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McGuire's touch won't be forgotten

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001

Al McGuire would've made a classic Damon Runyon character, named something like "Slicky" or "Rockaway," fitting smashingly alongside "Nathan Detroit" and "Nicely Nicely."

McGuire once said, "We rush for the stars as we crawl toward our graves." After a unique, conquering, entertaining journey across the total American basketball landscape, the street-savvy New Yorker is gone, having smooched the stars.

His game was born on cracked NYC sidewalks, nourished at St. John's University and with his hometown Knicks before Al answered his higher callings, to coach tough and victorious campus hoops, then to amuse while semi-educating a more expansive multitude as a network TV analyst.

He got sick, withered away, then died Friday at 72 in his adopted Milwaukee, where McGuire coached Marquette to the NCAA final in 1974, then a national championship in 1977.

We mourn but also chuckle.

Our recollections should be of a cocksure, handsomely dressed Al spewing saucy Long Island intellect, coaching with combustible dramatics in North Carolina and then Wisconsin, eventually unleashing the glib Gotham chatter alongside announcing chums like Billy Packer and Dick Enberg.

My last vision of McGuire as a coach was in Atlanta, where his Warriors won the NCAA prize. Before the 67-59 whipping of mighty North Carolina was done, the Marquette coach became enraged "at those stinking zebras," angrily kicking the Omni scorer's table, breaking his foot.

Limping to glory.

McGuire had a 295-80 record in 13 seasons with the Warriors. Marquette also reached the NCAA championship game in 1974, when North Carolina State won 76-64. He retired at 48 but went another 23 years doing television and speaking engagements.

Al's wisdom and wisecracking were forever New York-based, with towering metaphors and corkscrewed language that became so familiar to a generation of college basketball followers.

First time I saw Al was in Jacksonville, my boyhood town, when he was working the basketball boonies at Belmont Abbey College in the early '60s. McGuire's kids were struggling, losing to the JU Dolphins that evening. But the game was only at midpoint.

Al became so furious, at another pair of refs, that he ordered Abbey players off the floor. They never came back, dressing, leaving and forfeiting. I wondered if we'd ever again see that wild man McGuire.

Oh, did we.

His tongue was golden in its own five-borough way. McGuire's wit was quicker than Masterson's draw. He invented terms, some still being passed along in 2001, many having matured into cliches. Al, being the originator, had eternal freshness.

"Seashells and balloons" was one of his favorites, meaning life that is chocked with joy, satisfaction, triumph and ease. He christened it as a kid on Rockaway Beach in Queens, where McGuire's family moved when he was 8.

"Seashells and balloons," he amplified, "is bare feet and wet grass. A breeze that would maybe move a girl's skirt a little. Sweater weather. A malted, you know, a shake. The gentleness of it. The wholesomeness of it. It's tender."

Al played his sport from 1948-51 at St. John's, then made a few dollars as a scrappy, weak-shooting guard with the Knicks of 1951-54 who reached two NBA finals but lost both to the Minneapolis Lakers. His concluding experiences in short pants were with the 1954-55 Baltimore Bullets. Al wasn't the most-gifted McGuire at playing basketball -- that was brother Dick.

McGuire, regarding his own playing skills, loaded with more verve than grace, was a self-termed "dance hall player." Years later, he began labeling tall and wide-bodied athletes as "aircraft carriers." If a point jock played it cute, it was "French pastry." An extraordinary leaper was a "nosebleeder."

As a coiner of phrases, he far predated and likely surpassed Chris Berman. To Al, it was "movin' uptown" to improve your lot, but to use "uptown" alone meant an NCAA Tournament or NIT bid. He was first with "zebras," then the term "blue chippers" for prized recruits.

During his 1964-77 coaching run at Marquette, the creative New York mouth began making cash as a speaker. First it was $50 for civic clubs, later for tens of thousands and eventually six figures as a TV blabber.

"If it's important enough for me to put on my business suit," McGuire once told me, "it's valuable enough to justify getting a load of money. Free ain't me."

If he meant first class, Al would say, "Park Avenue." Opposite was "Tenth Avenue," indicating comparative slums. McGuire called university bosses "memos and pipes." Relationships between whites and blacks were "the checkerboard."

He coached as he grew up. Loaded with fire, smarts, concentrating first on defense, being strong in rebounding. "Every coach coaches as he played," McGuire explained. "I couldn't shoot so I coached defense."

High-level players were "thoroughbreds" to Al. He referred to Marquette standout Bo Ellis as "the Secretariat of college forwards."

When they had a to-the-wire game, it was "a white knuckler." Easy opponents were "cupcakes." A disastrous performance for McGuire was "Dunkirk."

We won't forget.

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