At 6-foot-2, Gerry McNamara, who calls himself just “a skinny little white kid who takes pride in working hard,” is a hero in the working-class town of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
McNamara, or “G-Mac” as he is fondly known in his hometown, has been collecting fans since he played for a Pennsylvania State basketball championship back in eighth grade. In high school he played for the state championships three times and won it once. As a freshman at Syracuse University, he was an integral part of the team that brought the university its first NCAA basketball championship.
In its 2003, 81-78 championship-game defeat of favored Kansas, McNamara came out firing up a salvo that put a youthful Syracuse team in front for keeps. He scored six three-pointers in the first 18 minutes, mostly from well behind the defining 19-foot, 9-inch arc, and often with a taller Kansas defender in his face, he fearlessly launched three-point baskets and set up teammates with no-look passes.
“He’s fearless,” S.U. coach Jim Boeheim said with a grin. “If Gerry makes his first shot, he thinks he’s going to make all of them. And if he misses his first shot, he thinks he’s going to make all the rest.”
McNamara’s father, also Gerard but more commonly called “Chiz” since his own playing days, has been an unceasing tutor since a moment of enlightenment when his son was three.
“He overheard me telling his brother Timmy, who was six, to work at dribbling with his left hand. The next day I looked out back and there was Gerry trying it, hitting his foot with the ball every time, chasing it down the driveway, and bringing it back to try again.”
At six, the mite’s first Biddy Ball playing time convinced Dad he was a natural: “His first shot was a swish, and he immediately ran back to take a defensive stance,” he recalls.
At 14, Gerry scored 30 points as Holy Rosary won the state CYO elementary-school championship in Philadelphia. In his debut for Bishop Hannan, a freshman among seniors and juniors, he scored 33 (six threes) against towering Williamsport, champion-to-be that season.
Hannan twice lost state finals in HersheyPark Arena before, as a senior, McNamara scored 55 points in the semifinal — 41 in the first half — against defending champions on a 43-game winning streak, then 30 more in winning the final over another unbeaten opponent.
Only a day or two later, typical of one-for-all, all-for-one McNamara/Connors family ties, the 18-year-old legend shepherded his Hannan teammates to root for his 6-year-old cousin Maggie in her Biddy Ball finale.
Joyce Connors McNamara, mother of G-Mac and his siblings Bridget, Maureen, and Tim, is of the fifth generation since an O’Connor left Mayo, dropped an O in the ocean, tacked on an “s” and planted the family banner in south-side Minooka. (Gerry’s uncle, Jim Connors, was mayor of Scranton, and duly established Ballina in County Mayo as Scranton’s sister city).
Gerry’s father, meanwhile, grew up in North Scranton, equally Irish, but says he hasn’t a genealogical clue beyond both parents being born McNamaras. “I’ve heard that the McNamaras (in Ireland) used to have a bad name,” the younger Gerry laughingly relates.
Scrantonians’ primary collegiate allegiance has long been to Notre Dame and Penn State. And the bedroom that Gerry and brother Tim share used to overflow with Notre Dame memorabilia — on walls, dressers, and especially bedspreads — but on the eve of the first ND-Syracuse meeting Tim draped all the evidence with towels.
Recruiters from both Notre Dame and Penn State had tried hard for McNamara from early on, but the family didn’t like the uncertainty of Penn State coach Jerry Dunn’s tenure, and Syracuse coach Boeheim claims he never worried about the likes of Notre Dame, Duke, or Florida.
“The first time I watched Gerry in high school, he had 34 relatives sitting with his parents. It didn’t take much of a brain to know he won’t choose a college far from home,” Boeheim explains.
“Truthfully, I did think seriously about Florida,” Gerry admits, “because I have relatives there [besides persuasive coach Billy Donovan’s name and face being of obvious ethnic extraction] — but I just couldn’t do that to all the Scranton people.”
But at last winter’s first ND-Syracuse meeting, a season’s peak of more than 50 Scranton buses delivered some 2,500 fans to Carrier Dome. Many of the Scranton fans wore Notre Dame sweat-shirts and caps, but nearly all were also brandishing orange McNamara’s Band placards provided by “Cookie’s Travelers” promoter Bill Clark, who was G-Mac’s coach in Little League baseball.
With 20 seconds remaining and the higher-ranked Fighting Irish ahead in a marvelously played game watched by the Dome’s largest basketball crowd in seven years, G-Mac calmly fired in a 3-pointer after having a so-so shooting day for 39 1-2 minutes.
The morning after the Notre Dame/Syracuse game, The Los Angeles Times carried a width-of-the-page headline, “Striking Up McNamara’s Band” about the bus pilgrimage by the Scranton fans and overall game attendance which topped 32,000.
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon admired Scranton’s attachment to “a child who has galvanized and unified a village, and given it something to feel good about.” He added that McNamara is “as unadorned with ego as the town from where he comes.”
“Gerry McNamara is more loved by Scranton than any other person is loved in any other place,” a patron of Cosgrove’s Clubhouse and Tavern told a reporter for The Daily Orange, the S.U. campus newspaper.
As a downside of Syracuse’s unexpected presence in Final Four games in New Orleans’ SuperDome, except for Gerry’s parents, siblings, and other lucky relatives, barely 50 Scrantonians were able to beg, borrow, or belatedly conjure up tickets. But the pubs of Lackawanna County thrived. All season Gerry’s televised games had brought in more customers than pro football.
Stirna’s Restaurant, a few West Market Street blocks from the McNamaras’ home, is normally closed on Mondays, but owner Cathy Gavin made an exception.
“They’d have walked through 12 feet of snow to be here,” she said of the elbow-to-elbow 250 fans who turned up to watch the game. Century-old Stirna’s had been the post-game gathering place for Gerry’s teams since he was in fifth grade. “We’d sit in the restaurant side ordering whatever we felt like eating, and tell the waitress to take the bill over to our parents on the bar side,” Gerry recalled. Today, two full-size replicas of his No. 3 Syracuse jersey (orange worn in “away” games; white with orange and navy-blue piping when the host team) hang in reverence within tall glass cases on the Stirna bar’s back wall.
Further along Market Street, Tim Wagner’s Sports Corner sells “G-Mac,” “Gerry Mac,” “Mac Attack” and “Gerrycuse” jerseys, T-shirts and sweat-shirts. “I thought the market for Michael Jordan gear would never be equaled, but sales were so phenomenal, I couldn’t keep up with it. Every weekend of a Syracuse game, it accounted for 99 percent of my business,” says Wagner, whose grandmothers on both sides were Irish.
“If it was anyone else it would surprise me, but Gerry’s such a good kid, from such a good family, everybody feels he’s a brother.”
“Scranton’s a blue-collar town of genuine people who care about one another. They are hard workers, and they look at me and see I’m a lot like them. They respect that,” says McNamara, whose own reputation for hard work and refusal to quit is legendary.
Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins describes Gerry’s style as “pedal-to-the-metal all the time, and not afraid to leave a little skin and blood on the floor.”
As a high-school sophomore, McNamara suffered a shoulder separation in the third quarter but never left the overtime game or informed his coach of the injury. In the uphill NCAA game against Oklahoma State, he banged foreheads with an opponent, opening a deep gash next to Gerry’s right eye, and a split-second later threw in a go-ahead three-pointer with blood streaming down his face. He later returned from the locker-room with a patch covering a medical Super Glue, and connected on three more long shots before post-game stitches. Diving for a loose ball early in the championship game, he slammed his shooting hand against a table near the Kansas bench; a concerned KU coach, Roy Williams, helped him to his feet, Gerry resumed play, and up went another three.
As a twosome last season, Carmelo “Melo” Anthony (the Final Four’s 6-foot-8 MVP) and McNamara were the nation’s highest-scoring freshman pair from start to finish. Anthony has since left college, lured by the multi-millions of National Basketball Association salary and Nike endorsements. That pushes McNamara to center stage.
“He broke the Big East (Conference) record for free-throw percentage, but he only went to the line for 55 shots (53-for-55, in 16 league games),” observes his father, a twice-wounded Marine in Vietnam. “With Melo gone he should get to the line for twice that many — but in driving for the basket much more, he’s going to get bruised.” Hence, a busy summer and fall for G-Mac in the weight room.
“I hear people say I had a great freshman year; but in my eyes I didn’t play half as well as I should,” Gerry said before S.U. practices began in October.
“I don’t think we’ve seen him close to what he can do,” Boeheim said. “Despite his being a freshman, we sometimes expected him to play like a senior, and he expected himself to play like a graduate student.”
At Stirna’s, meanwhile, you can count on many a chorus of Scranton ditty-jotter John Kelly’s revised lyrics (without apologies for snubbing Hennessey Tennesee):
Oh, the ball goes swish,
and you make a wish,
he’ll do it once a-gain.
The competition cringes
when Gerry’s in the game.
So good luck, Mac, go on the
attack as you play across the land,
And know that Scranton’s proud
to be in McNamara’s Band. ♦