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McGRATH: Reflecting on Dean Meminger, Marquette’s unforgettable Dream

FILE- In this March 21 1970 file PhoMarquette guard Dean Meminger smiles as he poses with Most Valuable Player trophy

FILE- In this March 21, 1970 file Photo, Marquette guard Dean Meminger, smiles as he poses with the Most Valuable Player trophy awarded for his performance in the National Invitational Tournament games at New York's Madison Square Garden. Meminger, the former Marquette guard who played a reserve role on the New York Knicks' 1973 NBA championship team, was found dead Friday, Aug. 23, 2013, in a New York hotel room. He was 65. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File) ORG XMIT: NYR107

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Updated: October 2, 2013 6:29AM

If Al McGuire was the face of Marquette University basketball, Dean Meminger was its soul.

His teammate, friend and fellow New Yorker George ‘‘Brute Force’’ Thompson was McGuire’s first great player, but Meminger was his first big-time recruit. He had his pick of the nation’s top basketball schools as a Harlem hoops luminary whose playground cred was enriched over three years as an all-city point guard at Rice High School. He chose Marquette because McGuire sold him on the quirky notion of transforming an urban Jesuit school on a Milwaukee hilltop into a national power.

Who knew? Marquette was 24-5 in Meminger’s sophomore season, falling one Rick Mount jumper short of a trip to the Final Four. As a junior, Meminger did it all for a 26-3 team that won the still-meaningful NIT after McGuire famously turned down an NCAA bid, preferring a week in New York to four days anywhere else. UMass with Julius Erving and LSU with “Pistol” Pete Maravich were in the NIT field that year. Dean Meminger was the tournament MVP.

Dean the Dream. A nickname, yes, but also a spot-on description of a style of play that bordered on artistry.

Meminger was an extension of McGuire on the floor, controlling a game with the brazen self-assurance of a smaller Magic Johnson. Barely 6 feet tall, he was fearless on drives to the basket, slithering inside bigger defenders for any shot he wanted or finding teammates for open looks. He could have scored more in a less restrictive system, but Meminger was content to play McGuire’s way because it worked. Marquette was 78-9 in his career, the best three-year run in school history. Maravich and Notre Dame’s Austin Carr were the bombs-away gunners of his era, but Meminger outperformed them both in head-to-head meetings.

His senior year was bittersweet: Meminger was a consensus All-American on a young team that reached No.  1 in the nation while rolling through the regular season unbeaten, only to discover that Jim Crow was alive and well in the early ’70s South. In an NCAA tournament game played in Athens, Ga., Meminger fouled out for the only time in his college career as Marquette, with four black players in its top six, lost a heartbreaker to Ohio State and its four white starters. McGuire made a statement about the officiating by putting both referees on the Warriors’ all-opponent team at the season-ending banquet.

Meminger considered himself a New York guy, but he was born in South Carolina and seemed less worldly than the other New Yorkers on Marquette’s roster. He kept to himself around campus but was a pleasant, approachable figure in his blue V-neck sweater, white T-shirt and jeans. The joke was that a well-meaning friend of McGuire had given him $200 to buy clothes, and Dean had come back with four blue sweaters.

He was the Knicks’ first-round pick in the 1971 NBA draft, but New York was not the ideal spot for an impressionable young guy with some money and lots of down time. Meminger was a valuable off-the-bench contributor to the Knicks’ 1973 championship, but he enjoyed only modest success in six pro seasons, the embodiment of the differences between the NBA and college games. Those fearless drives to the basket didn’t work as well against bigger, more agile defenders, and his outside shot was always an iffy proposition.

Meminger lived a sad, troubled life after basketball, and it ended 10 days ago when he was found dead from undetermined causes in a Harlem hotel room. He was 65. It’s a cruel irony that the absolute master of cool and control on the court had to struggle so to control the demons in his personal life.

But what a ballplayer. The seeds of Marquette’s 1977 national title were planted 10 years earlier, when Meminger enrolled. Along with McGuire, Hank Raymonds, Rick Majerus, George Thompson and some others who came later, he made Marquette basketball matter. The image of him with the ball in his hands, the opponent reeling, the drums thumping and the crowd roaring at the old Milwaukee Arena is one of the best college memories some of us have.

Covering it all as a kid reporter was a life-altering experience. It was not only great fun, it helped me figure out what I wanted to do with myself. I’m grateful for how it turned out.

McGuire, Raymonds, Majerus, Meminger — all gone. But the memories linger, and I’m grateful for those, too.

Dean the Dream. Seashells and balloons, brother. Safe home.

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