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John McCarthy, former Canisius basketball star and NBA champion, dies at 86

Mike Walton bought his first insurance policy from John McCarthy in the late 1970s. He wasn’t just doing it because McCarthy was his former coach and a basketball legend from South Buffalo. Walton bought the policy because McCarthy insisted that Walton plan ahead for life and for his family.

There was more to life than basketball, McCarthy knew. His son John said his father sold life insurance during his NBA playing career because he still had a family to raise.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, they didn’t pay the players what they pay them now,” said John, who lives in Medfield, Mass. “Even as he was playing, he was working for Northwestern Mutual, and he continued to do that after he retired from basketball.”

But McCarthy wasn’t known in Buffalo as an insurance salesman, or as a City of Buffalo employee. McCarthy was known as an All-American basketball player at Canisius College in the 1950s who played in the NBA – winning a championship ring with the Boston Celtics in 1963-64 – and the American Basketball League, then coached the Buffalo Braves and at Canisius College in the 1970s.

McCarthy died Saturday at age 86. His death, his son said, came after he had recently been injured in a fall.

“No matter where you went, in Buffalo, whether it was to a restaurant or to a store, someone would recognize him,” John said. “The genesis of all that was that he was a star in the 1950s, when doubleheaders at the Aud for college basketball were kind of the land, in terms of sports entertainment. It was an event, to be at a Saturday night doubleheader.”

McCarthy played for six seasons in the NBA and was a scout for the Buffalo Braves during their inaugural season. He then served as head coach for 81 games in the 1971-72 season, going 22-59 after taking over for Dolph Schayes, who was let go after the opener. He also coached basketball at Canisius.

He lived in West Seneca after his retirement from coaching basketball, but Walton said McCarthy remained active and maintained his competitive streak, whether it was playing racquetball or golf at Crag Burn Golf Club in East Aurora.

“He had a true zest for life,” John said. “He did things his way, no matter what anyone else said. A lot of people know about him athletically, but he was a fiercely, fiercely competitive individual. He was a Buffalonian, through and through. He left to play pro basketball, but his heart was always in Buffalo, and he came back here after his playing career ended. He loved being in this area.”

McCarthy was born April 25, 1934, at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, and graduated from Bishop Timon High School in 1951. He earned a degree in English from Canisius, where he played basketball and baseball.

John McCarthy, shown playing for Canisius College (Canisius College)

In three seasons on the Canisius men’s basketball team, (1953-54, 1954-55 and 1955-56), the 6-foot-1 guard scored 1,160 points and had 457 rebounds in 61 games.

McCarthy led the Griffs to back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in the NCAA Tournament, and helped the Griffs defeat No. 2 North Carolina State 79-78 in a four-overtime game in the first round of the 1956 tournament in one of the most memorable games in school history.

McCarthy was inducted into the Canisius Sports Hall of Fame in 1967 and the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. He was one of 15 former Canisius men’s basketball players named to the school’s sesquicentennial team in November.

“It is always dangerous territory in athletics to talk about the best, but John McCarthy was clearly one of the best, if not the best, basketball players to come through Canisius College,” Canisius president John Hurley said in a statement to The News. “I was proud to welcome John to center court this past November as we recognized our Sesquicentennial all-time Canisius team, and renew our relationship that began 45 years ago when I was a student sportswriter for The Griffin and he was the Canisius coach. He was a key part of a golden era of Canisius basketball and he will be missed.”

McCarthy averaged 7.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists during his NBA career with four teams.

After averaging 21 minutes a game as a rookie for the Rochester Royals, who had drafted him in the fourth round in 1956, he missed the 1957-58 season to serve his military commitment. By the time he returned, the Royals had moved to Cincinnati.

He led the St. Louis Hawks in assists on teams that lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals in 1960 and '61. He was limited to 15 games in 1961-62 with St. Louis because of a leg injury and then spent the following season with the Pittsburgh Rens in the American Basketball League.

He returned to the NBA with the Celtics in 1963-64 and played 28 games on a championship team led by Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Sam Jones and K.C. Jones.

“John had a very high basketball IQ, and his background was through Red Auerbach,” Walton said. “He played for the Celtics and he had a lot of Red Auerbach’s philosophies. He was big on passing the ball, sharing it, spacing. Kind of like how (Gregg) Popovich coaches (the San Antonio Spurs). Everybody has to touch the ball before the offense begins, and everybody has to be involved, offensively and defensively. That’s old Boston Celtics stuff, and Red really liked John.”

McCarthy has a note in the NBA record books, too. He was the first of only four players in NBA history to record a triple-double in his playoff debut. McCarthy scored 13 points, had 11 rebounds and 11 assists in the St. Louis Hawks’ win against the Minneapolis Lakers on March 16, 1960. Magic Johnson also did it in 1980 with the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James in 2006 with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Nikola Jokic in 2019 with the Denver Nuggets.

McCarthy actually didn't even know his performance was noteworthy until he saw his name mentioned with Johnson when James added his name to the list in 2006.

“Triple-double wasn’t a thing when I was playing,” McCarthy told USA Today in 2017. “Points. Rebounds. Maybe assists. That’s the only stats we knew.”

After his playing career ended, he coached boys basketball at Neumann High School in 1965, where he led the Dragons to three Manhattan Cup playoff appearances in four seasons.

In his lone season coaching the Braves, 1971-72, he won his first game as coach, 111-109 in overtime, against the Cleveland Cavaliers, on Oct. 15, 1971. The team was 12-16 after a 117-110 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 14, 1971, then lost its next 12 games and won only 10 times the rest of the season. The Braves finished with the same record as their initial season, 22-60, and McCarthy was replaced by Jack Ramsay the following season.

The 1971-72 team was led in scoring by Bob Kauffman (18.9 ppg) and it was also Randy Smith's first season with the team after being drafted out of Buffalo State. He averaged 13.4 points per game.

McCarthy then coached the Canisius men’s basketball team for three seasons. The Golden Griffins were 28-49 in McCarthy’s tenure as head coach, from 1974 to 1977.

He later worked for the city as a loan officer in the community revitalization department.

“He remained a humble person, his whole life,” John said. “He could have done other things, but he came back to Buffalo. He had humility in his life, and he never thought he was bigger or better than anybody else.”

McCarthy’s partner, Claudia Woodrich, preceded him in death, and he is survived by his former wife, Dorothy (Pairn). He is also survived by his five children, Ann, Timothy, John, Michael and Joseph, and his four grandchildren, John, Timothy, Margaret and Ann.

A gathering of immediate family will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at Demmerley Funeral Home in Hamburg, with a service at 11:30 a.m. A burial at Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna will follow at 12:45 p.m.

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