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Welcome to His World
Frank Deford
November 29, 1976
Perhaps you can figure out Al McGuire of Marquette, a basketball coach who is credit-card-wise, likes to skip the French pastry and get down to the numbers
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November 29, 1976

Welcome To His World

Perhaps you can figure out Al McGuire of Marquette, a basketball coach who is credit-card-wise, likes to skip the French pastry and get down to the numbers

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It was an old Irish thing. His father, John Sr., delighted in it. What more could a man want than to sip a beer and watch his boys mix it up? If not large for a basketball player—6'3"—McGuire was a big kid in a saloon, and he worked behind the bar from an early age. It was the bartender's job to break up fights. If you hired a bouncer, the trouble was he was liable to start fights himself; otherwise, he couldn't justify his job. So, fight started, the barkeep had to come over the bar. Feet first. Always come feet first. Or, if the action was slack, a slow Tuesday or whatnot, old John McGuire might drum up a fight for one of his own boys, and they would "go outside" to settle things.

Al McGuire played ball the same way. His older brother Dick, now a Knick scout, was the consummate Noo Yawk player for St. John's and the Knicks—a slick ball handler and passer. Al was what he himself calls a dance-hall player. He was good enough to star as a college player, at St. John's, but as a pro could only hang on as an enforcer for three seasons with the Knicks. Once he grabbed Sid Borgia, the famous official, in what was described by horrified observers as "a boa constrictor grip." Counting two technicals, he got eight fouls in less than a quarter in one game. He boasted that he could "stop" Bob Cousy in his heyday, which he could, after a fashion, halting the action by fouling Cousy or the guy who set picks for him. It was McGuire's big mouth that first sold out the Boston Garden for the Celtics. They paid to see the brash Irishman try to stop their Celtic. In the off-season McGuire would go back to Rockaway, tend bar and go outside when his father asked for such divertissement.

"We all thought it was so romantic," he says, "so exciting, but, Frank, looking back, it wasn't, Frank." Not long ago McGuire was in a joint in Greenwich Village. A few tables over, there was an argument. The guy took off his watch. It took six, seven guys to subdue him. McGuire turned to the businessman he was with. "He'll be back," he said. He had seen it so many times. Sure enough, in a little while the guy was back, and there was another mess. The next morning, at breakfast, McGuire began thinking about the previous night's incident, and just like that, he threw up. "Maybe it was the orange juice," he says, "but I don't think so. It was what that fight made me remember. It scared me. I don't want those memories."

One time, when he was about 24 or 25, his father got him to go outside with a guy. "I was handling him, but I couldn't put him away," McGuire says, "and I knew I couldn't get away with this." He was very relieved when the cops came and broke it up. Al went back into the bar and told his father, "Dad, that's it, Dad. I'm never gonna go outside again." And he never did. His father sulked for a month or more. It was not long after that that Al decided all of a sudden he could be very successful in life at large.

But money, or the lack of it, has influenced Al McGuire more than taking guys outside. Some people who grew up in the Depression are that way. The McGuires had food on the table; they weren't on the dole. Still, money was a concern. Of the sons, John, now 52, was considered the clever one. And he was, except for the gambling. He has adapted well; he runs a gay bar now. Dick, 50, was considered the bright one. At an early age he could do The New York Times crossword. Al, the youngest, was dismissed as a glib scuffler. Everybody, himself included, figured he would become an Irish cop, an FBI man if he got lucky. He was scheduled to take an FBI physical one day but played golf instead. He thought he had blown a great chance in life and, remorseful, on his way home he stopped his car on the Cross Bay Bridge, got out and chucked his clubs, the cart, the whole business in the water. It was a little while later, when he was an assistant coach at Dartmouth, that he decided he could be a success, he could make money.

You see, even when nobody figured Al for anything, the family let him handle the books. The kid was at home with the numbers. And then one day at Dartmouth, where it snowed a lot, he was alone, and had time to think, and he figured out he had more talent with the numbers than with the baskets. "Since then I've never had any trouble making money," he says. "All I have to do is sit down and think. I believe I can do anything in that area."

Since then, while he has coached every year, while it is his profession, coaching has never been the ultimate. As a consequence, he is not vulnerable there. McGuire often says (indeed, he doth protest too much), "I've never blown a whistle, looked at a film, worked at a blackboard or organized a practice in my life." Which is true, and which drives other coaches up the wall. But McGuire, the anti-coach, regularly discusses land mortgages, Medalist shoulder-pad marketing and his theories on the short-range future of municipal bonds. Intellectually, temperamentally, what is the difference between a fascination with a high-post backdoor and a short-term bond yield?

And yet, McGuire is only hung up on the numbers in the abstract. The numbers: it is a euphemism, like the Victorians using "limbs" for legs. Real money doesn't mean anything to him. He carries it all scrunched up in his pocket: bills, credit cards, notes, gum wrappers, identification cards, all loose together. He takes out the whole mess and plops it on the counter. "Take what you want," he says. A credit card? Two dollars and 63 cents for breakfast? My driver's license? Take whatever you want. The Depression baby just wants to know that the money in the bank is solid and permanent. Never undress until you die.

"I must be the highest-paid coach in the country," he says. "I wanted it. I thought it would be a goose for basketball. I don't mean just what I get from Marquette. I mean all the numbers. If anybody put all the numbers together it would amaze people. But understand: it hasn't changed me. I've always lived the same. My friends are still hit-and-run types. I eat the same as ever, drink the same, clown around the same. My wife still wears Treasure Island dresses."

He is not friendly with many coaches. Hank Raymonds has been beside him on the bench all 12 years at Marquette and has never had a meal at the McGuires'. Raymonds and young Rick Majerus do the Xs and Os, the trench work. McGuire believes in "complementary" coaches, as he does in complementary players, units that support each other's efforts, not duplicate them. "I can drink enough cocktails for the whole staff," McGuire says. "I don't need another me."

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