Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Old Knick(s)

It was fascinating to read the accounts of Dick McGuire's career after his death yesterday. Not too many readers of this piece probably recall him. After all he was starring for the New York Knicks as a sharp backcourtman in the early 1950s. These were the Knicks who made the playoffs, and with Dick McGuire, No. 15, made the finals most years, before settling down into desuetude. And his standout career at St Johns came even before 1950--even I can't recall that part of his story.

He was an old-fashioned ballplayer, whose style, however, penetrated the play of the really great Knick teams, those teams in the early 70s who won championships--the only ones who ever did. Dick McGuire was the playmaker with the uncanny feel for when to pass, or as they say in bball stats: "assist." Good enough to put him in the Hall of Fame and they didn't have treys then.

Yes, the obits say he was born in the Bronx but McGuire was a Queens product. His parents ran a bar out there and Dick and his brothers--Al won an NCAA title coaching Marquette--played out in Far Rockaway and then for Joe Lapchick at St Johns. Joe was also a legend--lived in my own birthplace, Yonkers, and later coached the Knicks himself. I met Joe at the summer camp I went to, where they ostensibly brought him up as a special feature of the camp--totally wasted on wretched basketball player me. He impressed the parents on parents' day: "Hey, that's Joe Lapchick, remember, he coached the Knicks!"

Dick McGuire was one of the last members of the old New York City sports fraternity--mostly Irish, some Italians, but room for a few Jewish stars, too--and he worked for the Knicks in one capacity or another, mostly as a scout, for 54 years. He coached them but was not a great coach--players used to say that when he tried to set up a play during a timeout, he was totally incoherent. His biggest move as coach was to switch jobs with Red Holzman, the chief scout, who then led the club to its only NBA titles.

These guys were playing in the non-glory days of the NBA--riding the midnight New York Central back to Gotham from a stint playing the Rochester Royals and Syracuse Nats on the road. The Knicks lost one title to the Royals, and then two to the Minneapolis Lakers (you always wondered what the hell lakes had to do with L.A., didn't you?) with the league's big man, George Mikan out of DePaul.

The Knicks were owned by Madison Square Garden, and headed by the appropriately-named Ned Irish. They didn't draw enough to play all their games in the Garden--some were in the 69th Regiment Armory. That was the "old Garden" to my generation, that is--the Eighth Avenue arena between 49th and 50th Sts. and Ninth Ave., where you saw Mickey Walker's saloon diagonally across 8th Ave. from Andy Murphy's. And the Nedicks and Adams Hats on the main entryway. And per tv boxing commentator Jimmy Powers of the Daily News: "The smoke's so thick you can't hear the bell."
From late March to mid-May, if you wandered down the wrong staircase, you might end up among the tigers brought in for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. The circus also offered you advance admission into the basement to see the menagerie and sideshow. You could get into a lot of great college basketball games with your high school G.O. card. There was that great Holiday Festival--yes, the one Cornell won this year but in those days, there were eight teams, not four--when Cazzie Russell's Michigan five met Bill Bradley and the four guys named Joe from Princeton.

Scandals helped downplay college basketball in New York. Boxing was already dying from overexposure on TV--there were fights on several nights a week--and from its takeover by organized crime. The Garden's last great fight nights were Cassius Clay (as he was then) against Doug Jones and then, of course, the first Ali-Frazier battle. I remember staying late in the Garden to see John Thomas take the high jump at the Millrose Games, the track meet sponsored by the old John Wanamaker department store on Astor Place that packed the place. I understand it still has its night at the "new" Garden but is a shadow of its old self.

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