For the longest time I didn't like Al McGuire as a TV announcer. I was distinctly in the minority.
I wanted chapter and verse on college basketball and McGuire was a poetry slam, all feel and hunches and New York attitude. It took me awhile to realize the very thing I admired at Marquette, his game-day genius as a coach, was what I was getting in large helpings in my living room. What I was hearing on those Saturdays was an original basketball mind talking out loud. It was as gritty as a Brooklyn pickup game.
McGuire died Friday after a long, painful battle with a blood disease and I know he wasn't breaking down film at the end. That wasn't him. He wasn't the kind of coach who spent time diagramming plays on bar napkins either. Where was he supposed to put his beer?
No, McGuire was a jazz musician of a coach, improvising in basketball jam sessions only he could hear and see. He was a bridge, always somewhere in between.
He was somewhere between John Wooden and Rick Pitino, somewhere between what coaching had been and where it was going. He was somewhere between Billy Packer and Dick Vitale, somewhere between analytical and ear-splitting. For most of the past year, he was somewhere between heaven and earth too, knowing he was going to die but gaining sustenance from a tight group of family and friends at his side.
As a coach and as a broadcaster, he worked the margins and played the percentages. Mostly he listened to himself. His expertise was in a gray area that had to do with timing and touch. He couldn't have explained how it worked in a million years.
This is the way it would play out in a typical telecast: The clock would be winding down and he would call what was going to happen perfectly. Time for some obscure guard from Ypsilanti, Mich., to get to work, McGuire would say had he mentioned he was stranded in Ypsilanti on a recruiting trip once? and so it would play out, just the way he had said. You shrugged because McGuire shrugged. Some things you just know.
This was part of his genius at Marquette, the ability to know exactly when to press a button. He announced his retirement just before the Warriors started their run in the 1977 NCAA tournament. Coincidence? Maybe, but Marquette took that emotion, that reason to live, all the way to a national championship.
McGuire built a powerhouse through force of personality and major urban hip. McGuire was the king of Marquette, perhaps the only king in history who liked to ride a motorcycle around his kingdom. Can you imagine Pitino doing that?
Can you imagine what it would do to Pitino's hair? Here was a coach for the people and he seemed to know this in his bones. He would pull his motorcycle over on campus and talk to wide-eyed undergraduates. He seemed genuinely to care about what they had to say.
When Hank Raymonds, McGuire's longtime assistant, took over in the 1977-78 season, something was missing. McGuire's presence was missing. Now we feel the full extent of the loss. The freelancer is gone, the guy who did things by his own book, according to his own rules, many made up as he went along. They don't write books like that anymore. Too bad.