"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
Here they come now, roaring and bounding into the Milwaukee Arena to start another cartoon show in the midst of that 2,000-game home winning streak—the Marquette Warriors, college basketball's answer to Wonderland.
At the fore is the Cheshire Cat himself, Dean Meminger, sly and crafty and grinning, always grinning. Meminger's toothy grin comes from beneath a pencil mustache and is a natural expression, he insists, since it "never leaves my face." Never? Well, hardly ever. After he puts his dipping, rolling, bippety-bopping moves to use inside; after he has, in his own playground words, "done it" to somebody, it is as if Meminger himself has disappeared and only the smiling mustache remains. Opponents are left openmouthed and puzzled, quite like Alice who, when the Cheshire Cat put his move on her, uttered in astonishment, "Well, I've often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat? It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life." A grin without a Meminger? Right. Do it, Dean.
January 25, 1971
What has turned out still more curiously, as all the Jesuits, Big Tens and other Alices unfortunate enough to have contested the Warriors have discovered, is that Dean (The Dream) Meminger is not the only astonishing person in Al McGuire's latest collection of disciplined executors.
At center this time there is really a center—6'11" Jim Chones—rather than those half-size Warrior pivotmen of the past who had orders never to shoot. At guard, there is a son, Allie, direct descendant of Al, the coach. And in the corners there is a mad tea-party atmosphere surrounding all.
On one side is 6'6" Bob Lackey: goateed, side-whiskered, his muscles rippling, his glare terrifying. Lock up the women and children. ("My father would have hired him as a bouncer on sight," says the senior McGuire.) And on the other is 6'6" Gary (Goose) Brell, whose flowing blond locks, uninhibited twitching and frenzied deportment on court loosen up his teammates, stun the crowd and once caused Red Auerbach, scouting Marquette in New York, to cry out, "Oh no; they got this one out of a cage; throw him a banana."
It is the kind of team a circus barker would love—step right up, step right up—a team with zest, flair and an overwhelming hunger for defense. It deserves all the promoting its self-confessed "part clown, part wild man" of a coach gives it when he says, "All I hear is 'This team's tough, that team's tough.' It doesn't matter, pal. The important thing is that we're tough. Listen, pal. We are tough, and the others are hearing our sneakers."
One of the things Marquette's sneakers have done recently is run off the nation's longest winning streak—25 games over the past two years. At home, where beer is not served during college games, it has been easy for McGuire to avoid the misfortune suffered by the gentleman in Jerry Lee Lewis' song, What's Made Milwaukee Famous (has made a loser out of me). With nary a kiss of the hops, Marquette has won 51 straight games in the Milwaukee Arena. Though home-court records always should be handcuffed and fingerprinted for justice's sake, the Warriors' most recent efforts there are worthy of note. Last week they continued both of their winning streaks with impressive decisions over Notre Dame, 71-66, and New Mexico State, 65-53, while holding firm as the only undefeated team (13-0) between America's coastlines.
The future capabilities of their heroes have Marquette's downtown campus joints in an uproar, but McGuire himself knows his team is young still and not yet where he wants it. "I can't think about March," he says. "Houston [the site of the NCAA championship playoffs] is for dreamers, and dreamers usually are asleep."
On the way to constructing his current group, which is, despite its youth and official disclaimers, Marquette's best team ever, Al McGuire has paid his dues. He came out of the 108th St. playground in Rockaway, N.Y. in the footsteps of his brothers, Dick and John, the former an NBA guard of supreme passing skill and now the head scout of the New York Knickerbockers, the latter a bon vivant and bettor of vast reputation who is now part owner of a singles' bar in Queens. Al was the composite brother in the family, a hustler whose basketball talents were always overshadowed by his ability to blend equal bits of brawling and mania into a comfortable mix. He played at St. John's under Frank McGuire (no relation) and later made the NBA where, he says, "I was the worst player ever to last three years in the big time." He played with broken jaws, broken noses and once was charged with eight fouls in a single game—the six that eliminated him plus two technicals for attempting to dislodge the referee's head from his shoulders. Even now Frank McGuire, who has coached and seen handfuls of wild ones, shakes his head with the memory of Al. "He was my alltimer," says Frank.
After his escapades in the pros had come to an end, the youngest McGuire went into coaching. His first head coaching job was at little Belmont Abbey College (N.C.) in 1957. Belmont fans would have enjoyed McGuire's teams, had the teams stayed around to be seen. One year, Al had them play 22 of their 25 games on the road. Considering the circumstances (his last two Belmont Abbey teams won a total of 11 games) and his reputation, it was a shock when McGuire was offered a chance to rescue the floundering basketball fortunes of Marquette in 1964. As he says today, "I am not the average coach. I say things I shouldn't. I go berserk. If I were a university, I'd never hire me."
But McGuire had finally crashed back into the big time. Though his first team won only eight games, it featured a stratagem called "scrambled eggs," a substitute five of tailenders who were used as a wildly energetic attack group. Scrambled eggs brought out the crowds, and they have kept coming to the point where Marquette is averaging 150,000 home attendance a year.
McGuire's last four teams have won 94 games, gone to the NCAA Mideast regional tournament twice and the finals of the NIT twice. Last year, claiming the NCAA had "slapped me in the face" by moving Marquette to the Midwest region, McGuire snubbed the big tournament, went to the NIT and won it, humiliating LSU and Pete Maravich in the process.
With an attitude toward challenge that originated in the streets, McGuire has, along the way, made so many waves that he seemed to be going one-on-one with Lake Michigan. Aside from his hassles with the NCAA, he has taken on Adolph Rupp on several occasions and once had it out with his own school when he wanted to break his contract with three years remaining to coach the Milwaukee Bucks. The school wouldn't let him go and, McGuire said last week, "I was bitter for two days, but it passes. It was probably for the better. Actually, I hope I' m not coaching 10 years from now. Too many people in this business take themselves seriously. Sports is a coffee break. That's why I'm in so many other things. I've got to stay busy."
Now, in addition to his coaching, McGuire is a member of the board of directors of a recreation and machinery conglomerate, is part owner of two restaurants, has real-estate holdings in several states, is involved in a small television-network deal and conducts sports camps for grade school and high school youths. His salary at Marquette is among the highest in the profession.
McGuire's coaching does not seem to have suffered from the diversions, in part because basketball is an emotional thing with him rather than purely physical and time-consuming. His success has been built not so much on his defensive teachings, though they are far-sighted and well-publicized, but on his relationships with his players, his use of psychology, passion, loyalty and—especially—a realistic treatment of the black-white factor, or what he likes to call "the checkerboard problem."
The first player McGuire recruited for Marquette was 6'3" Pat Smith out of Harlem, a center who could not see and could not shoot but who used what talents he did have to acquire a distinguished nickname, The Evil Doctor Blackheart. "McGuire understands our background and environment, and he forces us to remember," says The Evil Doctor. "He keeps reminding us we have nothing to go back to and he's right. Men from the ghetto shape up here." Meminger says, "Al tells Lackey, 'Hey, you haven't passed to a white man in four days.' He tells Brell, 'Goose, don't you see any brothers open?' I mean, he comes out and lays it on the line. We try not to get into cliques. If we do, there's trouble."
"Why not be frank?" says McGuire. "We talk about differences, and we don't stop when practice ends. I don't want my guys going back to 1870 as soon as 5 o'clock comes."
For all his reputation as a Harlem recruiter, McGuire may have his finest hour this season with a team dominated by three starters from the Milwaukee Catholic Conference—Allie, Brell and Chones. Though the 6'1" Meminger is a good leader—his size has kept him from the publicity that taller but lesser players have enjoyed—it is Big Man Chones who is the catalyst for Marquette and the reason for the belief in some circles that the Warriors can win it all.
A worldly 19-year-old, Chones is probably the Warriors' best shooter. His game is so stylish and fluid that he seldom seems to be overpowering anybody, and until this season he didn't. Chones gained 25 pounds during the summer and, at 225, is just learning how to use his muscle underneath. In the game that has been the key to the Warriors' season so far—an early contest at Minnesota—Chones came alive in the second half, scored 18 points and had 10 rebounds as Marquette won 70-61. "I dug Earl Monroe. I always patterned myself after guards," Chones says. "But I'm learning to do more inside. I've got the hook now, and on defense nobody gets layups—that's something personal. I'm not nervous anymore. I just want to get into the NCAA tournament where it's life or death and go up against Sidney [Wicks of UCLA]. That's what I'd really like."
Similar thoughts are echoed regularly downtown at The Gym, a campus beer haven owned by a former Marquette enforcer, Brian Brunkhorst, and tended over by Fat Jack Rusnov, roommate of The Evil Doctor Blackheart. Rusnov, whose memory of basketball lore, surnames and fanatical incidents is exceeded only by his knowledge of classical rock 'n' roll hits, is of the opinion that Marquette is a shoo-in for the national championship. "We beat Western Kentucky, Tennessee, and nip Indiana in overtime to get to Houston," says Fat Jack. "Kentucky? Coaching will hurt them. Then we beat a surprising Villanova team from the East under a fine coach, Jack Kraft, and against UCLA in the finals The Dream controls the game while Big Man stops Wicks. We win 67-64. It's a push."
The development of Chones, coupled with the play of seniors Meminger and Brell, has in no way lessened the contributions of the young McGuire and Lackey, a fearsome rebounder. The baby-faced Allie starts not because he is the fifth best player but because he can pass, play defense and fit the system better than a couple of other more talented individualists on the bench. "I'm not a star, like The Pistol," he says. "So it's harder on me with my father coaching. I'm a worrier and I haven't shot well, and maybe I shouldn't be in there. But the other four have helped, and I appreciate it."
Another starter, who has had difficulty getting along with Allie, is nevertheless cognizant of his value. "The kid needs to grow up," he says, "but he can play and he hasn't choked. If anything, he might be making our team."
Lackey, who is biding his time waiting for stardom next season, is an imposing figure and somewhat of an enigma to the Warriors. In Marquette practices, which always have been woolly affairs with no punches pulled, he has yet to be tested fully, merely because nobody wants to be the first to find out about him. Says Chones, "The first time I saw The Dude, he comes up to the room with those burns, that stare and those muscles coming out of his T shirt, and he has his boys from Evanston breaking his path. He just glides in, sticks out his hand and says, 'Hey man, I'm Lackey. I said, 'Oh my God!' " Meminger took one look at the junior-college transfer from Casper (Wyo.) and fairly squealed, "They got me a hoss."
Lackey frequently refers to himself by his own last name. When a player took a soft poke at him in a recent practice, for instance, he responded, "Don't do that again to Lackey." The other day, deciding he did not have the time to meet with a photographer, he threw back his head, bobbed it a few times and said, "Tell the cat that he'll have to wait on Lackey."
One person unfazed by the presence of Lackey is Brell, who has carved out his own saga and whose sometimes bizarre behavior is responsible for McGuire saying, "I'm the only coach in America with white problems." After the Warriors' victory in the NIT final, Brell could be seen hanging from the rim hacking at the net with a switchblade. Through the first four games of this season his hair grew to the unruly lengths generally associated with General Custer, and critical letters poured into the Marquette athletic offices. So McGuire had him trim it. Last week, after he had held Austin Carr to four points in the first half of Marquette's victory over Notre Dame, Brell credited his performance to "I Ching," a Far Eastern philosophy from which he garnered a "hexagram message" that he would be The Great Re-strainer against the Irish.
Before the game, Johnny Dee handed the German-born Brell a packet of mustard in a gesture calculated to counteract McGuire's "hot dog" move of having his players shake hands with the opposing coach at the introductions. Brell threw away the packet, claiming, "It was German mustard; he insulted my nationality."
Part of the time Brell lives in a nine-bedroom coed house with nine other people, and he claims to want to someday reside in "a commune out West."
"This is the same nut who complains about the quality of motel towels on the road," says McGuire.
Pinched nerves in his upper neck are responsible for a twitch that overcomes Brell before every game, making him appear to be dancing a jig to the national anthem. He has received letters on the subject, one noting that "young men in Latvia would be proud to stand up for the anthem."
"I'm not dancing," Brell says, "but I'm against the war, and I refuse to look at the American flag until we are out of Southeast Asia. People can call me a flake, a hippie or whatever. They are stabbing me in the back. Even Coach McGuire doesn't understand this is me. But he's all right. He's got the best tongue I've ever heard."
With all the talk about the Warriors' frankness, it still comes as a surprise when McGuire puts the harsh words on one of his men. "You look terrible, Goose," he told Brell last week. "I don't mind you in Hipsville, I just don't want to see you in Tap City."
"Coach," pleaded Brell. "You're always getting on me for the people I hang out with, calling them 'undesirables.' They want you to come over to meet them. They're peaceful. You'll dig."
"Goose, you think you're telling me something?" said McGuire. "I was the original flower child. I didn't call them undesirables, anyway. I called them jerks. Like that Mafia-type jerk who picked you up the other day. Him. Who was that jerk?"
"That," said Goose Brell, "was my brother."