Unsung Knick History – Al McGuire’s Phantom Bucket

This is the latest in a series of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.

For a team that has been in the NBA for well over six decades, the New York Knickerbockers sadly have only won two NBA championships. The main reason for that is that they have spent large chunks of their team history as perennial losers (at least they used all of that losing in the 1960s to build up a very good 1970s team and they used their 1980s losing to build up a strong 1990s team. They used all of their 2000s losing to make it to the second round one year in 2013). However, they also have an unenviable place in NBA history as one of only two teams to make it to the NBA Finals three years in a row and lose every time (the other team to do it, the Los Angeles Lakers, actually had a worse go of it, as while they also “only” went three years in a row without a win from 1968-1970, they also played in seven out of nine NBA Finals from 1962 to 1970, losing all seven). That takes some particularly bad luck, and that’s just what happened in Game 1 of the 1952 NBA Finals when Al McGuire made a basket that not enough people actually saw.

Al McGuire was a rookie in the 1951-52 season, joining his brother, Knick Hall of Famer Dick McGuire on the team (they were teammates at St. John’s University, as well).

NBA Hall of Famer Dick McGuire
NBA Hall of Famer Dick McGuire

While Dick was a legitimately talented player (a seven-time All-Star, his number was retired by the Knicks – although not before they first gave it to Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and retired it for him, as well), Al got by mostly by being an aggressive defender, as he couldn’t shoot a lick. He would joke that he must have been the worst player to ever manage to hang around the league for four seasons.

Here’s Al…


In those early pre-shot clock days, teams would often have a player who would be their designated “fouler”, and McGuire was the Knicks’. He once famously bragged that he would “own Bob Cousy” when the Knicks played the Celtics. As he later recalled, in his mind he did, as Cousy had only six points when McGuire fouled out of the game in the first quarter after fouling Cousy six times (all very hard fouls, of course). The Celtics actually once tried to get McGuire out of a game early (they didn’t like Cousy getting beat up whenever they played the Knicks) by having backup power forward Bob Brannum essentially start a fight with McGuire to get McGuire thrown out of the game early. McGuire found out about their plans before the game and when the initial pick was set by Brannum (which was going to become a moving pick very quickly), McGuire instead just barreled into Brannum and a brawl began (on top of Dick and Al fighting, their other brother, John, a New York City cop, jumped into the fight).

Anyhow, the Knicks lost the 1950-51 NBA Finals to the Rochester Royals (a “western” team at the time, that’s how East Coast-centric the NBA was back then), who had defeated the Minneapolis Lakers in large part due to an injury suffered by the Laker Hall of Famer George Mikan in 1951. The Lakers got their revenge on the Royals in 1952 in the Western Conference Finals and hosted the Knicks for Game 1 in St. Paul (as their normal Minneapolis arena was being used for a Sportmans show – NBA teams would often be displaced by their home arenas, as they were not particularly profitable at the time). Early in the game, Al McGuire drove to the basket and was fouled. Referee Stan Stutz called for two shots. The coach of the Lakers was shocked – he didn’t see why McGuire was getting two shots, as he had made the basket! Stutz, though, did not see the ball go in (it was one of those shots where the ball rolled around the rim before dropping). He asked his fellow referee, Sid Borgia, but Borgia did not see it, either. So they decided that they couldn’t call it a made basket. This, naturally, drove the Knicks head coach, Joe Lapchick, insane. Since the game was in Minneapolis, everyone there was silent on the issue. Lapchick protested to the Maurice Podoloff, the commissioner of the NBA, who was in attendance, but Podoloff wouldn’t interfere with the referee’s judgment, despite the fact that he obviously knew that the ball had gone in, as well.

So instead of two points and a chance at a free throw to make it a three-point play, McGuire was shooting two free throws. He made one of two. And, sure enough, the game went to overtime, tied at 71. The Lakers would prevail in overtime. The Knicks took Game 2 in St. Paul, but then the Lakers split the two games in New York before winning Game 5 in St. Paul. The Knicks won a big Game 6 in New York (to a paltry audience who figured that the Knicks had no shot after getting blown out in Game 5). They returned to Minnesota, but as luck would have it, the Minneapolis arena was available this time, and the Lakers beat the Knicks handedly to win the series four games to three. But if the phantom bucket had been called correctly, who knows how the series would have gone? The Knicks might very well have a third NBA Championship in their history!

McGuire, of course, went on to become a popular college basketball coach (winning an NCAA championship in his final season in Marquette – he had already decided to leave coaching to get into the sports apparel business, but his hiring by the board of Medalist Industries wasn’t approved until his final season had begun – and then they go out and win the title!) and sports announcer for NBC. He was quite an interesting personality. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame for his great coaching career, making him and Dick the only brothers to both be in the Basketball Hall of Fame (Reggie and Cheryl Miller are the only other pair of siblings to have that honor).

If you enjoyed this story, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Urban Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here.

If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at bcronin@legendsrevealed.com!

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