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COMMENTARY : Frank McGuire Was Mayor of Basketball

October 16, 1994|MIKE LUPICA | NEWSDAY

He was made for big occasions. There was a basketball night in 1985 when Georgetown and St. John's were the two best teams in the country, and they were playing against each other at Madison Square Garden.

Frank McGuire was back at the Garden in those days as director of college basketball, and a college ticket was the toughest in the whole town again.

So he was in the middle of action that he had only known for 50 years, going back to when he was a sophomore guard at St. John's in 1934. That is when they first put a college doubleheader in the old Garden, St. John's against Westminster College in the first game, then NYU against Notre Dame.

Now there was another doubleheader at the Garden, a huge night, and McGuire had filled out the program with his own sense of class and history. The opening game was CCNY against NYU. Because there was a time when CCNY against NYU in the Garden was even bigger than Georgetown against St. John's in 1985.

"Why did I schedule the game?" Frank McGuire said. "I scheduled it because I wanted to see CCNY and NYU play to a full house at the Garden just one more time."

He was 71 years old then. He wore a tailored suit and a diamond ring on his pinkie and most of the hair on his head was still red. He still spoke in his wonderful downtown accent. He was the son of a Greenwich Village cop and he came off 11th and Bleecker and took New York and New York basketball with him wherever he went. He is as big and important a figure as the city ever has produced in basketball.

He touched so many basketball lives, players and coaches and just people along the way, they will run out of newspaper space trying to list them all. He was 80 years old when he died Tuesday (October 11) at his home in Columbia, S.C., and had suffered for too long. McGuire knew all about suffering.

His first wife, Pat, died of cancer and his son, Frankie, born with cerebral palsy, finally had to be institutionalized. A few years ago, there was a fire at his Columbia home and everything was destroyed--photographs and statues and basketballs and jerseys--all the way back to Xavier High School, New York City, all the accumulated history of an extraordinary basketball life.

Frank McGuire never complained about that because he never complained about anything. This was a life of tremendous style. In the whole marvelous history of basketball in New York, there never has been anyone like him.

"Frank was always the main cog," the great Archbishop Molloy coach Jack Curran told me once. "Somewhere along the line, and it was an amazing line, Frank seemed to touch us all."

Curran was part of the line. His mother worked as the secretary to police commissioner Bill O'Brien. Curran was a basketball and baseball player at All Hallows High, on East 164th. He was, in his words, "looking around for a college." His mother mentioned something to the police commissioner, who made a call to Frank McGuire, the son of a cop. One day Mrs. Curran's phone rang.

"Your son will be going to St. John's to play for me, dear," Frank McGuire said, and that was that.

Larry Brown, now coach of the Pacers, was recruited out of Long Beach High for North Carolina by McGuire, right before McGuire left Chapel Hill. Those were the days when McGuire was taking New York City kids down there and changing the Atlantic Coast Conference, and college basketball, forever. I asked Brown once about how McGuire recruited him.

Larry Brown smiled and said, "He didn't recruit me. He recruited my mother."

So Larry Brown is part of the line that began on 11th and Bleecker. So are Al McGuire and Dick McGuire, who came out of Far Rockaway to play for McGuire at St. John's.

So was Solly Walker out of Boys High, the first black player at St. John's. And put Looie Carnesecca in there, too. When he was a kid at St. John's, he watched every move McGuire made in a gym, even serving as a volunteer assistant coach. It began a friendship of 50 years. They used to go to the Final Four together every year. That stopped when the strokes began to hit McGuire, but when the Final Four was in Charlotte last spring, McGuire managed to make it from Columbia.

"He was in a wheelchair, but that was the only thing that had changed," Carnesecca said. "After 50 years of my life, sitting next to Frank was still the best seat anywhere."

Of course, there was all his basketball history down south, after he left St. John's in 1952. There were the North Carolina players of the spring of 1957, led by a 5-11 center named Tommy Kearns, who somehow beat Wilt Chamberlain's Kansas team in triple overtime to win the NCAA championship.

The winning points were scored by a kid named Joe Quigg, whose father was a teller at Federation Bank and Trust, 34th Street and 8th Avenue, New York City. Kearns, who had the ball last, was from St. Ann's Academy.

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