had once turned his deep-blue eyes and fearful frown on the state's chief executive and ousted him from the Carolina bench. The Governor had suddenly turned up there cheering during the second half of a rousing game.
It was an open secret early this summer that the New York Knicks were trying to get McGuire to leave Carolina, where, at 46, he seemed to have settled down forever with his family, swimming pool and prestige. He had recently become a Doctor of Humane Letters (honorary), a grandfather, and had a good young team with a 16-game schedule (compared to the pros' 80). McGuire told the Knicks no. Three times he said it.
Meanwhile, Eddie Gottlieb, founder, builder and owner of the Philadelphia Warriors, also went after McGuire. Again the Carolina coach said no. But after a conference with 72-year-old Maurice Podoloff, the tiny, moon-faced NBA president, McGuire agreed to join the Warriors, becoming both a vice-president and coach for Eddie Gottlieb.
It took a certain kind of courage for Gottlieb to hire McGuire, for the men are as dissimilar as a bagel and a steak. Gottlieb has spent 40 years in professional basketball. Along with such other early figures of the game as St. Louis' Ben Kerner and Syracuse's Danny Biasone, he struggled for decades with leaky franchises and a bored public. It was an era in the pro game when a man's office was his hatband, except when he had to hock the hat, and Eddie Gottlieb had his hatless days. Now times have changed for professional basketball. But attitudes change more slowly, and many of the NBA's owners still tend to run their business in penny-pinching, second-class fashion. Frank McGuire, on the other hand, doesn't know how to think or behave in a second-class manner.
Yet Gottlieb hired McGuire—because he knew drastic action was needed to salvage the floundering Warriors. Last year the team was often pitiful, not because it had no ability, but because it squandered the ability it had so sadly. Following a pattern that has hampered other NBA teams, the Warriors were using a fine ex-player, Neil Johnston, as coach. ("No man can coach his buddies," says McGuire.) Though professional players have great skills, they need the same kind of stern technical coaching the best college teams receive. They do not get it often in the NBA because an ex-player is not necessarily a good teacher.
Huge and sensitive Wilt Chamberlain, the highest scorer in pro basketball history, had gone into a season-long sulk. "He was in a world of his own," a fellow player recalls. He once refused to play the second half of a game. He swore at Neil Johnston. He complained about his treatment by officials. He would go days without speaking to his teammates, on or off the court. When he got the ball he shot it. Defense he often ignored. Nor was morale much better among the other players. So, in spite of having such proved stars as Paul Arizin, Tom Gola and Guy Rodgers, the Warriors ended the season 11 games behind the Celtics, at times giving away games by 40 points.