Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Last Call

Al McGuire went into the Basketball Hall of Fame because of his coaching bona fides: 295-80 in 13 seasons with Marquette, the NIT title in 1970 and the memorable run to an NCAA title in his swan song of 1977. But McGuire also endeared himself to another generation of basketball fans as an eccentric broadcaster.

NBC first teamed up McGuire with the cantankerous Billy Packer and the unflappable Dick Enberg in 1978. The chemistry was undeniable. McGuire was given latitude to expound in his unique vernacular — a mishmash of tasty bon mots, colorful nicknames and coaching insight — in his thick, Long Island accent.

The trio was eventually broken up, but McGuire kept working games until his health started failing in the 1999-2000 season. His last broadcast came on March 5, 2000, in a pivotal game between Wisconsin and Indiana. CBS paired McGuire with his old pal Enberg for the call.

As reported later by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, McGuire was a mess before the game. Enberg recalled seeing his friend in tears at the hotel in Madison, Wis., the morning of the game, with McGuire saying he couldn’t do it anymore.

Enberg definitely picked it up for his longtime partner at the beginning of the broadcast, filling much more air than he usually does. But McGuire began to warm up, explaining that the Badgers needed to win the game to have any shot at an NCAA tournament berth.

The first shot of the broadcasting pair showed McGuire looking emaciated. He later announced that he was suffering from anemia and other “issues” stemming from that, though he declined to get specific.

But McGuire’s mind was still sharp. On the master tape of the broadcast, McGuire can be heard fixing a typo in the “Keys to the Game” graphic during a commercial break.

The old coach’s feel for the game also was still evident. With Wisconsin trailing, 28-18, Enberg noted that the Badgers desperately needed a basket. McGuire, known for his intuition during his days at Marquette, saw a play developing in which Wisconsin’s Jon Bryant worked around some screens to fade into the corner. As it unfolded, McGuire said “Here comes a three-pointer” before the ball was passed to Bryant for the shot that got the Badgers back into the game.

As the game tightened up, McGuire’s old energy returned. It wasn’t quite at the level of his “Holy mackerel” call after James Forrest’s three-pointer at the buzzer to lift Georgia Tech over USC in the 1992 NCAA tournament. Definitely not as energetic as McGuire’s twitchy dance moves with Syracuse at the 1996 Final Four.

But McGuire was ecstatic after Maurice Linton made a layup to give the Badgers a 52-50 lead with under a minute remaining. He was so hyped up that he was effusive in his praise of Wisconsin guard Mike Kelley’s deep knee bend in sinking four clutch free throws that sealed a 56-53 victory. The Badgers went on to become the first team from the state of Wisconsin to make the Final Four since McGuire’s title in 1977.

There was debate between the officials about a clock issue and if Indiana should get a final shot at tying the game. The game was ruled over, leaving Bob Knight expectedly apoplectic. McGuire’s call of the replay, in which an Indiana player falling out of bounds tried to throw the ball off a Wisconsin player, was convoluted. Enberg was left shaking his head, saying “You’ve always confused me, Al.”

Those words would be Enberg’s last repartee with McGuire, who couldn’t work the NCAA tournament. McGuire soon was to enter a hospice in the Milwaukee area, and he died of leukemia on Jan. 26, 2001.

Enberg was right, McGuire’s phraseology could be hard to unpack. But the great thing about McGuire’s broadcasts was that he could make poetry out of confusion.

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