The message was left on Tom Crean's voice mail in March 1999, shortly after he was named coach at Marquette. It was from Al McGuire, the New York City savant who had taken the school to a national championship in 1977 and then tearfully retired to a life of broadcasting the college game in his own unique language, while Marquette's program fell into a mediocrity that left fans often invoking his name. The message McGuire left for Crean was a hand extended: "Sometime when you've got about eight hours, let's get together."
So the new guy and the legend went for a drive on an early summer day almost four years ago, and together they began connecting Marquette's storied basketball past to its uncertain future. They ate lunch at a fish fry. They went to an antique shop. To a comic-book store. To a woodworking factory. They sat by the side of a lake and talked about life, people and basketball. It was only the beginning. They would become friends over the next 18 months, an older man falling ill and a younger man trying to learn a lifetime's lessons. Crean never took notes in McGuire's presence but always did after he left. "Of all the coaches We've had here, Tom is the one that Al took to the most," says Reverend William Kelly, the Marquette basketball chaplain. On Jan. 23, 2001, Crean visited McGuire at a Milwaukee hospice as the former coach lay dying of cancer. Crean was late for practice that day, because he pulled his car to the side of the road and wept. McGuire died three days later.
"The highlight of my coaching career," says Crean, "is the year-and-a-half friendship that I had with him. He covered everything. He made it O.K. not to worry about shadows or ghosts from the past. And he told me this: 'It's gonna take time.' "
It took four years. Last Saturday in Minneapolis, Marquette dismantled top-seeded Kentucky 83-69 to win the NCAA Midwest Regional and earn its first trip to the Final Four in the 26 years since the end of the McGuire Era. It took one of the best performances in NCAA tournament history, junior guard Dwyane Wade's triple double (29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists), combined with a mountainous 24 points and 15 rebounds from 6'10", 260-pound senior forward Robert Jackson and five three-pointers from freshman forward Steve Novak, a bloodless catch-and-shoot specialist who stands 6'10". It took a Marquette team that was a No. 3 seed with a 27-5 record and so many offensive answers that the Golden Eagles can't be called an outsider at the Final Four in New Orleans.
It took a team that Crean assembled not by shrinking from his school's history but by embracing it. "He's what you'd call a very persuasive person," says sophomore point guard Travis Diener of being recruited by Crean. "He told me Marquette was going back to the top. He made it sound believable."
Three years ago Crean told Wade, then a lightly recruited senior at Richards High in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, that he would take Wade even if the youngster failed to meet the NCAA minimum on his standardized test. "I was overwhelmed by that," Wade says. "I'm a very loyal person. My heart is always with people who are loyal to me." Wade's scores did fall short and he sat out his freshman year, but in two seasons he developed into one of the most dangerous offensive players in the country, a 6'5", 210-pound slasher who displayed his range of skills last Saturday when he blocked a shot by 6'9" Kentucky center Marquis Estill and drained two deep three-pointers.
Wade is the only Golden Eagles player who does not live in a school dormitory, residing instead in an off-campus apartment with his wife, Siohvaughn (a junior at Marquette), and their 13-month-old son, Zaire. He will soon come under intense pressure to take his game to the NBA. But for now Wade shares the ball—and his life—with his teammates. "He hangs out with us," says forward Todd Townsend. "That helps build trust as a team."
Other vital parts of Crean's Marquette machine are as unconventional as they are essential. Jackson, for instance, came home to Milwaukee after three years at Mississippi State. It is rare that a coach takes a transfer with one year of eligibility remaining, but Jackson's size was irresistible. On the day before the regional final, Estill was asked if he recalled Jackson from their SEC battles. "I don't remember him," said Estill. "I didn't even know he played for Mississippi State."
After his dominant performance last Saturday, Jackson said, "He knows me now."
Diener, says a rival assistant coach, "looks like an eighth-grader." He is 6'1" and weighs 165 pounds. Yet Diener played for his uncle in high school and is hardened by battles with two cousins who also play college ball. Playing with a skinny little man's toughness, the farm boy from Fond du Lac, Wis., kept Marquette in the tournament with a combined 55 points in first-and second-round wins over Holy Cross and Missouri. "I've been hearing that I can't play since as far back as I can remember," Diener says. "I know better."