The opening game of that winter sport, professional basketball, comes as unexpectedly as a first snow, bat a good deal earlier. Thus, the World Series had hardly ended and football little more than arrived last week when the nine teams of the National Basketball Association stopped exhibiting their talents in such byways as Fort Dodge, Iowa, Monett, Mo., and Morris, Ill., and moved into the big cities to start their fast and fierce spectacle once again.
They came, as always, with new plans, new hopes and new players. In the East the long-suffering majority of teams were anticipating that the champion Boston Celtics and their aging Bob Cousy might stumble at last, while in the West the worry was that the St. Louis Hawks would not stumble, partly because their massive and aggressive men in the forecourt had gotten no smaller over the summer, and partly because the squad had a brash rookie for its backcourt with the apt nickname of "Machine Gun." There was a new team, the Chicago Packers, which was sure to be trampled. And there was a new policy, that coaches must remain at their bench, which was certain to be broken—this being the volatile NBA where not only coaches, but players, owners, timekeepers, trainers and ice cream vendors consider it their God-given right to harass officials.
But none of these new aspects of the coming season compared in significance with the arrival in the league of a learned, strong and striking personality from the ranks of the college coaches, Francis Joseph McGuire. His job is coaching the Philadelphia Warriors. His challenge is to develop further and properly use the game's greatest individual talent—and toughest problem—Wilt Chamberlain. And his eventual effect may be to measurably change the character of professional basketball from the brawling, hustling, cigar-in-the-face and eye-on-the-till game it has been for decades to the major league sport which it longs and deserves to be.
A number of able college coaches have at one time or another joined the pros. Fred Schaus (West Virginia) of the Los Angeles Lakers and Eddie Donovan (St. Bonaventure) of the New York Knickerbockers are two of the most notable recent ones. But never before has the NBA gotten a coach who was as famous, esteemed and skilled at handling athletes as Frank McGuire. In his nine years at the University of North Carolina he consistently produced a national basketball power. He did it with players he brought south from the streets of New York, and that he could do this despite the intense competition for metropolitan-area boys is indicative of the personality of the man. McGuire was born and raised in New York's Greenwich Village, the 13th child of an Irish cop. He worked on the docks, he played pro basketball (in the unassuming American League), he coached at his alma mater, St. John's University, and he made lasting, loyal friends by the hundreds. It was through his friends that he recruited New York's best basketball players for a school and team 400 miles away.
October 30, 1961
An organizer, a disciplinarian and a good teacher of manners and morals as well as basketball, McGuire developed five All-America players at North Carolina. He won two conference titles, upset Wilt Chamberlain's own Kansas team to win a national championship, and earned the favor of Carolinians, initially suspicious of a city-slicker Yankee, with his easy charm. "The best public-relations man we've ever had in North Carolina," said Governor Luther H. Hodges in 1957. This in spite of the fact that McGuire had once turned his deep-blue eyes and fearful frown on the state's chief executive and ousted him from the Carolina bench. The Governor had suddenly turned up there cheering during the second half of a rousing game.
It was an open secret early this summer that the New York Knicks were trying to get McGuire to leave Carolina, where, at 46, he seemed to have settled down forever with his family, swimming pool and prestige. He had recently become a Doctor of Humane Letters (honorary), a grandfather, and had a good young team with a 16-game schedule (compared to the pros' 80). McGuire told the Knicks no. Three times he said it.
Meanwhile, Eddie Gottlieb, founder, builder and owner of the Philadelphia Warriors, also went after McGuire. Again the Carolina coach said no. But after a conference with 72-year-old Maurice Podoloff, the tiny, moon-faced NBA president, McGuire agreed to join the Warriors, becoming both a vice-president and coach for Eddie Gottlieb.
It took a certain kind of courage for Gottlieb to hire McGuire, for the men are as dissimilar as a bagel and a steak. Gottlieb has spent 40 years in professional basketball. Along with such other early figures of the game as St. Louis' Ben Kerner and Syracuse's Danny Biasone, he struggled for decades with leaky franchises and a bored public. It was an era in the pro game when a man's office was his hatband, except when he had to hock the hat, and Eddie Gottlieb had his hatless days. Now times have changed for professional basketball. But attitudes change more slowly, and many of the NBA's owners still tend to run their business in penny-pinching, second-class fashion. Frank McGuire, on the other hand, doesn't know how to think or behave in a second-class manner.
Yet Gottlieb hired McGuire—because he knew drastic action was needed to salvage the floundering Warriors. Last year the team was often pitiful, not because it had no ability, but because it squandered the ability it had so sadly. Following a pattern that has hampered other NBA teams, the Warriors were using a fine ex-player, Neil Johnston, as coach. ("No man can coach his buddies," says McGuire.) Though professional players have great skills, they need the same kind of stern technical coaching the best college teams receive. They do not get it often in the NBA because an ex-player is not necessarily a good teacher.
Huge and sensitive Wilt Chamberlain, the highest scorer in pro basketball history, had gone into a season-long sulk. "He was in a world of his own," a fellow player recalls. He once refused to play the second half of a game. He swore at Neil Johnston. He complained about his treatment by officials. He would go days without speaking to his teammates, on or off the court. When he got the ball he shot it. Defense he often ignored. Nor was morale much better among the other players. So, in spite of having such proved stars as Paul Arizin, Tom Gola and Guy Rodgers, the Warriors ended the season 11 games behind the Celtics, at times giving away games by 40 points.
This is the team McGuire faced last month. A neat, orderly man whose mind wears a white shirt, McGuire packed 18 neckties, three suits and four sport coats, bid his wife, three children and grandchild goodby, and joined the Warriors at their Hershey, Pa. training site.
Accustomed to the drill-team efficiency of his Carolina organization, where the managers who aided him had corps of their own assistants, he was aggrieved when he found nobody waiting to introduce him formally to the Warrior squad, much less handle petty administrative details. "This," he briskly confided, "is going to change."
His first real meeting with Chamberlain took place in Wilt's room at Hershey's nice—but Hershey's second-best—hostelry, the Cocoa Inn. McGuire had spent $400 on phone calls inquiring about Chamberlain. He had talked with Dick Harp, who had coached Wilt at the University of Kansas, and Clair Bee, whose basketball clinic employs Chamberlain in the summer. "Wilt responds to leadership by someone he respects," Harp had said, and that summed up what McGuire learned.
"That first meeting," reports McGuire, "I told Wilt that I realized he was a famous player with a national reputation to consider. Then I said I had a national reputation to consider, too." This simple statement may well have established the first player-coach relationship of Wilt's career solidly based on mutual respect. "Wilt said he was willing to try anything I thought would help the team," McGuire adds. "With that attitude and all his talent I found myself wondering if the uncoachable Chamberlain might not be a coach's dream."
McGuire then called a team meeting. It lasted two hours. "Mr. McGuire told us he'd never coach anything but a happy team," recalls Chamberlain, "and that a happy team sticks together. He talked pretty blunt. He has a code of ethics and you know he's going to stick by those ethics, win or lose. You have to respect this man."
"When I walked in that meeting," said little Guy Rodgers. "I never believed we would all come out smiling. But we did."
While the Warriors were still in a smiling mood McGuire surprised them some more. He started their training with college drills of a type long ignored by pros. He sent them bouncing up and down the court in a squatting defensive stance that sets leg muscles twinging with pain. Chamberlain became the leader in these drills, bobbing and swooping happily like a giant grasshopper, and gleefully shouting "get down there" when a tired teammate began to edge upright.
McGuire had the team play Tiger in the Circle, in which one man tries to get the ball from two who pass it around him. The Warriors had dribbling races, which Chamberlain excelled at, and foot races, which he also always won. Though he is 7 feet 2 he is incredibly faster than anyone else on the team. On the technical side, McGuire also worked on fundamentals of strategy, normally taught at the college level. And he made one important shift in personnel, moving Tom Gola, who had played guard for five seasons in the NBA, up to forward. This is to help Chamberlain with rebounding, and allow the Warriors to use two small quick guards and a faster-breaking offense. "We might get away with it," McGuire said candidly, "and we might not." In several exhibition games the Warriors got away with it just fine.
If the drills were new and tactics different, some of McGuire's other precepts were just as shocking by pro league standards. He told the Warriors they would not argue with referees, nor would they criticize a teammate on the floor. "You will take credit for the wins," he said, "and I will take the blame for the losses. I have now relieved you of any responsibility for coaching or officiating. See how simple your life is getting." He asked that the team sit down around him during time-outs, not wander about the court. He requested plenty of encouraging chatter from the players on the bench. And somehow he got it all across in a gentle and gentlemanly fashion that impressed the Warriors.
"Wilt missed 500 foul shots last year," said McGuire one day. "I wonder if he would like to try shooting them underhanded." The next day not-so-uncoachable Wilt was trying the underhand foul shot. He is still shooting fouls that way, after too many years of experimenting with different styles—one reason for his, poor free-throw record.
By the time the Warriors left Hershey on their arduous exhibition schedule (8,430 miles and 15 games) they were a spirited ball team, and Wilt Chamberlain, not a sulky man by nature, was a talking, singing and, for him, downright gregarious member of the group.
But the NBA had begun teaching McGuire some things, too. He had only needed two neckties at the training camp. Hershey wasn't a necktie town. He stopped picking up the phone and saying, "This is Coach McGuire, I'd like to..." because nobody knew who Coach McGuire was.
Big Clyde cuts loose
Then in one of the Warriors' first exhibition games, he was shocked as mighty Clyde Lovellette of the St. Louis Hawks glowered down at a rookie referee and loudly said, "Let me tell you something and don't you forget it. You are a punk." Only he didn't say punk. The referee called a technical foul. "That makes you two of them," said Lovellette.
"I've never seen a player do such a thing," said an astonished McGuire.
At Johnson City, Tenn. that Hawk rookie, Cleo (Machine Gun) Hill, got in a minor fracas with Warrior Ed Conlin. It ended as fast as it started. But the Hawks' aggressive young coach, Paul Seymour, boomed off the bench onto the court and started brawling with Conlin. McGuire couldn't believe it. After the game he went to Referee Jim Duffy, who has had nine seasons with the NBA. "It's all an act, isn't it, Duffy?" he asked seriously. "It's like the Globetrotters, or something. It isn't for real, is it?"
"It's for real," Jim Duffy told him.
McGuire brooded about that. Later he said, "If that's what you've got to do in this game, then it's not for me. I've got standards of my own, and I'm not going to do the things that I see go on in this league."
When the Warriors lost their first exhibition McGuire was unhappy. "That's more than I lost in 1957," he kidded them, but they saw it was no real joke. "It's a long season," said Wilt Chamberlain. "Mr. McGuire will have to learn to lose sometimes."
There is a tendency in the NBA for the owners to help their coaches with the coaching. Eddie Gottlieb, who, after all, has plenty of experience, is known as a helper. "Have you given the team an out-of-bounds play?" Gottlieb innocently asked McGuire one day.
"You could just see the coach sizzle," says a player who was there. "He's the owner," says McGuire of the incident. "I didn't get angry. I told Gotty the team had no offense yet and no defense. We would work on those first. As a matter of fact, we had a pretty good out-of-bounds play." The implication was that this was McGuire's business.
The exhibition schedule took the team on to Terre Haute, Ind. for another game against the Hawks. The Warriors had by then learned a little college-type pregame drill, led by Chamberlain, that the crowds liked. In games they were passing more often and more effectively, Chamberlain was feeding the ball to other players repeatedly, forcing the opposition to be watchful, and the college spirit remained. "Their attitude is 100% better than a year ago," said a man who follows the Warriors regularly.
In the first half of the game at Terre Haute there was a brief relapse to 1960's listless play. At half time McGuire, his Irish dander up for the first time since he joined the team, told the players they had embarrassed him. He said they made him sick to watch. That if they didn't want to play they should just quit. The Warriors returned to beat the Hawks by 20 points.
There was joking and singing in the locker room after the game. "Look at them," said McGuire, as if making a discovery that was going to help him. Just like any bunch of college kids."
After the game Paul Arizin, who at 33 has played nine years in the NBA, and Ed Conlin, a six-year veteran, told McGuire they were going out for a beer. McGuire started to protest, then seemed to remember where he was. (In 1955 he bounced two players off his North Carolina squad because somebody had seen them drinking a beer.) McGuire took the moment to tell all the players that he had arranged for cabs at 8:45 the next morning to pick up those who wanted to go to church. Almost all of the Warriors went, undoubtedly surprised by McGuire's solicitude on this score. "I've always encouraged players to go to church," he said later.
"I think I'll get the team blazers and slacks as a travel uniform," he said after church that Sunday. "We had them at Carolina, and we made a good impression wherever we were. My players always looked their best. They knew they'd catch hell if they didn't." The prospect of pros wearing blazers seemed strange. "I've talked to Wilt about it," said McGuire. "He doesn't see anything wrong with it. It will help them save their own clothes, too." (McGuire was once honored by the Barbers of America as one of America's 10 best-groomed men.)
An hour later the team was loading on a bus to go to the airport. "I said 11:30 and look at that Chamberlain," said McGuire. "Not only on time, but early. You know, he's always five minutes early. I appreciate that." Warriors who were not on time were fast learning that McGuire has a schoolmasterish respect for minutes, and a special disapproval of oversleeping. "Sleep is overrated," he said. "My mother, rest her soul, used to say she'd be a long time sleeping when she was dead."
Alone and irritated
If the team was rather happily learning McGuire's ways, however, the coach himself was less serene. The only non-playing Warrior on the trip, he had no one to help him with a dozen details. He was calling cabs and finding restaurants and arranging room lists and paying bills and getting baggage checks—and getting mad.
Each morning he sent postcards home. Each afternoon he sent a letter. Each night he telephoned his wife. "Only 92 more games to go," he told her once. And because he insists on not being chummy with his players, he was quite alone, and lonely. "Mr. McGuire's kind of down," said Wilt Chamberlain, who can be a discerning and sympathetic man, as well as one who knows what it means to be alone and kind of down.
Mr. McGuire was also kind of full of fight, however. He waved a sheaf of motel bills at Terre Haute. "They tell me to go to each player and collect for any extras on his bill. Can you see me going to Chamberlain or Arizin and telling them, 'You owe me 30¢ for phone calls.' "
Later McGuire was saying: "This team has now played four games. We should go right back to Hershey and work on our mistakes. Instead, we've got six more exhibition games in the next six days. Oregon for one night. Then California. I don't have time to be a coach."
"You ask me if Frank McGuire will succeed in the NBA," said St. Louis' shrewd Ben Kerner, who had come to see his team play at Terre Haute. "He's a fine addition to the league. No doubt about that. But he'll find out some things. He's going to learn it's not a question of how much basketball you know, but how much time you have to teach it, if you can. He's going to be responsible for a lot of things he never worried about before. He's going to find the travel hard. It's a young man's game. And it gets to you, too."
Beat 'em or join 'em?
Kerner should know. When his team is playing he sheds his suit coat, pulls down his silk tie, shrieks at officials and shreds programs around his feet until, by the final whistle, his confetti pile is knee-high and his blood pressure sky-high.
"You watch," said another NBA official. "Frank will get beat a few times by those ref-baiting coaches and you know what he'll do? He'll join 'em. He'll have to."
Then it was late Sunday night in St. Louis. McGuire visited his players in their rooms at the Bel Air motel, talking, encouraging, kidding on the surface, but actually letting them know of his interest in them. He had found out, for example, that substitute Center Joe Ruklick was a homesick newlywed. Ruklick's off-court interest is politics. "I told him I'd try to arrange for him to meet the President," said McGuire. "That pepped him up." McGuire didn't leave the last room until 2 a.m.
He also made plans to take the team out to dinner the next day. "We'll do that a lot," he said. "It's good to get together socially, so long as the whole team is present." He was asked how this might fit in with the Warriors' budget. "I think Gotty will understand," he said. "But I'll pay for it myself, if necessary. I feel it is important."
He reserved a table for the team at Stan Musial's restaurant. First he made sure his three Negro players would be served, St. Louis being one of those towns more integrated by law than spirit. "I don't want a private room, or to be off in a corner, either," he said. "We'll just leave if they try that."
Solly goes South
There were no Negro players at Carolina, of course, but McGuire had several at St. John's. "I'll never forget when we took Solly Walker to Kentucky," he recalled. "Four times that summer Adolph Rupp called me up. 'Frank, you can't bring that boy down here to Lexington,' Adolph would say. 'Then cancel the game,' I'd tell him. 'Now Frank,' he'd say. 'We all don't try to change the way you say Mass in your church, and you shouldn't want to come down here and change our ways either.' I insisted, and Solly Walker played. It was quite a night. I think they beat us by 50 points." (Actually, it was 41 points.) This is not to suggest that Frank McGuire has a consuming interest in altering the social patterns of any area. But he does have a consuming interest in being sure nobody ever gives short shrift to a player of his. The Warriors ate at Stan Musial's. Presumably, Mr. Gottlieb has gotten the bill.
And he is not likely to fuss about it, for by now it should be apparent to Eddie Gottlieb that he has also gotten himself a man who can lead the Warriors, encourage Wilt Chamberlain and give the NBA some constructive thoughts about itself as well.
"I'm not so naive as to say we have the best team in the league," said Wilt Chamberlain that same day in St. Louis. "We don't. But when you get five good boys under proper supervision, anything can happen. We definitely have proper supervision now. This man is very, very good for us."
Frank McGuire, Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia Warriors are about to take on the pro league with their own version of the old college try. That should be very, very good for professional basketball.
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