sidewalk caf� on Rome's Via Veneto, James McGregor of Portland, Ore. sipped his
aperitif lazily and planned his day. He had just come from a refreshing swim at
a private club, to which he had been given a guest membership. After lunch, he
thought, he would play nine holes at a local country club, where he also had
guest privileges, then return to his rent-free apartment in the fashionable
Parioli section for a short siesta. At 6 o'clock he would report for work and
put in his customary two hours, after which he would dine with friends and
possibly attend the opera. Then back to Doney's for what he called "the
final review and salute of the troops."
thought of his harried colleagues in the U.S., beset with the usual problems of
the college basketball coach. There were alumni to flatter, athletes to recruit
and professors to plead with in order to keep the athletes eligible. McGregor
had left all this behind, with no regrets, for a richer and more varied
McGregor today is
the foremost international basketball coach. He is now encamped in Lima, Peru,
where he has signed a year's contract to instruct that country's team. It is
the sixth such team he has coached. The others are Italy, Greece, Turkey,
Austria and Sweden. Not as national coach but as consultant and clinic
conductor, he has appeared in 22 other countries, five of which have decorated
him for his contribution to their sports efforts. Thanks to his profession,
McGregor has crossed the Atlantic seven times on fine liners. He has lived in
penthouses in Monte Carlo and Durban, sailed on Lake Kivu in the Switzerland of
the Congo, golfed at St. Andrews and skied at St. Moritz. A patron of the
theater, he has been a frequent first-nighter in London. At La Scala in Milan
he has plunked a key of a piano that belonged to Verdi, and he has satisfied a
longtime desire to inspect Scythian antiquities at the famed Hermitage in
McGregor does all
this living at little cost to himself but at considerable expense to others,
usually the basketball federations of the countries that seek his services.
However, while such pleasures occupy a major part of his life, he is not
without a mission. He makes a genuine effort to build interest in international
basketball, especially in the U.S., which is lagging in this field. He has
arranged schooling in America for scores of foreign athletes and has helped
line up tours here of basketball teams from abroad. One such tour, for a team
from Sweden, resulted in a raucous argument with the Amateur Athletic Union,
which assailed McGregor and forbade teams in this country to play the Swedes.
Ultimately the AAU apologized and reimbursed the visitors for expenses incurred
on the fruitless trip.
should be functioning at all today is a stroke of luck, considering that he lay
dangerously near death from cancer two years ago. Doctors in Austria, where he
was hospitalized, estimated his chances at less than even. As McGregor puts it,
"I beat the spread," and he has been circling the earth since. Next to
soccer, he affirms, basketball is now the most widely played spectator sport in
the world, and since it is played most skillfully in the U.S., foreign athletes
are extremely anxious to learn American techniques. With the promise to impart
this knowledge, Jim McGregor began his odyssey.
At 5 feet 8 and
150 pounds McGregor, now 39, posed no threat as a collegian to the Wilt
Chamberlains of his day. He tried out for the basketball team at the University
of Southern California in 1942 but didn't make it. Undaunted, he shifted to
track, choosing the two-mile run. "I quit a maiden," he confesses.
"I never won a race." Following a service hitch in World War II, he
enrolled at Minnesota to complete his college education. He earned a degree in
philosophy in 1946 and returned to his home in Portland, where he took a job as
basketball and track coach of Benson High. "My success in both fields as a
performer," he says, "qualified me."
McGregor did so
well with his basketball team that he was offered a position in 1951 as
basketball coach and director of athletics of Whitworth College in Spokane.
There he quickly instituted a spirited recruiting program, determined to put
the school in the basketball big time. In a three-year period he won 72 games
and lost only 34. The college president, however, was less than elated. He was
not about to compromise any of the school's standards for the sake of winning
games. "And he proved it," says Jim, "by firing me."
McGregor went to
work for an airline, promising to deliver sports travel business. He arranged,
for instance, to fly the Philippine and Formosan teams to the World Basketball
Championships in Rio de Janeiro. He also set up a baseball tour of the
Caribbean for the Tokyo Giants. Through his international travels for the
airline McGregor made many contacts abroad with athletic groups. One of them
led to his appointment in 1954 as national basketball coach of Italy—and he was
off on his new and unique career.
to Rome," he recalls, "where I had a beautiful apartment and a maid. I
lived it up good for six weeks with pay [$800 a month plus expenses] before the
basketball federation even called me for work. When I finally got word I was
told I had one week to get the team ready for a big match against France. I
knew there was no time to get fancy, so I decided mostly on a defensive game. I
introduced the full-court press—the first time it had been seen in Italy. It
puzzled some of my players, but it also puzzled the Frenchmen. We won in an
upset, 64-56. It was the first postwar victory for Italy over France, and
Italians rushed out on the court and hugged and kissed me."