Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Saintly Al

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.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I remember the scrimmage well. I still have all the autographs of the MU players from that event. I don't recall the phone calls afterward, though. Who picked you up?

Mark said...

Mills' dad ended up picking us up. I believe it was Mills, Goober, myself and one other person, but I don't recall if it was Okie or Bunny May. Jeez, that description makes it sound like my childhood was part of a rejected John Updike novel.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure it wasn't Moon, Stan, Shoot Pool, or perhaps even Brad "Hey Culligan Man" Culligan.

Hopefully you didn't have to pull Dick Miller out of Trim B's where he was BSing with Reiny and Red Drexler.

Anonymous said...

Brad Culligan? Wow, that is most definitely a blast from the past. Where the hell is Richard Ware?

Anonymous said...

Speaking of the Menasha Fieldhouse, not sure if you guys saw this or not, but "Our Man" George Mancosky passed away on Wednesday at the age of 81.

Remember the ads in the SMC programs ... "Look for Our Man, George Mancosky, begining his 39th year of covering Zephyr sporting events."

George was a good mentor to me when I was breaking into sportswriting. A humble, polite man. He'll be missed.

Mark said...

Shoot Pool? Haven't thought about that dude in a looooong time.

I have a Brad Culligan story that I'll have to share some time in the future. He was a good egg - assume he still is.

Sorry to hear about Maconsky. I remember his byline and remember well his descriptions of Avitus Ripp, Ralph McClone and the rest of the SMC constellation. That generation is really starting to fade away now.

Anonymous said...

Mark ...

Just love your blog. It's entertaining, enlightening and just plan fun. Some of the stuff we remember in this space is unreal.

Mark M.

P.S. Damn Kettle Moraine Lutheran.

Mark said...

Hey Mark,

Thanks for the kind words. And I agree, damn Kettle Moraine Lutheran! The image I have in my mind is O'C getting so mad at State against Nigel Wallace, Brian Morello and the rest of the Thomas More five that he flings his ice cream on the floor of the MECCA, then stares in disbelief as he realizes his fit of pique has cost him two scoops of chocolate. I'll not forget that face as long as I live.

By the way, Morello ended up going to Beloit and became a pretty good friend of mine during those years, kinda like former Roncalli Jet Mark Meissner and former Pennings Squire Todd Wingrove.

Anonymous said...

Was there a better state tournament than 1980? Dorsch, Nigel Wallace, Sankar Mountouf, Dwayne Johnson, Jerry Jensen, Neil Johnson, Saxelby, Bill Van Ryzin and the Dominican boys comprised the toughest and most hyped state tournament ever.

The most vivid memory of that state tournament was seeing Fr. John Penzenstadler and Claudia Griesbach swimming in the Pfister pool together. Not saying anything happened, just relaying a visual.

Mark said...

Van Ryzin? I almost spit coffee on my monitor when I read that. He wasn't even the best player in his neighborhood - I think Huss, Moon and maybe the mysterious Frank Wettengel could have kicked Van Ryzin's butt. I don't think Van Ryzin could have cracked the starting lineup of "Denny's Former Warmers," truth be told.