"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, February 23, 2009

Untucked, a guest essay from Steve Rushin

Most of you know Steve Rushin for his inspired work at Sports Illustrated where his "Air and Space" column was required reading for nearly 20 years. One of his most memorable SI columns was his take on the Warriors' run to the 2003 Final Four.

Steve remains a prolific writer and dedicated Marquette hoops fan. As the team enters the home stretch of the season Steve was gracious enough to author a personal reflection on the basketball program for Cracked Sidewalks, a gem we'll call "Untucked." Steve, thanks very much.


As Catholic school kids in the 1970s, my buddy Mike and I passed the time in class sketching basketball uniforms to replace the ones our 7th-grade team was forced to wear – the ones with "B.V.M." sewn across the front, the monogram of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Mike's dad had gone to Marquette and the dream jerseys we drew up were always some variation on the Warriors': Untucked and untuckable, the way we wanted to wear our uniforms – school and basketball uniforms – at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Though mine was a hockey family, I was influenced by those '77 Warriors in ways I wouldn't realize until later. Al McGuire seemed to have, even for that era, an extraordinary number of buttons on his vest and suit jacket. And then there was that poster from '77, of all those Warriors in pastel prom tuxes spilling out of a Packard convertible. To a 10-year-old, those tuxes said, "You've arrived." Precisely where you had arrived dressed like that – eleven men piling out of a single clown car – was a question I hadn't yet entertained.

In 1983, when my Dad was driving home from 3M headquarters in St. Paul, he heard on Sid Hartman's radio show that a local high school sports star – Tom Copa of Coon Rapids, Minnesota – had signed a letter of intent to play basketball at Marquette.

"You should apply to Marquette," my Dad said. I thought of basketball warm-up pants and tuxedo ruffles and nine-button suits, and I instantly agreed with him. I had never been to Milwaukee.

Only then did I begin to follow Marquette basketball. From this remove, a quarter-century later, those days are a blur of hairdos. In 1984, when I arrived on campus – not in a Packard convertible, alas, but in the back of my Dad's Buick Regal – Marquette basketball was in transition. The magnificent jheri curls of Terry Reason were yielding to the eventual flat-top of Tom Copa.

There's a famous episode of "The Simpsons" in which Grandpa Abe is watching Super Bowl III: The flowing locks of Joe Namath are about to vanquish the buzz-cut of Johnny Unitas, both in the game and in the culture at large.

"Johnny Unitas," says Grandpa Abe, middle-aged and out of touch. "Now there's a haircut you can set your watch to."

Twenty-five years ago, Marquette basketball was going precisely the opposite way – the bohemian, Samsonian locks of Reason making way for the regimental 'dos of Copa & Co. Players tucked in their jerseys. Rick Majerus, of all people, wore a blazer and tie. The MU sports information department couldn't find room in its budget for luxury automobiles or large-scale tuxedo rentals. And the Warriors suffered for these sins.

It was no coincidence that Notre Dame beat us eight times in four years, led by a point guard – David Rivers – whose listed six feet of height included a full four inches of 'fro. Style matters.

And so to me, it wasn't Dwyane Wade or Tom Crean who ultimately signaled the return of Marquette basketball. To me, it was the introduction of the powder blue uniforms that said Marquette had arrived again. Arrived in a metaphorical Packard, wearing a lime-green tuxedo.

My daughter was three last spring when I bought her one of those jerseys. It remains way too big, so she wears it like a dress.

Which is to say, untucked.


Steve Rushin graduated from Marquette University in 1988 and promptly joined the staff of Sports Illustrated, where he was a writer for 19 years. Among his many accolades, Rushin was named the National Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association in 2006. Rushin also delivered the commencement address at Marquette University in 2007. For more information please visit SteveRushin.com.


Rob Lowe said...

I'm not only a contributor to Cracked Sidewalks... I'm also a fan. Great stuff.

Don Smolinsky said...

Yes, when me and Terry ruled the court, no one could stop the Warriors!

Championships Matter said...

As a 1978 Marquette grad, whose family has been a Marquette family since the 1950s, there was none better than Al McGuire and the teams he fielded. They were rugged, tough and rarely lost. Nobody wanted to play us at home.

And you know what, the games were memorable. The 1977 team came of age against a team of Russian Olympians in an exhibition game in Milwaukee in the fall of 1975. The Russian team was largely comprised of gold medalists from the 1972 Olympic games. They came to Milwaukee and never knew what hit them! We knew as we left the Arena that night, we had something really special on our hands.

Looking back, it's amazing how we well did in the Al era. We were a school that before 1966, nobody had ever of it.

It's also incredibly amazing that, coming off a national championship with four returning starters, the university allowed the program to go into the decay that it did between the beginning of the "Hank" era and before the arrival of Kevin O'Neill. Hank's an incredibly nice man with a great family, but he wasn't the guy to lead Marquette to glory in 1964 and he certainly wasn't in 1977.

Al never would have let his team lose to Miami of Ohio -- and it was all downhill from there!

Gary B said...

Great to see you here Steve. I'm from the same era. Hank Aaron hitting 715 and the Warriors winning in '77 are one of my all-time sports memories as a kid. Both shared with my grandfather. When I was able to complete my degree in 2003, it brought back those memories along with a proud moment for my deceased grandfather. My kids are now ig Marquette fans and we are all enjoying this run.

Anonymous said...

I graduated in May 2007 and had the pleasure of listening to Steve give the commencement address to our class. Fantastic speech and fantastic article. Thanks for them both!

Unknown said...

Nice article and I agree. Our powder blues are spectacular! I'm not quite sure some of the younger grads understand how much this ties the current bunch to the MU legacy. It's basically a nod to the "Warrior" mystique!

Unwobbling Pivot said...

Steve, I'm proud to say I'm from the same era as you (and the recently added John Pudner). They were dry years from a "basketball success" standpoint, but they ignited my love for MU hoops, having grown up a fan of the pro game. They also produced the unique perspective of your (and John's) commentary: an era that gives birth to such quality writing can't be all bad. Thanks for being a guest contributor here. Speaking as someone who recently started reading CS, I hope you can do it again sometime.

EastCoastMidwesterner said...

I am a 2005 Grad and my father a 1970 grad. On of the greatest moments of out relationship was taking him, with my friends, to Minny to watch MU beat Pitt and UK. I will always remember my father cheering in the middle of a bunch of rowdy Juniors. At half of the KY game we looked at each other speechless with the excitement in our eyes speaking volumes. I live in Boston now, and just met my father in DC for the GU game. God I love Marquette Basketball.