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Opposition from the coach


Amid the praise for philosopher-coach Al McGuire after his death last month, I found myself pondering the only time Al and I were ever on opposite sides.

An avid basketball fan as a Marquette University student in 1967, I traveled from Milwaukee to New York City in a car with no heater just to see the team play in the finals of the National Invitational Tournament. Ten years later, when Al cried into his towel after securing the NCAA national championship in his final coaching appearance, I wept into my pillow that same night.

But as Al himself noted, “There’s more to life than a bunch of guys in short pants running around a basketball court.” That was certainly true on the Marquette campus in the spring of 1968. Politically sluggish by ’60s standards -- a major student concern in 1967 was trying to bring football back -- Marquette was not completely isolated. Fr. James Groppi and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People occasionally took a route through campus as they demonstrated for open housing. A kid from an exclusively white suburb of Chicago, I watched them with only a stirring of curiosity and vague sympathy.

Nor was Marquette immune to the shock wave sent out by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in early April 1968. The university had a total of only 40 black students, a situation a handful of campus activists had been trying to address. After the King murder, hundreds of students, suddenly galvanized for action, showed up at a rally in support of increasing the numbers of minority students, minority faculty and courses in African-American studies.

The Respond Movement, as the student-led protest came to be called, was an appeal to conscience. In the view of many students and faculty alike, Marquette had the resources, the personnel and even the vision to end “institutional racism.” All that was needed was motivation. Against the backdrop of national crisis, university administrators’ inaction seemed unconscionable. In an escalating confrontation, most of the black students -- among them six basketball players -- abruptly quit school in protest, and the stakes suddenly shot up.

Enter Al McGuire. Al threw himself into the contest with characteristic energy. In a late-night session with his players, he challenged them not to throw away this opportunity. To quit playing basketball, he warned them, would be “like cutting off your arm.” But his most potent venom was saved for the student activists, one of them a former player.

In an early morning session in an apartment off campus, McGuire confronted student leaders. Sports Illustrated reported, “The smooth-talking theorists he screamed at. The tough guys he ridiculed. He suggested to an idealistic white coed that she should take one of the black players home to her suburb for Thanksgiving. To a priest, he snarled, ‘Don’t come after these kids from the Jesuit house. You never bought a pound of butter in your life, and you’re asking them to be kamikaze pilots.’ ”

While Al was trying to save his basketball team and livelihood, I was caught up in my own soul-searching. Should I risk arrest or quit school in protest to bring further pressure to bear on the administration? What about the future of my career?

Unlike McGuire, I am no street fighter, and the memory of even so nonviolent a confrontation as Respond touches a raw nerve. Just how much of our own comfort and security ought we risk on behalf of a vision of social justice? On the other hand, how do we manage to turn away from obvious suffering and need? The atmosphere bristled with a compelling urgency to commit oneself to action.

Within hours of McGuire’s intervention, the players had rescinded their resignations. At the time, Al seemed to have won a decisive victory. But events would show that the black students, all of whom eventually returned to school, had themselves achieved a significant goal as university officials agreed to consider their demands. The following summer a committee, including students, administrators and faculty, came up with a plan to hire Arnold Mitchem, a talented and charismatic African-American doctoral candidate, to develop and direct the university’s Equal Opportunity Program. Over the next decade and a half, the program under Mitchem would become a national model for recruitment and retention of minority students.

Still, many of us felt betrayed as word of Al McGuire’s comments circulated on campus. In retrospect, it is easier to see that he was not simply protecting his own interests. It would have been a disaster for such gifted athletes as these to have sacrificed an opportunity for advancement: the powerful and determined George Thompson, the graceful and quick Dean “the Dream” Meminger, the athletic leaper Joe Thomas.

What is less evident is that it would have been equally disastrous for Marquette to have lost out on the chance to establish the Equal Opportunity Program and help kids who couldn’t bounce a basketball. In view of Marquette’s accomplishments on and off the basketball court, hurt feelings and rhetorical excess no longer seem important.

In the end, my argument is really not with McGuire at all, but with my own desires, on the one hand, for entertainment and ease, and on the other, for social justice and the sacrifice it demands. These days, when it is so easy to get caught up in managing our portfolios, worrying about tuition for the next generation or long-term care for the previous one, I gratefully celebrate many wonderful memories of Al McGuire, and of the student activists of Marquette University, where once in a now distant springtime, things changed for the better.

Mark Neilsen is associate editor with Creative Communications for the Parish Inc., in Fenton, Mo. His e-mail address is mlneilsen@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2001