These past two weeks have been a ride Al McGuire would have loved taking. In 1977, McGuire coached Marquette to the NCAA championship and had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing it. McGuire always was a little different. When he played in the early NBA for the New York Knicks, he rode the bench a lot and laughed a lot. And when he moved on to the ultra-serious business of coaching, he still found time to laugh. A New Yorker with Dublin in his soul and Rockaway Beach, Queens, on his lips, he would be riding high with Marquette headed back to the Final Four and its players thoroughly enjoying the ride.
Before McGuire died of leukemia at age 72 in 2001, he had taught Marquette's current coach, Tom Crean, everything that was important to him about Marquette basketball (which should be said about all college programs): make sure the players graduate, win games, have fun doing it. If McGuire had ever had to choose between winning under circumstances he didn't like or just having fun, there's little doubt that he would have ridden off on his motorcycle, happily. As he once said, "Winning is only important in war and surgery."
Every so often, maybe once a month even during basketball season, McGuire would come to a certain Milwaukee intersection on his motorcycle and take the opposite turn from the gym. Skipping a day of practice is not to be found in any big-time coach's little red book; being able to delegate authority is a difficult art to master.
Crean does not look to be one who would ride a motorcycle let alone take a day off from practice. He is as intense as coaches come, a disciple of Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Holy Cross's Ralph Willard. But at least Crean learned from McGuire himself that basketball and fun are not mutually exclusive and that a tough loss shouldn't hurt too much more than a good laugh.
"Somebody asked me a week or two ago, 'Do you feel you're out from under the aura of Al McGuire?' " Crean said. The question came up because a number of Marquette coaches between McGuire and Crean apparently have found it difficult to follow McGuire's act, something like UCLA coaches after John Wooden.
"I said, 'I sure hope not,' "Crean said. "Because I've never looked at it like there's an image to uphold or a ghost to get rid of. That man was so good to me for a year and a half. He treated me so well. He taught me so much about the job, about basketball, certain things about life, life as a coach. I feel very fortunate to be coaching where he coached."
McGuire would come around to campus and talk with Crean, a first-time head coach. Crean was only the latest to be affected by McGuire. When he was seriously ill, McGuire managed to write a young man a note wishing him well -- in effect, inspiring him. "He wrote a lot of notes when he was sick," the man said.
When McGuire died, it was an especially sad time because he had meant good times. He had a unique way of expressing himself, which he did in later years on television as a basketball analyst. He could mix metaphors as well as defenses. He had certain sayings.
He himself had been only "a dance hall player." A player with style was "French pastry." A bad game was "Dunkirk." A great time was "seashells and balloons."
Crean didn't know about McGuire's personality when he first began watching him coach on television. Crean was 11, just old enough to realize immediately that he wanted to be a coach if he couldn't be a player.
Crean has told Dwyane Wade, Marquette's best player, all the stories about McGuire and Marquette basketball of yesteryear. Wade has learned about McGuire's championship players, Butch Lee and Bo Ellis and Jerome Whitehead and Bernard Toone, and how they beat Dean Smith's North Carolina Tar Heels to win the NCAA title in the last game McGuire coached. Wade knows McGuire wept for joy on the bench near the end of that game. Wade knows enough about McGuire now to understand that tears in victory might have been expected from a man who, as much as any coach, could laugh off a loss.
"Coach Crean was the only one of us alive then," Wade said with a laugh of his own. "To get back to the winning days that Marquette had in the '70s and when Al McGuire was alive, it would mean so much."
Travis Diener, the sure-shooting guard from Fond du Lac, Wis., said this week that he went to Marquette because he believed that Crean could lead the Golden Eagles back to the time when they were known as the Warriors and McGuire was the coach. Diener decided where he wanted to play on little more than a promise and a memory. Recently asked to name the three people from history he would most like to have dinner with, Diener responded: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Al McGuire.
Steeped in Crean's X's and O's and McGuire's A-B-C's of life, the underdog Marquette team was prepared as could be Saturday for its round of eight game against the high-profile Kentucky Wildcats with their rich basketball history and a 26-game winning streak.
Even before the game, Marquette players seemed happier than Kentucky's, and that would have pleased McGuire as much as the stunning upset.
Watching a happy underdog taking its shot, he would have known the day for what it was -- one of "seashells and balloons."