Enberg’s ‘McGuire’ brings beloved coach back to life at North Coast Rep

Dick Enberg (right) with Al McGuire. Courtesy photo
Dick Enberg (right) with Al McGuire. Courtesy photo

“McGuire” returns to the North Coast Repertory Theater on Jan. 25 and Jan. 26, a play about Al McGuire the basketball coach, TV analyst and sportscaster Dick Enberg’s most admired friend and teacher.

Enberg could share stories for hours about the “fascinating, complex, unique and vibrant” McGuire, many of which he poured into the play “McGuire.” To Enberg, McGuire watched life from behind the curtains as if he already knew life’s fill script.

“We are Dorothys,” Enberg wrote in his autobiography “Oh My!”.“ He was the Wizard of Oz.”

Dick Enberg

“I’ve been in this business 60 years and I’ve met a lot of sports greatness. But there has never been a character like Al McGuire,” Enberg said of McGuire, who died at the age of 72 in 2001 after a battle with leukemia. “He is the most unforgettable character I’ve ever met in my life.”

The play is a tribute to McGuire and a way to bring him back to life with the actor Cotter Smith transforming into the legendary sports figure.

“It’s not a play about basketball at all. It’s a play that features the wit and wisdom of a basketball coach,” Enberg said. “It’s about a man who saw what we don’t see and at an angle that we don’t have.”

Each night of the play will include a “talk back” after the show where Enberg will answer questions and share more memories about Al McGuire. He said there always seems to be someone in the audience who knew Al or has a McGuire story to add — bonus overtime insight on “a man of the unexpected.”

Enberg said McGuire’s great attraction was his street wisdom. He had to scrape to get through the “barbed wire of life” and in doing so learned lessons that most never get to learn. McGuire often told people he could only read and write at a third grade level but Enberg said he knew it wasn’t true — he was sharp enough to get through St. John’s University, where he played basketball, went on to play in the NBA and took his first head coaching job at Belmont Abbey College.

McGuire became head coach at Marquette University in 1964, winning the NCAA National Championship in 1977. Marquette had been the most unlikely champions that year--the last team invited to the tournament and McGuire had already announced his retirement at the end of the season.

Enberg said McGuire’s coaching style was definitely as unique as the man — he recruited players differently than other coaches, he loved going after guys with broken asphalt in their front yards rather than grass. He would sometimes get in fights with players and his idea of coaching was to be a tough disciplinarian. A McGuire-ism: “If you don’t like my onion sandwiches, too bad.”

When Enberg first met McGuire, covering a Marquette game for NBC in the early 1970s, he said quite frankly he didn’t like him at first, he found him rude.

He met him again during the NCAA tournament, when Marquette was getting set to play North Carolina for the title. McGuire was typically evasive with the press, but Enberg was able to track him down after practice in Atlanta. McGuire took him outside the Omni Coliseum, where he laid on his back in the grass.

“I started to ask him about strategy and an hour later I hadn’t gotten one thing on basketball but a chapter on life,” Enberg said, noting McGuire talked to him about everything from motorcycles to how much he loved his “kids,” his players.

Enberg really got to know and understand McGuire when he became his broadcast partner, working alongside him for 10 years. When NBC decided to hire McGuire as a color commentator to serve with Enberg and Billy Packer, they treaded carefully at first because they knew he was quite the colorful character, the first coach to be ejected from a championship game at the 1974 NCAA tournament.

“They were wary because his language could be profane at times so they concocted this whole system where they put him in a room somewhere else in the arena. If he wanted to say something, he had to push a button,” Enberg recalled. “We’d say, ‘Let’s go to Al McGuire’ and by the time we did he’d be two plays behind. It seems almost ridiculous now.”

Eventually McGuire made his way out of the room and onto the floor alongside Packer and Enberg.

Working together and traveling to all those games, Enberg got a heavy dose of McGuire — Enberg said he taught him so much about life. Enberg was raised in Michigan, where he had 33 kids in his graduating clas s— it was a huge contrast to McGuire’s life, growing up in Long Island, New York, living above a bar. McGuire worried people would take advantage of him.

McGuire would tell Enberg, “You’re too trusting Dicksie,” warning him that somebody was going to have their hands on his wallet.

“I said ‘Yeah Al, you’re going to be the one with the hand on my wallet,” Enberg recalls with a laugh.

“He would throw out nuggets of life information,” Enberg said, noting many of those made their way into his play.

Some of his favorites were: “Eat the banana,” meaning not to waste time and wait until the fruit turns brown, to take advantage of opportunities now. Another was “Take a right hand turn.”

“That’s one that resonates with a lot of people who see the play — take a right hand turn, always go the same way, take an unexpected turn and let life come to you,” Enberg said. “It’s a nice philosophy and one that I have followed.”

After McGuire’s death, Enberg began writing down everything that McGuire taught him and all of his cherished memories. As more words appeared on the page, he realized he had enough for a play, began crafting it chronologically and writing it in McGuire’s broken language.

“If you don’t like the play, don’t blame me, Al wrote it,” Enberg said. “He was a rascal, I couldn’t ignore that.”

The first part of the play deals with McGuire’s childhood, growing up above that Irish bar in Long Island. The second part of the play deals with his life as a coach and the last as he knows he is dying, and the thoughts we have as we face the end.

In his long career, Enberg has covered everything from basketball, tennis, golf, horse racing, Olympic Games, football and for the last several years has been the play-by-play voice for the San Diego Padres. Enberg said baseball is his favorite game to cover even though it is the most demanding — the schedule is packed and the pace of the game is different, requiring an announcer to fill the voids with facts, stories and personal anecdotes. Enberg loves that challenge.

“I find it not only satisfying but thrilling every time I go to the ballpark,” said Enberg, who announced that this season would be his last. “Hopefully the Padres send me out with a terrific season.”

Upon word of his retirement, Enberg said he was flooded with calls, people asking him to teach, to do radio, to write another book—“There’s plenty of work to do.”

Thanks to McGuire, Enberg will eat the banana.

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