Dick McGuire: Friend, Family Man And Basketball Legend
The foundation of the New York Knicks franchise was rocked last Wednesday when one of its cornerstones, Dick McGuire, left this earth for that hard court in the sky. But on the strength of the contributions and lasting memories that the longtime Dix Hills resident left behind, the franchise stands firm and tall.
Those of us who were able to serve as masons and add a brick or two over the years, with Dick McGuire at our side, are forever grateful.
Growing up a Knicks fan from age 10, I watched most of the games on Channel 9 with Bob Wolff and Calvin Ramsey calling the action, “Clyde, doin’ it,” Cal would say, or a handful of games live at the Garden sitting up in the rafters.
So, when my career as Knicks PR man began in 1984, it was the first time sitting courtside for a game in preseason. The electrifying Bernard King, in his prime, grabbed a rebound, sprinted to the forecourt in a millisecond, squared up and sprang a jumper to thread the twines with a velvety touch. That quickly, the realization of the true greatness, speed, talent and precision of the NBA player hit me.
At that very moment, I made a promise to myself: you won’t go onto the court after a practice or shoot-around or before a game, and make a complete fool of yourself, trying to play with the big boys, even if it was all in fun. Respect their domain, Cirillo.
I held true to that promise for years. One day, I couldn’t resist. I broke the vow.
My PR cohort, Dennis D’Agostino, and I stood on the court at the College of Charleston, gabbing with Dick Mc- Guire about the prospects for the Knicks in the first year under Pat Riley. As we talked, Dickie was twirling a basketball on the tip of his finger, then started bouncing the ball, then switching hands as the dribble quickened.
Suddenly, he mumbled, “Let’s play two on one.” This was 25 years ago, so he was 60, me 30. It was the PR duo against the Legend. Oh, no! Oh, yes!
On the first play, Dickie came at us slowly, made one quick move, and with a head fake left us in the dust to score. Two zip, McGuire. Next, possession, Dickie dribbles behind the back, and blows past us for a reverse layup.
I did a double take and said, “Hey, Dickie, let’s get the heck out of here, it’s time to take the writers out for dinner.”
Though I had seen many highlight reels, it was a first-hand glimpse of just what amazing skills he must have had in his heyday, because there was still plenty left despite three decades that had passed since he hung up the sneakers.
During that first Riley camp at Charleston on another night, a group of us were walking back to the hotel after practice in that quaint Southern town. Ahead of us were Red Holzman, Pat Riley, and Dickie, threading a glorious past with the present, and a future of great promise. It became an indelible moment etched in the mind’s eye of anyone who was fortunate enough to be there.
Second to basketball, maybe, was Dickie’s love of the racetrack and playing the horses. There were occasional evening visits to Yonkers Raceway, my old stomping grounds before the Knicks, the since defunct Roosevelt Raceway closer to his home, or a jaunt to Philadelphia Park when we were on the road, or lunch at Monmouth Park when the Knicks played summer league games at Princeton.
The conversation with the waitress in the track dining room would go something like this (imagine Dickie’s rapid-fire delivery):
Dickie: “How’sTheSoupMiss.” Waitress: “The soup is very good.” Dickie: “TheSoup’sVeryGoodThenI’ll HaveTheSoupMiss.”
Waitress: “The steak is our special today.”
Not sure exactly why, but Dickie calling a waitress or stewardess “miss” always brought a huge smile to my face. It was a moniker out of a bygone era, so respectful, so endearing. I think Dickie was the only one left on the planet who used it, and I loved listening to him place his dinner order as much as I did going to the races or playing cards in his company.
I was a pretty good handicapper, so once in a while I’d reel off three winning picks in a row, with Dickie often riding my bandwagon. He was absolutely joyful on those occasions, saying with clear diction (I know, it’s hard to believe): “John, you are an excellent handicapper.” Then, he’d stroke the back of my head three or four times, as if I were a puppy dog that had learned a new trick. Very sweet.
Every Monday morning for 13 years straight, Dickie would poke his head into my office and respectfully ask if he could take the crossword puzzle from the New York Times Sunday Magazine, since the public relations department got all the weekend papers delivered. That was Dickie, a legend asking for a small something that he was more than entitled to.
Dickie shunned the limelight. He would often say, “I talk fast, but when I’m nervous I talk even faster.” But for the 1987 NBA Draft, he didn’t have a choice, the spotlight was on him, the decision on his expert shoulders. When Garden management swept away a regime before Al Bianchi and Rick Pitino were named GM and head coach, it was Dick McGuire who filled the void to make the selection.
I was Dickie’s confidant, and helping with the administrative side of things. Mild-mannered Dickie was reticent. Over the course of the weeks leading up to the draft, the name he most often repeated was that of St. John’s point guard Mark Jackson. But Dickie was worried that being a St. John’s man and point guard himself, selecting Mark would be misconstrued.
“Who’s the best player that might be available with the 18th pick?” I asked him one day. “Mark Jackson if he’s there,” said Dickie. “Then you have an easy decision. Mark’s your man!” The 1987-88 Rookie of the Year, after 17 teams had passed on him, was Mark Jackson of St. John’s.
At the Charleston camps or on playoff road trips, the evenings would likely end with a friendly card game with a group that often included Calvin, Fuzzy, Mr. Murph, and, of course, Dickie. We’d play for nickels, dimes and quarters, not high stakes, and what a time we had listening to the war stories of the NBA’s early years, brother Al, St. John’s and the Rockaways.
My favorite card game was the time we used the vegetable crudités – cucumber, zucchini, yellow squash and carrot slices – as chips of varying denomination. It sure was a scene out of a movie.
Two of my proudest moments with the Knicks were watching his number 15 hoisted to the Garden rafters, and his induction into the Hall of Fame, both many years overdue. Though I did feel bad for Dickie’s case of the jitters before each, as he cringed having to make a public speech.
Whenever, I mean whenever, Dick McGuire was on the road, whether it was in an NBA city travelling with the Knicks, or hop-scotching across the country in small college towns, the first thing he always did was seek out the Catholic Church in the neighborhood, so he could go to Mass on Sunday.
He never missed.
How lucky could a kid from Brooklyn be? Dickie taught me a lot about the nuances of basketball, and that makes watching a game so much more fun. That a humble, soft spoken, church-going man could be so powerful in his own way makes me truly grateful. To know Dick McGuire was to love him. There’s been a whole lot of love going around for the past 80 years.
The good times shared by the many that Dick McGuire touched – and there were thousands! – can forever serve as an elixir for whatever may ail us on any particular day. Bottle the memories, and take a sip as often as you can.
Fr. Joseph McShane, the president of Fordham University, gives us these words of solace: “As for the string of deaths that we have endured of late: we have lost men of legendary strength, men who were and who continue to be inspirations to all of us. Let us commend them to the Lord whom they served so well in life.” • John Cirillo was Knicks director of
communications and vice president of public relations from 1984- 97. Now the president of Cirillo World public relations in New York City, he knew Dick McGuire well, and shares these reflections on the longtime Dix Hills resident, proud son of the Rockaways and St. John’s, and the Knicks Hall of Famer. Cirillo can be reached at 212-972- 5337 or via e-mail at JohnnyCigar PR@ aol.com