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Sports broadcaster Enberg tells of life on air with famed coach

It’s been a big year for Marquette University basketball – the 100th anniversary of the men’s basketball program, and the 40th anniversary of its single national championship, and the two anniversaries remind us older Milwaukeeans of the most unforgettable character in the program’s long history: Coach Al McGuire.

McGuire, irascible, colorful and unpredictable, coached the Warriors (now the Golden Eagles) from 1964 to 1977, and the NCAA championship came in his very last game as coach.

Dick Enberg covered the NCAA’s Final Four that year for NBC, and then spent nearly 20 years as McGuire’s college basketball broadcasting partner on the same network. After McGuire died in 2001 of leukemia, Enberg wrote a one-actor play, “McGuire,” fans of which say it brings the late coach back to life on the stage.

Dick Enberg

Enberg was at the Marquette Law School on Tuesday for an interview with Mike Gousha, as part of Gousha’s “On the Issues” series of public newsmaker interviews. The occasion of the appearance was a production of “McGuire” by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. The play opens Friday, starring Anthony Crivello, a Tony-winning Broadway actor who graduated from Marquette, and even was a cheerleader for MU basketball games for a year during the McGuire era, according to the Journal Sentinel.

Enberg told Gousha (and an audience that packed a large assembly room at the law school) that he first conceived of the play when McGuire’s family asked him to write some notes for the program for McGuire’s funeral, and he decided to fill it with what he called “McGuireisms” the sometimes inscrutable sayings for which the former coach was known. Like “Take the right turn,” which means to do something out of the ordinary in your life, or, “If a guy brings home flowers for no reason, there is a reason.”

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The memories of Al kept coming even after the funeral, Enberg said, and he kept writing them down, and the play came out of that.

He also shared those memories with Gousha and his audience. Among them:

McGuire told Enberg and their onetime colleague Billy Packer that he could read and write only at a seventh-grade level – “I didn’t find out till after he passed away, Al had ADD before they even knew what it was.”

McGuire’s darker side was just hinted at in the first version of the Enberg play. But after the passing of McGuire’s widow, Pat, in 2011, the play was been updated to reflect more of that. Near the end of his life, McGuire told Enberg that he’d sinned against all the Ten Commandments except “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and was worried about what he called “the pit stop” – Purgatory. He also joked that he needed a deaf priest “out in Oconomowoc or something” to hear his confession.

McGuire’s anger cost him “a couple of championships,” Enberg said, including 1974, when he drew two technical fouls and was ejected from the final game. 

The Warriors might not have even received an invitation to the 1977 tournament if it wasn’t McGuire’s last year as coach, Enberg said. They had lost seven games that season, and McGuire said he’d coached much better teams. But they were invited, and they won the whole thing.

Marilyn Krause, a representative of the Milwaukee Press Club (which cosponsored the event), described  Enberg as one of the most versatile sports broadcasters of his generation, pointing out that besides college basketball, he’d also broadcast college football, professional football and baseball, golf, tennis and horse racing. He’s worked with another irascible star, tennis’ John McEnroe, and covered Wimbledon for many years. Near the beginning of his career he spent nine years doing television broadcasts of the UCLA basketball team under legendary coach John Wooden; eight of those years, the Bruins won the NCAA championship. His first year doing that, he said, was the first year a player named Lew Alcindor was eligible to play for the varsity team. Alcindor, of course, later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – doing it, in fact, in 1971, right after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their first and only NBA championship.

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