Remembering Dick the Knick

(Originally posted February 2010)

By Dennis D’Agostino

“The only place, even today, in my life where I feel comfortable is on the basketball court. I know I’m not a good speaker. I don’t enjoy speaking, and I’ve shied away from so many places where they want me to speak. I’m not comfortable with it. The only time I’ve ever been sure of myself was on a basketball court.” --- Dick McGuire, 2002

It was an annual ritual. You would call Dick McGuire at the handsome Dix Hills home he shared with his wife Teri to update his bio material for the coming season. And the first thing you’d ask, half-kiddingly, was “So what new Halls of Fame did you get into this year?” And then would come that trademark Dickie sound, that high-speed, frenetic soundtrack spiked with whattyacallits and I-don’t-know-I-don’t-knows and fercryinoutlouds. . .and then he’d shrug that question off with a laugh and a mumble.

But the fact, of course, was that Dick McGuire was in just about every Hall of Fame imaginable, honored and recognized every which way. . .everywhere from the St. John’s Athletic Hall of Fame to the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame to the Garden’s Walk of Fame to the two biggest of all: the retirement of his Knicks’ no. 15 in 1992 and his long-overdue election the following year to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

It is almost impossible to comprehend the length and breadth of his contributions to the Knicks, a far-reaching timeline that ended with his sudden passing at age 84 on February 3. For just about as long as the Knicks have been the Knicks, Dick McGuire was a part of them.

No one distained statistics, or attention, more than Dickie. For him, a basketball player was whatever could be seen on the court, or felt in the heart. But no one could ignore a simple set of numbers attached to his own name; the staggering fact that, over the 64 years of Knickerbockers Basketball, Dick McGuire had contributed to 53 of them. Over each of the eight decades this team has been around, from the 1940s to the dawn of the 2010s, he had been a Knick, as player, coach, scout, executive and finally, at the end, as senior basketball consultant.

He went back, all the way back, to the days of Joe Lapchick and the 69th Regiment Armory, to road trips to places like Sheboygan and Waterloo and Tri-Cities, to playing without a shot clock in drafty gyms before crowds in the several. . .hundreds.

Even before then, there were three brothers from Rockaway. . .Big John, the oldest and now the lone survivor; Dickie in the middle, and Al, the youngest. Home base was the McGuire family bar, a legendary local hangout. John, his hoop dreams shattered by injury, would eventually find a long career in law enforcement, but Dickie and Al, the first and only brother act enshrined in Springfield, made The City Game their life.

The people closest to Dickie were his direct opposites. Al was as loudmouthed and brash as Dickie was reserved. Wife Teri, to whom he was married for 54 years, was, and is, a bubbly, outspoken firecracker of a lady.

“Put it this way,” Vince Boryla, their old Knicks teammate, once said. “If Al, at that time, had told me something was white, I’d figure it had turned gray or black. And Dickie. . .I’ve often said I would give him my power of attorney. That was the difference.”

Teammates with the Knicks as they had been at St. John’s, Al had a ringside seat as Dickie carved out one of the greatest playing careers in the NBA’s early history. A seven-time All-Star, he quarterbacked the Knicks to three straight NBA Finals (1951-52-53). More than half a century after his final game as a Knick, only two players have exceeded his mark of 2,950 career assists in orange and blue: Walt Frazier and Mark Jackson.

“My brother Dick,” Al once said, “distributed the ball before anyone knew what distributing the ball was.”

McGuire played 11 NBA seasons, then led the Detroit Pistons to the Playoffs in each of his four seasons as their head coach. Typical Dickie story: During one of the Knicks-Pistons Playoff battles of the early ‘90s, Dickie accompanied the team on the road and was asked what part of Detroit he and Teri called home during his years there. “We had a house,” he replied. “We had a house in Whattyacall.”

Try finding that on Google Maps.

After leaving the Pistons in 1963, Dickie returned to New York and tried to make a living outside of basketball. . .as an insurance salesman, maybe. No way. “I couldn’t sell a stamp,” he would confess later.

It didn’t take long for the game to lure him back. It happened on November 29, 1965, when he replaced another old teammate, Harry Gallatin, as Knicks head coach. He drew a Knicks paycheck twice a month for the next 46 years.

Dickie-as-head-coach had his struggles, taking each defeat especially hard in the same manner as Lapchick, his mentor. He wasn’t a chair-thrower or a table-smasher. The man who was called Mumbles as a player is fondly remembered for late-game defensive huddles that went, “Now Willis, you guard Whattyacall. Bells, you take Whattyacall. . .”

But Dickie also led the Knicks to the Playoffs in 1967, ending a seven-year post-season drought, with a team that had Willis Reed, Dick Barnett and Walt Bellamy already in place. The following year, he was the first NBA coach for what would turn out to be a Hall of Fame trio of rookies: Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and Phil Jackson.

Midway through that 1967-68 season, Dick and Red Holzman switched positions: Dickie became the Knicks’ chief scout, Red took over as head coach. And thus began the most enduring part of the McGuire legacy.

For more than 40 years --- including the Knicks’ two championship seasons --- Dickie lived a whirlwind existence of hotels, motels, rent-a-cars, dinners on the run, last-minute flights, and the camaraderie he shared on the road with a couple of dozen other hoop nomads, men like Jerry Krause and Richie Buckelew and Knick compadre Fuzzy Levane and, perhaps greatest of all, his lifelong friend Will Robinson, the Detroit coaching legend.

In the late ‘90s, he started cutting back on the travel. It was a treat just to see him in the office, a bit rumpled, after a trip on the LIRR, a living embodiment of the NBA’s early days, its frantic present and everything in between. No one had a better collection of Marriott pens than Dickie (a natural, considering all the mileage he put in). It was also amazing, and a little disconcerting, to realize that none but a handful realized that among the secretaries and interns and business people walked a man who had pretty much set the standard for playmaking in the long, long ago.

Not that Dickie would have ever mentioned it, of course.

He was greatly responsible for putting the likes of Dean Meminger, Mel Davis, Trent Tucker, Kenny Walker, Gerald Wilkins, Rod Strickland, Greg Anthony, Hubert Davis and Charlie Ward in Knicks uniforms. And the 1987 first-round selection of another St. John’s point guard, Mark Jackson, was all Dick McGuire, since the Knicks’ general manager’s seat was vacant on Draft Day, in between the Scotty Stirling and Al Bianchi eras. And McGuire’s pick, who had already been passed over by 17 teams, merely became the third-greatest assist artist in NBA history.

Not that Dickie would have ever mentioned that, either.

His legacy continued to evolve right to the end. Just days before his passing, he was the senior presence at the Knicks’ annual scouts meeting at their Westchester training complex. At his side was his son Scott, one of his four grown children, who has continued the McGuire tradition of Knicks scouting for two decades on his own. The day his father died, someone mentioned to Scott that he had never heard him refer to his father as anything but Dick or Dickie, and never as Dad.

“You obviously never heard me ask him for money,” replied Scotty. “Then it was strictly Dad!”

That scouts meeting have us one final, typical example of the McGuire modesty. When the scouts and staffers got together in Greenburgh, it was discovered, simply by chance, that Dickie’s long-published birthdate was incorrect. For years --- no, for decades --- it had been wrong in the NBA Register, the Knicks media guide, the NBA Encyclopedia, everywhere. When asked about it, McGuire pulled out his driver’s license, which revealed that he was born in The Bronx on January 26, 1926, not the 25th, as had been reported since, it seemed, the beginning of time.

And surely, you thought, Dickie had to have noticed such a long-standing error about so basic a thing. But first you had to assume that he paid close attention to anything public about him. Which he didn’t.           

Of all the times the basketball world said “Thank You” to Dick McGuire, one of the most meaningful was the last one. During last season’s renewed commitment to recognizing the team’s long tradition, who else could the Knicks have named their new Legacy Award for? Who else epitomized the dedication, longevity and professionalism symbolized by the Dick McGuire Legacy Award? And when he became the inaugural recipient, he gave the standard reply that had accompanied every honor that preceded it.

“They’re not going to ask me to make a speech, are they?”

Mumbles needn’t have worried. And now, with his passing, everyone who ever knew him, everyone who was touched by his New York honesty, his integrity and his devotion to the game, will speak for him. In tribute, forever.