The Long Hurrah: The Irish In Sports

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Irish athletes
Billy Cunningham in action

They don’t call them “the Fighting Irish” for nothing. For more than a century, Irish-American coaches and players have given sports fans a lifetime of memories. Just cataloging the greats from New York could fill several volumes. Basketball is the New York game and Irish sons from the sidewalks of the city and suburbs have made numerous contributions, especially to the fortunes of both St. John’s University and the New York Knicks.

When Joe Lapchick left St. John’s to coach the New York Knicks in 1947, Frank McGuire became head basketball coach. In 1952, he led the Johnnies to the Final Four in NCAA action. In the early ‘50s, McGuire left New York for a head coaching job at the University of North Carolina. That’s where the Manhattan native really made history. In 1957, the Tar Heels went undefeated, winning the national title in a legendary triple overtime win over Wilt Chamberlain and the Kansas Jayhawks. The team came straight out of New York, with a starting lineup that included such New York area natives as Pete Brennan, Tommy Kearns, Joe Quigg and Bob Cunningham.

In 1964, McGuire signed on to coach the University of South Carolina. By now, McGuire had perfected his “McGuire New York City Railroad.” His winning Gamecock squads had more New Yorkers: John Roche, Tom Owens, Tom Riker, Kevin Joyce, Brian Winters, Bobby Cremins and Mike Dunleavy. When McGuire retired in 1980, he did so as the most winningest coach in USC history and the third most winningest coach in UNC history.

Frank McGuire was not related to two other sons of New York with the same surname—Dick McGuire and Al McGuire. These McGuires were brothers and they both added significantly to New York’s legendary basketball history. Dick McGuire was a seven-time All Star for the New York Knicks in the 1950s and later served as head coach in 1965. Al McGuire had a colorful career as a player, coach and commentator. Al McGuire, too, played pro ball for the Knicks and later achieved his coaching fame at Marquette University. In his final game as coach, McGuire’s Warriors won the 1977 NCAA title, defeating Dean Smith’s UNC squad. Dick and Al McGuire are the only pair of brothers to be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.

No history of New York basketball would be complete without Billy Cunningham and Chris Mullins. Cunningham, a graduate of Erasmus Hall High School, played for Frank McGuire in the early 1960s before beginning a Hall of Fame career with the Philadelphia 76ers. Cunningham played on the 1968 World Champion team while coaching the Sixers to another title in 1982. Mullins led St. John’s to the 1985 NCAA finals and, today, he is head coach of his alma mater.

Irish athletes
Whitey Ford

That’s basketball. On the diamond, Irish-Americans have excelled all throughout the 20th century. It was John J. McGraw’s New York Giants that helped to make baseball America’s National Pastime. The greatest pitcher for the game’s greatest team was Astoria native Whitey Ford. Those legendary Yankee squads of the 1950s were comprised not only of Ford, but also infielders Gil McDougal, Andy Caray and Joe Collins.
We can’t forget boxing, a sport dominated by the Irish in its early years. That includes such heavyweight champs as John L. Sullivan, James J. Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, Tommy Burns and James J. Braddock of Cinderella Man fame.

Jack Dempsey, who ruled the sport during the Roaring ‘20s, was part Irish and later, a resident of New York, where he operated his legendary restaurant on Broadway. In the early ‘70s, two young hoodlums made the mistake of trying to mug Dempsey. Bad choice. The former champ, now in his senior years, easily dispatched both of his would-be robbers and then went on his merry way.

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