Al McGuire is living a hustler's dream. Not only is he bamboozling America with his own con game, America is loving the bamboozling.
We can't get enough of Al McGuire. He scuffled his way off the sidewalks of New York, up from nothing to three-piece suits and lunch in the White House. Somebody, probably the New York Knicks, is going to make him a very rich basketball coach soon. And we'll all cheer because Al McGuire is fun.
"You know why I'm so good on television?" he said. "Because I'm so bad."
Don't believe it.
It's his lovely con game working. McGuire did TV of the Georgetown-Rutgers NCAA game. For three hours at a practice, he interviewed coaches, public relations men and players. He took notes. He checked every fact - not even taking the p.r. man's word for hometown, height and weight - with each player individually. And then he asked each player, "Is there anything you'd like me to say about you or your family on TV?"
This is no bozo, Al McGuire. He knows what he is up to every minute. If he didn't, he would be tending bar in New York somewhere. Instead, he used his mediocre athletic talents to escape the sidewalks and then used his wonderful coaching talent to build a career so successful and so imaginative that some people today consider him qualified to be a . . .
. . . United States senator.
"That came out last Sunday," McGuire said this week. "A reporter from the Milwaukee Journal called and said the governor wanted to have lunch with me. He wanted me to run for the Senate seat as a Republican. I'll have lunch with him, but I have no interest at all in politics. I told him I didn't want to have my family tree traced."
In 11 seasons at Marquette University in Milwaukee, McGuire coached teams that won 295 games and lost 80. He announced his retirement early in the 1976 season and then his team won the national championship that year. He wept on the bench in the final seconds.
In the three years out of coaching, McGuire has established himself as a vital part of NBC-TV's college basketball programming. He will work for NBC at the 1980 Olympics (and will do a bit on tonight's "Olympathon," an NBC fundraising effort). With a salary from Medalist Industries, where he recently resigned as vice president to be a consultant, and "unbelievable offers" to speak to corporations and colleges, McGuire is doing well financially.
"The last three years, I've been so accepted I can't believe it," McGuire said. He was in town for a meeting of the President's Council on Physical Fitness. "I walked eight blocks after the meeting and a man talked about a deal for me all the way. That's happening everywhere."
Anyone who loves basketball hopes that someone, somewhere makes Al McGuire a deal to coach in the pros.
McGuire says he has had "very light" contacts with the Knicks, Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Jazz. He describes the contacts as second-and third-party feelers.
"I'm hesitant about doing anything," McGuire said, "which I'm normally not. I'm like the farmer who is showing his land to a buyer. He doesn't really want to sell it, but he'd like to know what it's worth."
McGuire has said he would coach a pro team only if he made a dollar more than the highest-paid player.
"It's a matter of authority," he said. "When I tell you to jump, I expect you jump; if I tell Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to jump and he says he doesn't want to jump, then I have to say, 'Please fake it,' because he's making four times as much as I am."
What Woodward and Bernstein called the "nondenial denial" is central to McGuire's ideas about coaching in the pros. He keeps saying he would need that extra dollar and "dictatorial authority . . . the keys to the washroom," but he never flat says N-O and so you have to think he is available for the right deal.
"I haven't talked money to the pros," McGuire said, "because I don't know that I'm strong enough to say no. The tendency would be to get weak, to show your Achilles' heel.
"I like to take a parade that's standing still on a side street, all wet in the rain, and I like to take that thing and get the sun to pop out, to get the train moving. I like that. But it has nothing to do with money. Don't misunderstand. I leave very few crumbs on the table. But money is not what motivates me. It's important for me to have something to run to, something out there to make the next day worth getting to."
That's why, it says here, he will coach the New York Knicks.
He is a natural. It all fits. A kid off the sidewalks of New York, a player first at St. John's University and then with the Knicks, McGuire proved his genius at Marquette, certified his celebrity with NBC and now is handing out nondenial denials to everyone who asks if he'll coach in the pros.
Meanwhile, Sonny Werblin sits on top of tall piles of money. Werblin is the president of Madison Square Garden Inc., which owns the Knicks. The Knicks are in a depression at the box office and on the floor. Werblin's history is that he builds success around stars, and no one could do more for the Knicks now than Al McGuire.
It all seems inevitable.
McGuire said he has talked twice to Werblin, never at any length or depth.
"It would be a tender, touching thing," McGuire said of a job with the Knicks. "It's where I grew up, the way I think, the way I talk."
McGuire likes Werblin. "My idol has always been Michelangelo, but if I had a chance to be affiliated at the upper levels of sports. I'd like to be a Sonny Werblin. You notice the way he walks? He has a spring to his walk, and he's - what? - 70 something? With Sonny Werblin, each day is a keeper."
McGuire is a marvelous piece of work. The sidewalks of Noo Yawk are in his voice. He says he loves NBC's money, but thinks the resultant celebrity has cheated him out of the seven months he used to be a bum.Buying a piece of stained glass in an antiques store thrills him, he says, but he admits to a need to be "on the gladiator floor." He wants to be a spokesman for a big company, doing commercials and speeches, but he misses riding his motorbike in New Zealand.
The NBA needs success in New York. McGuire could provide it. Someone said as much to him the other day and McGuire replied, "I would enjoy being the commissioner of the NBA."
Another nondenial denial. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, St. Stephen's catcher Chris Meloni looks for ball after bad throw allowed Tom Rudden to score for St. Albans. At right, Hannan Jacobs flashes home run smile for St. Stephen's St. Albans won, 18-5. By Richard Darcev - The Washington Post