Dick McGuire - R.I.P.

After scouring the internet, I was amazed at the dearth of material on Dick McGuire.  Here was one of the greats, and the only footage I could find of him playing bball was on MSG’s memorial for him.  In an age where every moment is recorded of people who are famous simply for being famous (like Paris Hilton or Jon&Kate), it’s sad that the exploits of a true pioneer will likely fade away into nothingness eventually.  How many websites do we need devoted to David Hasselhoff?  It’s up to us to keep our history alive.  How many great films, great books, great songs have been lost?  Someone recently said to me that the reason most books from before 1900 haven’t stood the test of time is because they weren’t that great.  I have a hard time believing that.  Yes, they may not have been Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have books that if they came out today would be considered one of the top 50 books of the year.  It’s also not just about whether things from the past are as “good” as things in the present, it’s about understanding how things have evolved.

For instance, one silent film which was considered a shocker at the time it came out was the original “The Great Train Robbery.”  If you watch it today, well, probably the recent “Taking Of Pelham One Two Three” is more suspenseful to our modern sensibilities.  However, the key to appreciating “The Great Train Robbery” is understanding why it was a shocker.  It wasn’t about the plot.  It was about a shot that they showed at the very beginning, and then the exact same shot shown at the very end.  It’s completely unremarkable to you and me.  It’s just a guy looking at us (ie.the camera) and shooting his gun.  The thing is that up until that point, they’d never had a person look right at the camera before, so when he shot that gun, the audience was literally instinctively afraid that he was shooting at them.  They ducked to the side.  In a sense, it was to them what the first 3-D films were to our times.  That’s incredible.

Similarly, while doing a bit of research on McGuire, naturally a lot of things came up about his contemporary dribbling maestro, Bob Cousy.  There’s an anecdote on him that reminds me of Michael Jordan’s famous improvised shot against the Lakers.  The one where he went up in the air for a right-handed lay-in, then seeing Sam Perkins preparing to block it, mid-air MJ switched the ball to his left hand and flipped it in.  Here’s the description of Cousy in a 1949 college game from an old Sports Illustrated article:

With the score tied 57-57 and about 10 seconds to go in the Holy Cross- Loyola of Chicago game in 1949, Bob Cousy of Holy Cross was fed the ball and drove hard for the basket, hoping to get a half step ahead of his man and get off a fairly close-in shot, preferably a lay-up, with his right hand. He never got that half step ahead. The man guarding him, Ralph Klaerich, had held Cousy scoreless from the floor during the entire second half and was right with him again this time. If anything, Klaerich was a fraction of a step in front of Cousy, overplaying him to his right side as he had been doing with remarkable success, ready to block any shot Cousy might try to make as he finished his dribble.

This time, however, Cousy finished his dribble somewhat differently than Klaerich—or, for that matter, Cousy—was expecting. Realizing that the only way he could get free for a shot was somehow to get to Klaerich’s right (his left), Cousy, hearkening to some distant drum, reached behind his back with his right hand and slapped the ball to the floor, found the ball with his left hand as it came up on the bounce to his left side, and then, without a break in his stride or dribble, drove to the left (yards away from the flabbergasted Klaerich), leaped into the air and sank a florid left-hander that won the game. “There was some talk at the time that I had been practicing that behind-the-back dribble and had only been waiting for the proper occasion to use it,” Cousy recently recalled. “The fact of the matter is that I had never even thought of such a maneuver until the moment the situation forced me into it. It was purely and simply one of those cases when necessity is the mother of invention. I was absolutely amazed myself at what I had done. It was only much later that I began to practice it so that I could make it a reliable part of my repertoire.”

Initially I had to really pause and re-read the above bit before I realized that the remarkable improvised thing that Cousy did was just that he dribbled the ball behind his back.  It’s such a big part of the game today that it hadn’t even occurred to me that of course that had to be “invented” at some point.  And to hear about how astonishing it was at the time, it makes you truly appreciate it even more.  It’s like how a child enables you to see parts of the world again with wonder, losing your jadedness briefly to realize how incredible things truly can be.

Wow, I’ve really strayed far in this supposed tribute to Dick McGuire.  So without further ado, I present bits and pieces I could find on him:

Dick McGuire, a pass-first, shoot-much-later guard, instills some of the team-oriented approach on Phil Jackson (l.) and Walt Frazier, the team's second- and first-round draft picks in 1967.

From the Knicks’ website, we’ll start with the stats.  Dick McGuire, also known as “Tricky Dick” for his amazing ball-handling skills (& before a certain President turned that nickname into an insult) was part of the Knicks’ organization

for 53 of the franchise’s 64 years (including each of the last 45 seasons).

[He] touched each of the eight decades of the club’s history as player, coach, chief scout, director of scouting services and as senior basketball consultant.

Earned All-America honors at St. John’s in the 1940’s…Knicks’ top draft pick in 1949.

During eight seasons as a Knick (1949-50 through 1956-57), notched 2,950 assists, still third-best on all-time franchise list behind Walt Frazier and Mark Jackson…Chalked up then-NBA record 386 assists in 1949-50, which stood as team rookie mark for nearly four decades (broken by Mark Jackson in 1987-88)…Led Knicks to three straight NBA Finals (1951-52-53).

Coached Knicks to 1967 NBA Playoffs, ending NY’s seven-year post-season drought and igniting streak of nine straight post-season appearances that included ’70 and ’73 NBA titles.

Member of both the Garden’s Hall of Fame and Walk of Fame…Enshrined in St. John’s University Athletic Hall of Fame, Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame and New York City Sports Hall of Fame…1990 charter inductee into New York City Basketball Hall of Fame…Honored in 1987 by NBA Coaches Association.

Place among game’s immortals was certified in 1993, with long-overdue election to Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame…His Knicks No. 15 was formally retired on Mar. 14, 1992.

Mike Lupica of the NY Daily News writes how unlike Dick’s brother, Al McGuire, who was a notorious talker, Dick was always quiet and deflected praise.  He appreciated today’s players abilities:

he would point out at the court at the Garden and say, “I couldn’t do what these guys could do. I had to pass the ball.”

The odd sound of utter silence at Madison Square Garden:

As a kid, Dick established his skills from the get-go at his neighborhood blacktop:

It may sound like Cousy was the superior player back then, but the opposite was true as the NY Times points out:

“For the position I played, watching Dick McGuire then was watching what is known now as a role model,” Cousy said.

Sports Illustrated has a great article from 1980 by Michael Crosby that goes into those games in wonderful depth:

The year is 1948, and it is a hot summer morning on a basketball court in a playground at 108th Street in Rockaway Beach, a part of New York City. One end of the court is deserted. At the other end, watched by 20 or 30 young men who are sitting against the fence awaiting their turn to play and by a large crowd standing on the boardwalk, six youths are playing a game of half-court basketball. Player No. 1 throws the ball in from under the basket and out across the foul line to player No. 2, who dribbles twice to his left as player No. 3 goes to his right behind him, running his man into a pick. No. 2 gives the ball back to No. 1, who throws a bounce pass to No. 3 as he comes down the lane toward the basket. No. 1’s man picks up No. 3, who appears to be going in for a layup. Suddenly, with his gaze fixed on the basket. No. 3 flicks the ball to No. 1, who is all alone. With both feet on the ground. No. 1 sends up a high looping shot. The ball, apparently off course, hits a dead place high on the backboard and drops through the hoop. There is no swish because there is no net. Bob Cousy, Al McGuire and Dick McGuire are playing the Rockaway Game, quite possibly the most sophisticated street or playground game ever played in the city of New York. There are no slam-dunks, no midair 360-degree spins, no jump shots, but the game is far from dull. Although the players don’t have the physical attributes of today’s athletes, they have a style, a finesse, an aggressiveness, especially on defense, and, above all, a sense of teamwork that in recent years has all but vanished from both playgrounds and the pro game.

It began in 1939 when the playground, later known unofficially as “McGuire‘s playground,” was built and the baskets were installed. The local kids came out, and under the leadership of 13-year-old Dick McGuire, [...] in which self-effacement plays a large role [...]. There were no “all-worlds” or “I am the greatests” at Rockaway. If you ask Dick McGuire, for eight years the New York Knickerbockers‘ playmaking guard and now their chief scout, how he developed the passing game that made him famous, he says, “We had to pass a lot because we weren’t as good as the players today. They don’t need to do what we did. They bring the ball up with one hand and shoot a 20-foot jumper right in your face. We had to look for the open man.”

At first the game belonged to the permanent residents of Rockaway. [...]  If the bladder of a ball broke, they’d fill it with newspaper and forget about dribbling. If there was no ball at all, they’d roll up a few woolen watch caps. Passing became the name of the game, and the disease known as “Rockawayitis,” or one pass too many, came into being. Gradually the word spread and players started to come from outside Rocka-way—[...] Richie Guerin and Dolph Schayes from the Bronx; Chuck Connors, of The Rifleman fame, from Brooklyn; [...] Tommy Heinsohn from way over in Union City, N.J.; and from St. Albans, another part of Queens, one Robert Cousy. “We didn’t know it then, but we were laying the foundations of the modern NBA,” says Al McGuire. “It was the top guns coming in from everywhere.”

As a pro, Dick was always more interested in helping others score, preferring the pass to the shot.  A 1992 NY Times article:

“Dick was the best at passing the ball moving toward the basket, curling it around people in front of him,” recalled Carl Braun, his longtime Knick roommate. “Others were great dropping the ball to the trailer, but Dick’s eyes picked up colors. He’d bounce-pass it between two blue shirts to a white shirt.”

[...] he often passed when he had an open shot, sometimes a layup. “He’d drive me insane,” Braun said, “when he wouldn’t take the easy shot. He’d rather pass off.”

His playmaking lifted the Knicks into three consecutive N.B.A. finals, only to lose to George Mikan and the mighty Minneapolis Lakers. But his reluctance to shoot diminished his scoring average. He never averaged double figures. His career average was 8.0 points a game.

“Every coach Dick had,” Cousy said, “had to threaten his life to get him to shoot more often.”

Eventually Dick retired as a player, but he returned to the Knicks’ organization, instantly making an impact:

Dick McGuire finally coached the Knicks in the 1960s. Before long Holzman was sitting on the bench and the Knicks finally became champions on his watch. But you better know that when the Knicks did start to win, when it was Earl and Clyde and DeBusschere and Bradley and Willis Reed, when the Knicks were all passing the ball, they were playing a game that Dick McGuire understood as well as anybody in the house.

Those old Knicks became famous for hitting the open man, “The Open Man” was even the title of DeBusschere’s book, written with Dick Schaap, about the 1970 championship team. Their unselfish style of play, the beautiful game of basketball they played, made them all famous, made Red Holzman into the coaching immortal that he was always supposed to be.

But finding the open man, getting him the ball? That was Dick McGuire’s game, that was his whole splendid basketball life.

Former Knicks executive Frank Murphy likes to tell the story of when McGuire was told the Knicks were going to retire his number. “Dick,” Murphy asked him, “is there anything special you’d like to have on the night?”

McGuire deadpanned his answer: “Yeah, I’d like a snowstorm.”

Ross goes on to recollect a magical night as a child when he got to see Cousy play in person in 1954.  We’ll end with this comment of his:

I’ve seen and admired Magic Johnson, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, John Stockton, New York’s own Mark Jackson and the rest of the great guards, but McGuire and Cousy were as good as I’ve ever seen.

I’ve been telling that to people for years.

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