Commentary

Dick McGuire's legacy does his talking

Knicks Hall of Famer preferred to fly under radar, setting standard for unselfishness

Updated: February 4, 2011, 9:45 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Dick McGuire would have loved Landry Fields, that much is true. McGuire's son, Scott, saw Fields at the pre-draft Portsmouth Invitational, appreciated his quiet and intangible grace, and told his fellow New York Knicks scouts that the less they said about the Stanford kid the better.

[+] EnlargeDick McGuire
NBA Photo Library/NBAE via Getty ImagesDick McGuire, a Hall of Famer, served the Knicks as a point guard, coach and scout.
Dick would have embraced that approach, too. As the silent heartbeat of the Knicks for more than 50 years, and as the polar opposite of his brother, Al, who blustered his way through a dramatic coaching and broadcasting career, Dick McGuire never cared to be seen or heard.

It didn't matter that he was a Hall of Famer who stood among the most significant historical figures of a basketball city and its basketball team. "He was on the court the way he was in life, like a servant," Scott said. "He just wanted to make people happy."

A year ago Thursday, Dick McGuire, 84, was packing for a scouting trip with Scott when he suddenly yelled out to his wife, Teri, before collapsing and dying from an aortic aneurysm. Teri couldn't bring herself to go back into that room for five days, but as a bride who never once had to gather a pair of Dick's socks from the floor in 54 years of marriage, Teri knew what she'd find when she finally walked in.

Dick's clothes and papers laid out perfectly on the spare bed, next to the enduring symbol of a scout's world -- an open suitcase.

If Dick didn't want anyone making a fuss over him in life, he sure didn't want anyone making a fuss over him in death. But McGuire wasn't just a kind old man who was quick with a smile in the Garden hallways. He was the only playmaker ever to lead the Knicks to three straight Finals, and he was the scout who pressed team officials to make the franchise's most significant trade of all -- the 1968 deal for Dave DeBusschere, the final piece to the Knicks' only two championship teams.

Out of the Bronx and then Rockaway, Queens, McGuire was also the first of the great New York City point guards, soon to be followed by a local admirer named Bob Cousy.

"Dick set the standard for all point guards," Cousy said Wednesday. "When he came over half court, he constantly thought about creating a play for someone else, and that's what point guards are supposed to do."

At six feet, McGuire built a below-the-rim legend for himself on the Rockaway beachfront, dominating the pickup games played near the family bar and grill. His dribbling mastery and no-look passes earned him a nickname, Tricky Dick, not to mention a scholarship to St. John's and a place in the Knicks' backcourt in 1949.

Just as McGuire refused to shoot through the oceanside winds of Rockaway, he passed up set shots from the NBA perimeter to feed teammates for higher percentage attempts inside. The Hall of Fame coach, Joe Lapchick, would say of McGuire, "There's not a player in the NBA that wouldn't have paid to play with him."

McGuire was a ballplaying stoic driven by a hidden fire. He was so nervous before games, so desperate to be great, he would throw up into a sink or trash can to ready himself for the opening tip.

His Knicks lost a Game 7 to the Rochester Royals in 1951, then lost the next two championship rounds to George Mikan's Minneapolis Lakers. McGuire was named to seven All-Star teams without once averaging 10 or more points a game. His chief playmaking rival, Cousy, would go on to win six NBA titles with the Celtics before ultimately making the following confession to Scott McGuire:

"If Dick and I switched teams, he would've done all the winning. Dick was a better player, but I had the better team."

McGuire would end up playing for the Pistons, and then coaching them for a few seasons before spending a year selling insurance. The Knicks hired him as head coach in 1965, and replaced him with Red Holzman three seasons later.

McGuire admitted that he didn't have it in him to yell at players, and that he didn't know how to coach his point guards to maneuver into the vulnerable heart of a defense. "I could do it myself," McGuire would say, "but I can't teach it."

He accepted the Knicks' offer of a $5,000 pay cut to take Holzman's scouting position for thirteen grand; McGuire always thought he was overpaid anyway. In December of '68, when Holzman resisted the Pistons' request that Howard Komives be included in a Walt Bellamy-for-DeBusschere trade proposal, McGuire pushed for the Knicks to relent and complete the deal for the forward he had drafted and coached in Detroit.

Eddie Donovan, general manager, received credit for the trade, and McGuire was happy that he did. By keeping the lowest of profiles, the scout survived regime changes at the Garden and front-office wars waged by everyone from Al Bianchi and Rick Pitino to Jeff Van Gundy and Ernie Grunfeld.

Dave Checketts "dusted off Dickie's legacy," Scott McGuire said, and in 1992 retired the point guard's No. 15, the same number already retired for Earl Monroe. Pat Riley was most respectful of McGuire, and so was Grunfeld. Donnie Walsh established a legacy award in McGuire's name, and Isiah Thomas would occasionally bring him onto the practice court to show Knicks guards a thing or three about the craft.

McGuire was involved with a lot of players in a lot of drafts, but he was most proud of Mark Jackson -- he saw a lot of himself in Jackson -- and David Lee. In McGuire's final years the Knicks sent him on the road with his youngest of four, Scott, who looked for qualities in prospects he once saw in his old man.

When Dick was in his fifties, he'd take Scott to the playground and run and pass circles around much younger men, weaving in and around them like he weaved in and around the Irish bars and Roman Catholic churches of his Rockaway youth.

"Sometimes I'd go just to watch the stunned faces of the other players who didn't know who Dickie was," Scott said. "He threw passes nobody had ever seen before."

Yes, the son preferred to call his old man Dickie unless, he said, "I needed to ask him for a favor." The years and the miles caught up to Dickie in the end; he had a pacemaker implanted, a hip replacement and knee surgery. Doctors found the aneurysm in 2000 and decided they could only monitor it through sonograms every 18 months.

McGuire was a month or two away from his next test when the aneurysm burst. The testimonials and letters came pouring in, some from strangers who had spent a couple of hours sitting next to McGuire on a plane, all of them touched by his common decency.

On Thursday, the first anniversary of her husband's death, Teri's thoughts will surely drift to the days she spent on the beach while Dick was playing ball, and the nights they spent together at the family bar drinking draft beer and listening to the jukebox.

Scott will visit his father's grave at St. Patrick's Cemetery in Huntington, and then get back to scouting for his father's team. "Even at 84," Scott said, "Dickie never took a day off from work."

Dickie hated it when the ballplayers he scouted stood still on the court, so Scott reasoned that his old man would've been proud of his son's support for Fields, a fundamentally-sound rookie and a study in perpetual motion.

But Scott wants no credit for Fields, not when other Knicks scouts were all over him, too. The son is a true McGuire, after all. He just wants to make his teammates happy.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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