Saturday, February 6, 2010

From Queens to the NBA

He was before my time. I do remember his name, and remember his brother, Al, as a coach (college? Marquette, I believe.).

February 6, 2010
From a Home Court in Queens to the N.B.A.

They called it the Rockaway Game, basketball the way it was played in the 1940s on blacktop courts along the Atlantic Ocean in Rockaway Beach, Queens.

The games were tight, half-court affairs fueled by hustle and heart and marked with selfless teamwork as preached by the stern coaches in the local St. Francis de Sales Catholic Youth Organization leagues, where the catechism was the give-and-go, the pick-and-roll, moving without the ball, finding the open man, amen.

This was before slam-dunk contests and chest-thumping displays of hubris. Games were won with precision passing and aggressive defense. Flashy play and ball-hogging left you on the sidelines. Outside shooting was discouraged because of the ocean breeze, and fouls were called the Irish-Catholic way: on oneself.

The master of the Rockaway Game was Dick McGuire, whose basketball fortunes rose during his adolescence when his family moved in the late 1930s from the Bronx to a bustling area in Rockaway known as Irish Town. The family bought Rohr’s restaurant on Beach 108th Street, renaming it McGuire’s bar. It was a block from the blacktop that would propel Dick and his brother Al to legendary careers with the New York Knicks.

Mr. McGuire, who died on Wednesday at 84 of an aortic aneurysm, was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, where he joined his brother.

The family slept above McGuire’s bar during the winter but moved into the basement each May and rented out the upstairs to boarders spending summers among the cluster of bars and bungalows from Beach 116th Street to Rockaways’ Playland. The area was known as the Irish Riviera, a summer refuge for Irish New Yorkers seeking escape from hot tenements.

“It was all churches and bars,” John McGuire, the eldest of the three McGuire brothers, recalled by phone on Thursday. “When the band stopped, you went to another bar. If you had a fight, it was with your fists.”

There is still a bar at the McGuire’s former location: Gallagher’s Snug Harbour, owned since 1971 by Frank Gallagher, who on Thursday sat looking out the window at what was no longer Irish Town. Many locals still call his place McGuire’s, and on Thursday, it felt like McGuire’s again, with the phone on the bar ringing off the hook.

“They all want to know about the wake, the funeral arrangements,” Mr. Gallagher said.

The McGuire boys were fascinated by the Rockaway basketball scene, dominated by the likes of Dutch Dehnert and Joe (Poison) Brennan, said a local, Kevin Boyle, 51, who does some coaching at St. Francis and still has a phone number for Ed Baccales, an old-timer from the 108th Street court.

Reached by telephone, Mr. Baccales described the genesis of the half-court games on “the McGuire playground,” a blacktop pitch next to the ocean boardwalk, with netless rims mounted on metal backboards.

“Dick and I used to shovel snow off the court so we could shoot baskets in the winter,” Mr. Baccales said.

The games were always three on three, and if you scored, you regained possession of the ball — “winners out.” Games were played to 7: losers sat; winners stayed on. Al and Dick McGuire both dominated, but it was Dick who became known as Tricky Dick for his ball-handling, his passing and finesse, his peripheral vision, his seeing-eye bounce passes and his intuitive sense of the court, skills that would help make him an N.B.A. All-Star several times over. He could cut and feint, even fresh from Sunday Mass, in suit and shoes.

Because of the ocean breeze, Dick preferred to pass or drive to the basket rather than to shoot. He developed a condition known as Rockawayitis, a chronic reluctance to shoot the ball, for which he was teased throughout his career, despite starring at La Salle Academy in Manhattan and then at St. John’s University.

“It was so hard to shoot down here, he let someone else do it,” Mr. Boyle said. “You would develop trick moves to get to the basket.”

Mr. Baccales, however, gained fame for being able to adjust his set shot to the prevailing wind.

“I had a great set shot, but Dick was a great passer,” Mr. Baccales said.

John McGuire recalled, “We never had any players over 6-3, and if you got hacked hard, you called the foul.”

Throughout the 1950s, the level of play attracted top high school, college and professional players from New York City and even Long Island and New Jersey. Sunday afternoon games would draw Queens players like Bob Cousy, from nearby St. Albans, and Ray Lumpp from Forest Hills. Dolph Schayes would come from the Bronx, as well as Ray Felix from Manhattan and Tommy Heinsohn from New Jersey.

The popular Fitzgerald’s bar faced the court, and crowds would gather to watch the games on Sundays when the young men played for kegs of beer.

“This is where the top competition was at that time, and the best ballplayers from New York and beyond would come down,” Mr. McGuire said.

The Rockaway Game was imported by such players into the N.B.A., where it helped foster a winning formula. When Dick McGuire and Mr. Cousy teamed up in the backcourt for the Eastern Division in the 1954 N.B.A. All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, the crowd cheered their magical playmaking chemistry.

Dick McGuire was drafted by the Knicks in 1949 and guided them to three straight NBA finals, from 1951 to 1953. But even during those years, the Beach 108th Street blacktop remained his home court in the summer, recalled his widow, Teri, 76, who met Dick on Rockaway Beach in the summer of 1955. The couple lived in a bungalow near the bar until Mr. McGuire was traded to the Detroit Pistons in 1957, she said.

“Every morning, he would walk from the bar to the court and play all day,” she said. “I’d spend the day on the beach while he played.”

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