"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Monday, June 27, 2011

Warrior Travels: Chapter 4, The Chocolate City

"I don't believe anyone is a nothing. There has to be something inside, if only to keep the skin from collapsing. This vacant eye, listless hand, this damask cheek dusted like a doughnut with plastic powder, had to have a memory or a dream."

Retiring Marquette President, Fr. Robert Wild, stressed in his farewell interview that the university was founded on the strongly held belief of “first chances”—for immigrants, for women, for minorities. This belief spread onto the basketball court as well as reflected by Ulice Payne in his funeral eulogy of legendary Warrior coach Al McGuire:

"Coach (Al) . . . is an Irish Catholic son of an immigrant. His whole perspective was that. It was like him against the establishment. When we played, it was us against the establishment.”

“He would talk about the fact that 95% of his players were black in the early '70s, in the '60s. You know, it was like a pride thing in the sense that it was what he felt, and he let us know that it was part of the mission. It goes back to where he never really changed. I think that's why he identified with so many people.”

“Some guys say it, and some guys live it. Coach, he lived it. He lived it."

It was good to be back in the Chocolate City to see family. Marquette’s Jesuit roots in Washington DC also go deep, starting with the Les Aspin Center and stretching to Marquette’s new president and to its brother school, Georgetown University. Basketball players Bo Ellis, Jim McIlvaine and Lazar Hayward were all drafted by the Washington NBA team, although only Jimmy Mac actually played here. While I was yearning to stop at the DC standby’s like Ben’s, I also wanted to take in the pulse of the city as reform Mayor Adrian Fenty was just ousted (mainly for losing touch with his African-American base), and the new mayor, Vincent Gray had just been sworn in. Metro unemployment rates were below the national average and the DC economy was in a boom period with the increased federal government spending and a change in administrations. However, change and transformation were causing problems with the long-time make-up of the city as well, and African-American voters were not pleased with Fenty.

With a weekend of family meals and visits interspersed, I decided to take in the American vs. Colgate basketball game at Bender Arena. The now 17-8 Eagles beat Colgate in a Patriot League showdown in the only unranked road game for me all season. Jeff Jones, former Virginia coach and player-teammate to Ralph Sampson and Rick Carlisle on their Final 4 team, has revitalized American’s hoops program, going to the NCAA tournament two out of the last three seasons, with Marquette opponent Bucknell the only team ahead of them for 2011. If Marquette fans want a reminder of what the Big East means, they may want to ask any of the 2083 fans who went through the turn styles to see this one. After an evening of more family, I went back to the hotel to call it a night as the Marquette game was an early afternoon affair the next day.

As we stood in line at the Verizon Center Will Call, it struck me how the Marquette supporter make-up for each road game was entirely different. This group’s composition was mainly African-American, reflective of the city, area and Marquette’s basketball roster. Davante Gardner’s family and friends from Suffolk, VA were in for the game, as were various alumni eager to get their first glance at the team. There was a lot of Warrior Pride being spread around.
Talking with the group in line, I was reminded of this Sports Illustrated story about Marquette “first chances” under Al, and was glad to see the same philosophy still lives on under Buzz Williams, in true Warrior fashion:

“The first player McGuire recruited for Marquette was 6'3" Pat Smith out of Harlem, a center who could not see and could not shoot but who used what talents he did have to acquire a distinguished nickname, The Evil Doctor Blackheart. "McGuire understands our background and environment, and he forces us to remember," says The Evil Doctor. "He keeps reminding us we have nothing to go back to and he's right. Men from the ghetto shape up here." Meminger says, "Al tells Lackey, 'Hey, you haven't passed to a white man in four days.' He tells Brell, 'Goose, don't you see any brothers open?' I mean, he comes out and lays it on the line. We try not to get into cliques. If we do, there's trouble."
A big Warrior road turnout saw Marquette again disappoint in the second half after losing a big first half lead against Georgetown. The season was slipping away, and the fans were definitely edgy. This story was getting old, and it was hard to see it unfold. As a result, I concentrated on the fan diversions: The live burrito toss, the student sections under both baskets, the politically correct GU Jesuits also rolling out their version of the Gatling gun t-shirt cannon beneath the Washington Bullet rafter banners, and the home alum saying, “tough one for the Golden Griffins”. The Hoya fans were definitely the least hoops-informed of all home fans on my trips, which made the game’s outcome even harder to take—although Davante Gardner scored 12 points in ten minutes to excite his group.

The Marquette Alumni Club of DC was hosting a post-game event at Penn Quarter Sports Tavern, ironically right across from the Temperance Fountain. We stopped in for a drink and mingled for a bit before walking over to the National Mall to see the World War II Memorial. For some reason, even though I had been back numerous times, I had not visited this monument, and it was a must for me. My dad had been involved in just about every battle in Western Europe, from D-Day to post-liberation Germany. I had been to most of his war sites in Europe, but this unbelievably late tribute to the “Greatest Generation” had escaped me…the beauty of this design did not. Afterward, it was on to Chinatown for some dim sum at Ping Pong with family and friends to cap off a great visit.

As I headed back down Wisconsin past the Friendship Heights Metro station in my golden Marquette gear, I walked past a group of homeless men looking for some change. As is the urban way all too often, a pedestrian in a hurry not to notice puts his head down and plods on to his destination, afraid to feed a drug habit or for receiving a mental illness diatribe, or whatever rationale one can put together to keep moving. With 16,000 homeless on Washington DC streets, it is hard not to fall into this line of thinking for even the most compassionate among us, with the thought of just writing a check to a social agency to cover any sense of guilt. It is tough not to be hardened to this scene as it is so commonplace, fed by the many tourists on the streets.

Continuing on, I sidestepped a small cluster of men asking the tourists for help and not vice versa, and a man of the street stepped out and began shouting “Marquette, National Champions” at me. I had been called out, so I had to stop to hear the spiel. Or, so I thought. Instead, I received a “life lesson” from Clarence Ellis, who identified himself as Bo’s cousin. Clarence talked of pride about Marquette’s national championship team, of how great his cousin was and how lucky he was to attend Marquette University, with an accented emphasis on “University” as Bo always stresses if you notice. How Marquette and Al opened doors and gave hope to African-Americans where there wasn’t much. He attended Long Island University to play basketball, but he was there for basketball and not supported with his studies. But, the academics at Marquette were “real good, real good”. He just kept talking of his memories, and he wished me well. As he left, he again said “yes, the academics at Marquette were real good, they gave a guy a chance. Bo was lucky.” And so it ended as I stood there in silence, thanking God for this “first chance” moment.

In his article about Al’s Night, MU alum and journalist Dan McGrath quoted Warrior great and cousin of Clarence—to put my street conversation into perspective:
“He never promised me anything, except that I’d get a degree if I stayed four years, and that’s what my mother wanted to hear,” said Bo Ellis, a four-year starter and team captain of the ’77 national champions. “He was always real with me. He said, ‘We’d love to have you and you can help us, but we’re going to win whether you come or not.’

“I loved Coach McGuire as a coach,” Ellis said, “but I loved him even more as a person.”
Amen, brother. Amen.


"The Chocolate City" is the latest in a series chronicling the 2010-2011 Marquette hoops season from a fan's unique perspective. If you missed the first entries click on the tags below for earlier installments.

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