We've been musing lately about saints who aren't really saints. Then there are those people who would never consider themselves saints, but who do make a difference in the world.
I never met Al McGuire, but I did spend time with him once. At the beginning of McGuire's final season at Marquette, he brought his Warriors to the then-newly opened Menasha (Wis.) Fieldhouse, where he held an open scrimmage. The Warriors were considered an early season favorite to win the national championship that year and eventually they did. I went to see the scrimmage with a few buddies. We were dropped off at the Fieldhouse by one of my friend's dads, and my Dad had agreed to pick us up after the scrimmage was over. We enjoyed watching the practice with about 1,000 of our closest friends, with luminaries such as Butch Lee, Bo Ellis and Jerome Whitehead cavorting over the brand new rubberized floor. After the scrimmage was over, I pulled out my dime and called home. The line was busy. I must have called about 100 times - busy every time. Eventually, we had to call my friend's dad again, who came and got us. As we were calling, increasingly frantic, McGuire and the Warriors began to emerge from the locker room, waiting for the bus that would take them back to Milwaukee. A few of the players were watching us with bemusement. Eventually, Al glanced over to us and asked, "are you boys okay?" After we assured him that we were, the team boarded their buses and returned to Milwaukee. We did get home eventually. As it turned out, my kid sister had knocked the upstairs phone off the hook and this was before an unhooked phone let out the annoying noise that it does now. My dad was too busy watching the Carol Burnett Show to notice.
That's not much of a brush with greatness, but it will do for now. The thing about Al was that he was a thoroughly secular fellow in a thoroughly secular world, yet he was the most visible representative of Marquette University during the 1970s. Al was an observant Catholic, although he tended to be a bit flippant about it. His speech was generally filled with wry observations that were fundamentally Catholic in nature. When something was done in haste, he would compare it to a summer camp Mass. A desperation heave at the basket was a "Hail Mary shot," a term that he pioneered that is now part of the sporting lexicon. But he was a basketball guy through and through, and a New Yorker who brought a decidedly Noo Yawk sensibility to his adopted home of Milwaukee. He could be, at times, Runyonesque.
But he was much more than a basketball coach, or a successful announcer, or even a successful businessman. He was, above all, a teacher and a mentor. His players came to Marquette from disadvantaged backgrounds, but he did not exploit them. When Jim Chones, his talented center, had a chance to go pro early, McGuire didn't fight it - instead, he advised Chones on how to sign a contract, what to expect as a pro and what to look out for. It's quite possible that Chones's early departure may have cost the Warriors a chance to play UCLA for a national championship, but Al didn't worry about that.
Beyond that, Al McGuire gave back to the community. He was a prime mover for the Milwaukee Athletes Against Childhood Cancer, which has supported children in Wisconsin for nearly 40 years now. He was tireless in his efforts to help others. He left enormous footprints in Milwaukee and elsewhere. He didn't look for credit for what he did - he just did it.
It was easy to overlook the good works that Al McGuire did in his life. More people remember him today for his announcing and perhaps for his clownish dancing with teams as they cut down the nets during the NCAA tournament. It wasn't his nature to look for the spotlight, even though it regularly found him. Al McGuire wasn't a saint, but he set an example that other more celebrated public saints would do well to emulate.