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If the waitress has dirty ankles, Al McGuire liked to say, then the chili in the restaurant should be good.
Such an oblique bon mot was typical for McGuire, who led the Marquette Warriors (now the Golden Eagles) to an NCAA victory in 1977, the last season of his 14-year coaching run at Marquette University.
A street kid and son of an Irish saloonkeeper from Queens, New York, McGuire in 1964 began his revival of a moribund basketball program at the Jesuit school with a toughness and style unlike Milwaukee had ever seen.
Along the way, he earned induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1993 — as well as the undying reverence of generations of Marquette alumni and basketball fans.
He’s honored with a life-size statue just inside the doors of the Al McGuire Center sports complex on Marquette’s campus.
And he’s remembered in a one-man play, McGuire, written by friend and former sports announcer Dick Enberg. McGuire served more than 20 years as Enberg’s sidekick and color commentator at NBC Sports after he left coaching.
The Milwaukee Rep is presenting McGuire through March 19 in the Stackner Cabaret. The production marks 100 years of Marquette basketball and the 40th anniversary of the NCAA win.
Enberg didn’t start out to write a play about his former sideman, whose coaching antics he covered while McGuire was still at Marquette.
“I was asked to write a tribute to Al for his memorial service by his family,” Enberg remembers. “Daunting task! I started to write down some of his ‘McGuirisms’ and realized no one could pay tribute to Al better than himself.”
“McGuirisms” formed a large part of the late coach’s legacy, Enberg notes, and include McGuire’s question as to why kamikaze pilots in World War II wore helmets. Despite his staunch support of academic training for his athletes, McGuire also noted “the world is run by C students” and “half of the world’s doctors graduated at the bottom of their class.”
Enberg began writing down McGuire’s witticisms to preserve them. He soon found he had three categories — McGuire’s early life in New York, his Marquette coaching days and his broadcasting career — that neatly formed three acts.
“He was a man, first and foremost, and I tried to bring his fire and energy for life into the piece,” Enberg says. “I wanted the play to be a tribute to Al, but still explore his human side, demons and all.”
Enberg’s play does all of that, letting McGuire’s character speak for himself — including the profanities that earned the coach more than one technical foul.
McGuire, born in 1928, grew up over McGuire’s Bar & Grill, owned by his father and located in Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York. In the summer, McGuire’s mother would rent out rooms to beachgoers and the family would move to the bar’s basement. It wasn’t unusual for McGuire and his two siblings to sleep on the concrete floor.
Such experiences taught McGuire to understand thrift. Later, McGuire’s experiences as bartender and bouncer at the family bar aligned him solidly with those in the working class, those he referred to as “the two-dollar bettors,” says Milwaukee native Anthony Crivello.
“There were two sides to Al,” says Crivello, a Tony Award-winning actor who plays McGuire in the Milwaukee Rep production. “Al would sometimes slip into a bar and cry in his beer. But there also is the ‘Give ‘em hell, Al,’ who would rant and rave and use vulgarities along the sidelines of a game.”
Then there was the McGuire who reportedly owned two Milwaukee taverns and was investigated in 1971 for possibly shaving points on Marquette games to favor betting activities by his brother John. McGuire was arrested, but never charged for the alleged offense.
And there is the McGuire of Al’s Run, now known as Briggs & Al’s Run & Walk for Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, which last year raised more than $1 million from more than 15,000 runners and corporate sponsors to help fund research and treatment initiatives.
Good or bad, it was all part of the coach’s heightened sense of humanity, Crivello says.
“That’s all the human side of Al,” says Crivello, who was head of the Marquette cheerleading squad during the 1974–’75 season. “He put Marquette on the map and, while the role is difficult, it’s great being able to step into Al’s shoes.”
Crivello says he did “massive research” to prepare for the role. He and director Brent Hazelton even visited Enberg at his home in La Jolla, California, last year to discuss the play. The retired sportscaster knew McGuire as well as anyone and, perhaps, differently than many of the coach’s peers or players.
“Al trusted me, for whatever reason, and always watched out for me,” Enberg says. “He worried that I was just a farm boy who needed protection. He was that guy, and I always loved him for that.”
The coach was especially concerned with how high his players would “bounce” — meaning where they would go after they left Marquette. He was proud of the 26 players who bounced directly to the NBA after graduation.
One of those players was Lloyd Walton, who left Marquette a few credits shy of his bachelor’s degree and spent five years in the pros before tearing his hamstring and ending his career. At the coaxing of McGuire’s assistant Hank Raymonds, Walton went back to school to finish his degree. Then he earned a master’s degree and finally a Ph.D. in organizational leadership.
“Only the third player in the NBA to reach that level of education,” McGuire says during the play. “Can’t bounce much higher than that.”
“It was those kind of things that concerned Al and that kind of relationship that he had with his players,” Crivello says. “He was a huge father figure to so many of those guys and 92 percent of those players earned their college degrees.”
During the formative years of Al’s Run, McGuire would show up unannounced at what was then called Milwaukee Children’s Hospital and talk to young patients, just to see how they were doing. The coach found inspiration there, as he did in supporting the academic goals of his players, Crivello says, perhaps because he himself had grown up on the streets and knew what it was like to be economically and socially challenged.
McGuire also suffered from attention deficit disorder, which left him with a seventh-grade reading level. The coach compensated with his openness and showboat style.
What would Al McGuire the man think of Al McGuire the character?
Playwright Enberg hesitates before responding.
“That’s a tough question. I hope he would say, ‘Well Dick, at least you were honest.’ That was my goal.”
“I tell people that if you don’t like the play, I didn’t write it, Al did,” Enberg adds. “He was the real deal.”
And if all else fails? Give ’em hell, Al!
The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Dick Enberg’s McGuire runs through March 19 at the Rep’s Stackner Cabaret. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased by calling the Rep box office at 414-224-9490.