On the Saturday afternoon semifinal round of the NCAA Final Four basketball championship in 1977, I was stuck working at the now long-gone Piggly Wiggly in Menomonee Falls, bagging what seemed like a million pounds of groceries and chasing thousands of carts through the parking lot.
At the same time, Al McGuire's Marquette team was chasing the dream of an elusive national title in his swan song season, and I couldn't get enough of this fairy-tale finish to his career. I shouldn't have, but I ducked into the break room just in time to listen on a radio and hear of the late Jerome Whitehead's tip-in at the buzzer to beat North Carolina-Charlotte and propel the Warriors into the national championship against North Carolina.
By some miraculous twist of fate (blind squirrel luck in retrospect), I was off for the Monday night final as Al and his Warriors completed their magic run, going out as champions, the only title in Marquette's still storied history.
"Seashells and balloons" as Al would say later.
Fast forward close to 40 years. I'm in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's Stackner Cabaret on a Feb. 9 night, and I'm sitting with my wife (a Marquette University grad, a true believer and season-ticket holder) watching Anthony Crivello brilliantly bring to life all the inconsistencies, theatrics, and yes, magic, of Al in the remarkable one-man show "McGuire."
That we were sitting at the same table with one of McGuire's finest, Ric Cobb, made it all the better.
Originally produced and staged as "Coach" at Marquette's Halfaer Theater in 2005, "McGuire" was originally written and then extensively re-written by McGuire's long-time friend and broadcasting partner, Dick Enberg.
My wife recalled the 2012 show we saw at Milwaukee's PAC as more of a "greatest hits" type of production, with a bare-bones stage, and Cotter Smith doing a fine rendition of Al.
To be honest, my recollection of the details of that show are a little thin, but what I do know is that the McGuire presented by Crivello and the Rep in the current show is a lusty, warts-and-all story of a hard-scrabble New York kid who bamboozled and entertained the Benedictine monks at Belmont Abbey. He got so ticked off that he was considered second banana for the job at Marquette that he put on a stage show worthy of a Tony Award to get the position, then kept on the guy who was considered the top choice when he did get the job -- Hank Raymonds.
The rest, as they say, is history.
For 13 years as coach and for many years beyond as broadcaster and public figure supreme (his Briggs and Al's Run for Children's Hospital is still going strong and has raised millions of dollars), he held Milwaukee in the palm of his hand. As he described his life from his early adulthood working at a seaside resort his family owned, "he came over the bar feet-first."
Director Brent Hazleton and Crivello get this. The small Stackner stage is filled with old black-and-white TVs that rotate a montage of Marquette and McGuire photos (there are even shots with 1960s Falls' hoops legend Bob Wolf, as well as a few cutaway shots to future Marquette teams that include the mad bomber from Brown Deer and former Milwaukee Buck Steve Novak).
The floor of the stage is of course a basketball court, and there is an old hoop on the far wall, Marquette banners are everywhere, a set of lockers and of course -- this being about Al -- a bar with a working tap.
Crivello fills it up with vibrato and energy worthy of the late McGuire, who we lost years too soon in 2001 to leukemia. His Al is all three-piece suit, with a curly mop of hair and a jaw thrust forward to take on the world.
As noted, this is not just the seashells and balloons.
He was a yeller, a brawler, a street kid, a man who said at the end of his life would need a "deaf priest" to hear his final confession. He was not a perfect husband, not a perfect coach, but he knew people. That's why he kept on the brilliant tactician Raymonds and the roundball fanatic Rick Majerus as his assistants, whom he said made him look far better than he actually was.
He was breathtakingly honest with his up-from-the-streets players and even got into fights with them sometimes. He wanted them to be as tough and passionate as he was.
Crivello's Al points out the broad details of the man's life (if the upper corners of the old Arena were filled at game time, he felt he had a good part of his job done), as well as the fine details (the players could come to him with big problems or small, and he advised them to learn how to solve them on their own in the long run).
He always advised people to "take a right turn" sometimes, to look for something different to energize their lives if they start to lose what McGuire called "the quiver" (of excitement).
This Al did not judge the great center Jim Chones for leaving early for the old ABA ("my refrigerator was full, his was empty. It was an easy decision") and was immensely proud of his team's 92 percent graduation rate, especially of former failing student and brilliant guard Lloyd Walton, who wound up earning a doctorate after his NBA career.
He always promised the mothers that their sons would "get their paper" (the diploma).
The show loses a touch of energy, but not much after the title is won. The stories are just as thoughtful, just as funny, and Crivello, with both energy and pathos, brings Al to the end of his life on terms everyone would understand.
Cobb and the rest of us gave Crivello and this thunderous small-dunk of a production a well-earned standing ovation. It's a vigorous, honest testament to a man who lived life on his own terms and probably helped many of us summon up the courage to do the same.
As Enberg is often quoted about Al, "He's the most unforgettable human being I've ever met, and there's nobody in second place."
"McGuire" runs at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's Stackner Cabaret through March 19. For ticket information, call (414) 224-9490.