Thirty-three years ago, the most entertaining, fascinating and distinctive coach in college basketball history won his only NCAA championship in his final game. Right here in Atlanta. On March 28, 1977, as his Marquette Warriors were completing their 67-59 upset of North Carolina, Al McGuire, the Irish tough kid from Rockaway, N.Y., sat on the bench in the old Omni.
The only thing Al lost that night was his composure. He began to weep. “It was magic,” Al later recalled. “The next thing I knew, I was crying where Sherman burned the city down.”
He also said this: “I’m not afraid to cry. All I can think about is, why me? After all the jocks and socks. All the odors in the locker room. All the fights in the gyms. Just the wildness of it all. And to have it end like this…”
And then there’s this: “You’d rather cry alone. It was a thing pent up after all the years of my jerking around in sports. It was probably a million-dollar cry.” (A personal aside: Al never missed a chance to make a buck. He was shrewd, street-smart and financially astute. He made a bundle, and later became a nonpareil broadcaster while teamed with Dick Enberg and Billy Packer. Asked once if he had enough money, McGuire replied, “I have so much now I don’t even count it. I weigh it.” But back to Al, on the crying game:)
“I think it changed how I was perceived by a lot of people throughout the country. But I was never ashamed of my emotions.”
Those quotes, and dozens and dozens more, can be found in a wonderful book entitled, “Cracked Sidewalks and French Pastry – The Wit and Wisdom of Al McGuire.” It’s written by Tom Kertscher and published by The University of Wisconsin Press. It’s a coffee table book, yet so much more. It’s Al, in his own, incomparable words. No one coached like McGuire. Certainly no coach ever talked like him. Consider the first paragraph of his 1971 preseason letter to Marquette’s Tip Off Club:
“Well, here we go again, the charisma of the roundball, peaks and valleys, lost families, fathers that are coaches, mothers that are overly possessive, faculty members that feel sports are ruining society, officials that have bad nights, ankles that won’t heal, girls that become mothers too soon, rumors of acid and grass, quotes out of context, limited use of gym, no hot water, who stole the socks?”
Go ahead. Try to diagram – or translate – that sentence. It’s 67 words. It’s pure Al.
I’m reminded of all this because it’s March, the most maddening, gladdening, saddening, wonderful month of the year. Another NCAA Tournament is in full swing. It’s the greatest event in sports, and this one’s already given us the most astounding first week of upsets, both buzzer-beaters and outright ass-kickings. Can you say Ali Farokhmanesh? Can you pronounce it? And can you believe that as the Sweet Sixteen commences tonight, the possibility of a Final Four consisting of Cornell, Butler, Northern Iowa and St. Mary’s still exists? They’re all in separate regionals. And in a perfect world…
Hey, I’m just sayin’. And prayin’.
Al, who died of leukemia on January 26, 2001 at age 72, once said, “I don’t go to funerals, because I bought you a drink while you were alive. Anyway, the crowd at a funeral is governed by the weather.” As Tom Kertscher wrote, “More than one thousand mourners attended McGuire’s funeral on a cold and rainy January night in Milwaukee.”
So to honor Al’s memory, and steal many of his very best lines, I’ll update this daily throughout the tournament with some more wit and wisdom from Al McGuire. Let’s start, and close for today, with this.
It runs on a left-hand page in the book, across from a classic black-and-white photo of Al, leather jacket and shades and all, on his motorcycle:
“We had someone from the FBI talk to us before the season and he told us there were three places in town we should declare off-limits. I had been hanging out in two of them.”