WE COULD recite the details of the life of Al McGuire, the former college basketball coach and TV commentator who died of a blood disorder last Friday at age 72, but he wouldn't want us to. McGuire didn't believe in details. He blithely forgot names, of players in games he telecast and of those on his own team. Jerome Whitehead, a star of McGuire's 1977 NCAA champion Marquette team, was forever Whitehorse. So was Whitehead's father, a minister who must have frowned upon realizing that White Horse is a brand of scotch.
But both Whiteheads surely knew the futility of correcting the man whose rules for life and basketball had been formed in the taverns and playgrounds of Rockaway Beach, N.Y. Forever fuzzy on the particulars, McGuire never erred in the broad strokes. When he said, "Just show me the numbers," he didn't mean that literally, only that what interested him was the metaphorical bottom line.
"He had a gift for seeing the wonder and the goodness of God's creation, sometimes in the most unlikely places, and for sharing his delight in that discovery with those around him," Robert Wild, the Jesuit priest who is Marquette's president, said last week. Wild was no doubt referring to the coach's habit of telling lunch companions, "If the waitress has dirty ankles, the chili's terrific."
McGuire quit right after he and Whitehorse won that NCAA title 24 years ago, so his basketball legacy requires some brushing up on. He'll be remembered for his sensibility, including that picturesque urban argot of which Dick Vitale's is wincingly derivative. He was without peer as a game coach. "I don't know basketball," he said. "I feel basketball. Drop me in the middle of a game, and I could manage it by the ebb and flow."
He won his title because the button-down guy on the other bench, North Carolina's Dean Smith—who lost a lead after ordering his Tar Heels into a four-corners delay—didn't understand what McGuire did: that basketball resists excessive organization. He had the cojones and self-possession to walk away from the summit of the clipboard racket in midlife.
McGuire didn't let details encumber him. He didn't let basketball do so, either.