Publish date:

Last Call for the Original Prime Time

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.

Sooner or later, though, it gets to be closing time. "There's
this big, gray elephant in the room," McGuire tells pals, "and
nobody wants to talk about it. But I know."

So pour it like you don't own it, bartender, and let's down one
for the unforgettable Al McGuire and the big flea market that
comes next. May it honor the clergy rate.


Al McGuire dropped straight out of Guys and Dolls with a martini
in one hand and a basketball in the other.