Madness Milwaukee-style

National Basketball Association rosters and coaching staffs are filled with champions of NCAA tournaments gone by.

All of them undoubtedly have some indelible memories of their glory days.

Few, however, can match the experiences of Jim Boylan.

Boylan, now in his fourth season as an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks, was a starting guard on Marquette University’s 1977 NCAA championship team, which cut down the nets at The Omni in Atlanta following its 67-59 victory over the University of North Carolina.

Boylan played with a compelling enough cast of characters, but what truly separated Marquette’s national title team from others was its incomparable coach, the late, great Al McGuire, who had announced in December that he was retiring as the Warriors’ coach at the end of the season, his 13th.

“We were always kind of a traveling circus and Al was kind of the ringleader,” Boylan recalled. “Wherever we went, we were a big draw, because people wanted to come out and see and talk to Al. They wanted to see the Marquette uniforms. They wanted to experience the mystique that surrounded the Marquette program at the time.”

Boylan’s fellow MU starters included future three players who went on to play in the National Basketball Association -- All-American guard Butch Lee, forward Bo Ellis and center Jerome Whitehead. The Warriors, however, didn’t overpower opponents the way many forecasters expected they would.

Marquette did rattle off 10 straight victories spanning Dec. 27 through Jan. 29, but suffered consecutive setbacks to DePaul, Detroit and Wichita State during February. The low point of the season arguably came at Milwaukee’s MECCA Arena Feb. 16 with the 64-63 loss to Detroit, after which the winning coach riled up MU fans by doing a dance at midcourt. His name? Dick Vitale.

“I think one of the things people forget about that season is that in the preseason, we were picked as one of the top teams in the country,” Boylan said. “Our season was more of a fluke than anything else. We were a good team. We just needed to come together, and obviously we found our way.”

Marquette finished its regular season at 20-7 and was no lock to make the tournament field, which back then consisted of just 32 teams.

“We struggled, really, to get into the tournament,” Boylan said. “We were one of the last teams to get in. But we were playing really well at the end of the season.”

McGuire made a prediction before his team began NCAA tourney play.

“Before the tournament started, Al told us we would have to win at least two games by one point,” Boylan said. “That's the way the tournament is sometimes. When you're playing in close game, you need a little luck. You need the ball to bounce your way.”

McGuire came very close to being prophetic.

Marquette, competing in the Midwest Region, opened with a 66-51 victory over Cincinnati 66-51 before edging Kansas State 57-56 and then downing Wake Forest 82-68 in the regional final at Oklahoma City.

“Once we got into the tournament, we just took it game-by-game,” Boylan said. “We had a couple of incidents. There was a big fight between Al and (MU forward) Bernard Toone during halftime of our first game against Cincinnati.

“Then we played Kansas State and were down 10 points with 2 minutes to go. We wound up winning the game in regulation, which was really hard to do – there was no shot clock then. It was difficult to get that done, but somehow we did.”

Boylan noticed a subtle change in McGuire during the tournament run.

“I know Al was concerned about not blowing it,” Boylan said. “He felt really bad about the 1974 team (Marquette lost in its Final Four debut in the championship game to North Carolina State 76-64) and the technical fouls he got. He felt like that really affected his team.

“So he was just trying to stay out of the way and not do anything that was going to jeopardize his team. He came close a few times, but you could see he was trying to rein himself back in.”

The second of McGuire’s predicted “white-knucklers” came in the team’s national semifinal against a North Carolina-Charlotte team led by Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell. The Warriors pulled it out 51-49 after Whitehead gathered in a court-length pass from Lee and scored on a layup as time expired. At least that’s what the record will show.

“That shot might not have counted if we had today’s technology,” Boylan said.

The dramatic victory catapulted Marquette into the national championship game against North Carolina, which won an 84-83 thriller over UNLV in its semifinal. For Boylan, it also set up a reunion with one of his playground basketball colleagues from his hometown of Jersey City, N.J.

Mike O’Koren, a freshman forward, had scored 31 points for the Tar Heels in their semifinal victory. Boylan has vivid memories of their confrontation in Atlanta two nights later.

“Michael and I were from the same neighborhood in Jersey City,” Boylan said. “We’d competed against each other a lot, so it was fun for us to be in the championship game together. It was fun for Jersey City and all of our friends and families to have two guys playing in the final game.

“Michael and I have talked about it a lot, and it was comfortable for both of us to go out on that stage and look across the court and see a guy you know really well. We shared some moments out on the floor together. That was really special.”

The game that followed was even more special for Boylan and his teammates and coaches.

Marquette built a 39-27 halftime advantage before North Carolina went on an 18-4 run to take a two-point lead with 13 minutes, 48 seconds to play.

UNC coach Dean Smith directed his team to go into its “Four Corners” offense and the ploy backfired. Boylan, who scored 14 points, drove past Walter Davis to score and give the Warriors a four-point lead with just under six minutes to play.

Marquette went 23-for-25 from the free-throw line and emerged with the victory and its first NCAA championship.

Boylan, who guarded UNC All-American guard Phil Ford for the majority of the game and held him to six points, was asked when he realized Marquette was going to win the game.

“We had about a six- or seven-point lead and they were fouling us,” he replied. “I think we were the second-best free-throw shooting team in the country that year. We had several guys shooting above 80 percent. I was in the 90s and Butch was in the 90s. We felt, with a lead like that, they had to foul us, we'd make our free throws and we were going to win.

“I remember the closing seconds were almost kind of a numbing feeling. You came there, you started the tournament, you were thinking about winning, you were believing in yourself and you were playing all these games that led up to the Final Four. You win that semifinal and you’re in the locker room getting ready to play that final game. Then the horn sounds and you believe you are going to win the championship. Those were unbelievable moments.”

Boylan will never forget the feeling he experienced once the final horn sounded.

“You started feeling the moment and the excitement of it,” he said. “You remembered the work you put into it and the satisfaction. You thought about the guys you were playing with. It was so special. To this day, when I see anybody who was on that team, it brings back memories. We did something special and something that people will remember for a long, long time.”

Boylan remembers seeing his coach become emotional on the bench as the final seconds of the game ticked down.

“Coach said he just thought about all the old gyms he had played in and coached in, the games he'd been a part of and the players who had come and gone,” Boylan said. “To be able to do that and leave on your own terms like he did is very special. Very rarely is it done. Tony LaRussa just did it in baseball, but you don’t see many people do that, walk away from the game on top like he did.

“And Al was a young man. He was only 48 years old at the time. He went on, obviously, to have a whole other life.”

Boylan has enjoyed a successful life in his own right. His coaching career began as a player/coach in Switzerland in 1982, and he went on to coach in the Continental Basketball Association with the Rochester Renegade, worked as an assistant at Michigan State University from 1986-89 and served as head coach at the University of New Hampshire from 1989-92.

Jim is married to his wife, Jane, and they have two daughters - Jessica, 27, and Shaina, 23. He has been an NBA assistant coach for Cleveland, Vancouver, Phoenix, Atlanta, Chicago and Milwaukee.

Thirty five years have passed since Boylan and his Marquette teammates cut down the nets in Atlanta, and he treasures the memories.

“It was one of the storybook finishes, for sure,” Boylan said. “Being Al's last game , with him having announced his retirement in December …  It was an exciting time and an unbelievable, Hollywood-type ending for us to win it all in Al's last game. It's a great memory.

“At some point during the five (NCAA tournament) games we had to win, all of the players sat in a room and said, ‘We can do this. Let’s go out and do it. Everyone just go out and play the best you can. We’re good enough.’ And it worked out for us. I’m sure other teams have sat around and done the same thing, but for us, it worked out.”