On a hot summer afternoon in 1972, I was riding in a golf cart with Al McGuire at North Hills Country Club.
I was coaching my daughter in soccer, and I was writing a story on what it was like for him to coach his son, Allie, who was a starting guard on the Marquette basketball team. The coach confessed to having some mixed feelings, but he said he had made a peace with himself that it was going to be impossible to not regard his son favorably.
Walking along beside us was his assistant coach, Rick Majerus, who was listening to the conversation.
"If you don’t start him, Pat’ll kill you," Majerus said, referring to McGuire’s wife, Patricia.
"She’d have to find me first," McGuire said. Laughter followed. But for those who knew him well, it wasn’t a joke. Al was serious.
The wit and wisdom of this man, one of the unforgettable icons in the world of sports, is on full display in "McGuire," written by his longtime broadcast partner, Dick Enberg, and getting a run at the Stackner Cabaret at The Rep.
McGuire has legendary status in Milwaukee, perhaps second only to Vince Lombardi. And all that adulation is fully deserved as he was the first showman athletic coach this state had ever seen.
He was colorful and controversial and successful. His record over 13 seasons at Marquette was 295-80, and he won an NCAA title in his last game as coach of the Warriors.
Enberg wrote a lovingly honest play about McGuire, and it premiered in 2005 with Milwaukee’s Cotter Smith in the role of the coach. The reviews then were raves.
There is a temptation to think that this is a play just for Marquette or McGuire fans. But it is a story that rings true of any man who has ever tried, mixed failure with success and come out on the other side.
This production, starring Broadway star Anthony Crivello and under the direction of associate artistic director Brent Hazelton, is even better than that original one.
For one thing, in his left profile and looking at him from the back, Crivello – who was a cheerleader at Marquette during McGuire’s time – looks almost exactly like the coach, who died in 2001, at the age of 72, after a battle with leukemia.
This production is enhanced with a marvelous selection of video projections (Kristin Ellert-Sakowski, who also designed the set) that Crivello references as he tells his story.
This is so much more than a tribute show. Hazelton, Enberg and Crivello have combined to create as realistic a portrait of this complex man as you can. Throughout the play, Crivello movingly talks about the joys and sorrows of McGuire’s life – the good the bad and the ugly. He talks about honesty and faith and family, and it’s not all seashells and balloons, to borrow a phrase from McGuire.
The measure of a one-person play is often found in the little things, and Crivello delivers only as a top-flight actor can do. He clearly understands the nuance of a performance like this one, and he is an absolute powerful joy to watch work.
For example, at one point early in the play, McGuire is talking about his youthful days.
"I had, what do you call it," he said, then pausing as if he didn’t have the attention to focus on what it was called. "Attention deficit disorder." It’s a little thing, but it is the kind of small blocks upon which a major triumph is made.
McGuire was a coach, but he was also an athlete, and Crivello has the perfect athletic mannerisms down pat. When he mimics a jump shot, his hands are in perfect position. You can tell this is a guy who has taken thousands of shots in his life. Whether Crivello actually has or not is not important. He makes you believe he has.
To be sure, there are parts of this play that are drawn from the legend that grew up around McGuire. He talks about how he never went to practice and how his assistants, Hank Raymonds and Rick Majerus, did all the "basketball stuff."
That’s just not true. McGuire knew his basketball and was much more than the showman he pretended to be. Certainly his charismatic behavior was a part of him, but he was also a shrewd and adept coach who understood the game as well as anyone.
Crivello has a polished way with the parade of one-liners that pepper this script. Talking about his broadcast partner Billy Packer, he says, "Billy was the kind of guy who stepped out of the shower to take a leak."
Toward the end, when Crivello talks about his fading away from his life and from the world of basketball, he conveys the tenderness that nobody ever really felt about McGuire. But it’s spot on, and the audience is hushed with the moment.
But, in McGuire fashion, as he is talking about his time in the hospital bed before he died, he can’t resist a moment when he’s talking about wondering what awaits.
"The only mystery in life," he said, "is why kamikaze pilots wear helmets."
And that, friends, is all of Al McGuire.
"McGuire" runs through March 19 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.
Production Credits: Director, Brent Hazelton; Costume Designer, Andrea Bouck; Scenic and Video Projection Designer, Kristin Ellert-Sakowski; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack; Sound Designer, Erin Paige; Casting Director, JC Clementz; Stage Manager, Richelle Harrington Calin.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
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