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Loss of a legend

Page 3 of 6 -- ''Tell me,'' Sean implored Stewart between periods, ''just how good an athlete was my father?''

Stewart replied emphatically, ''Maybe the best I've ever coached.''

''That certainly wasn't the answer I was prepared for,'' says Sean with a laugh.

That proficiency would serve Will in good stead, earning him respect among his subjects as someone who could perform sports feats, not just describe them. ''He was a great athlete,'' says Bruins president-general manager Harry Sinden, who has known McDonough since becoming the team's coach 36 years ago, ''so he knew where the people he was writing about were coming from.''

Red Auerbach realized that firsthand. ''We used to work out a lot together,'' says the resident Celtics legend, who was still coaching the team when he met McDonough. ''He used to beat the [expletive] out of me in tennis and racquetball.''

Perhaps because of that, there was no doubting his destiny; from childhood, he had ''sportswriter'' written all over him.

''He read everything, watched everything,'' says Sweeney. ''He's extremely bright, he's got a mind that can absorb everything, and he was a real sports nut.''

Bulger noticed another trait that is invaluable in McDonough's chosen trade. ''He always talks about everything ex cathedra, as if it's certain, when things aren't certain: `I'll tell you what's going to happen.' He never had the problem of hesitation.''

Bulger speaks with bemusement about this aspect of his old friend, but it once came in handy.

As Bulger relates in his memoir, ''While The Music Lasts: My Life In Politics,'' McDonough was Bulger's first campaign manager.

It was a shoestring operation, with guile and savvy in greater supply than dollars and cents. A key element was finding residences to hang signs promoting Bulger to represent Southie's Ward 7. One night, Bulger writes, ''Coley Walsh ... breezed in after a sojourn at the Cornerstone Pub.''

Walsh told McDonough and Bulger they could nail a sign on the three-decker across the street, which he owned. The neophyte politicos instantly took him up on this. But while installing the sign, McDonough and Bulger were interrupted by an irate resident sticking his head out a window and demanding, ''What the hell do you think you're doing? You've already knocked a picture off the wall.''

Bulger explained that the building's owner had granted permission for this campaign propaganda. The man exploded, ''All Coley owns is the clothes he's wearing. I own this house, and you get away from it and take your damn sign with you.''

Chastened, Bulger and McDonough obliged. But McDonough took a different tack, so to speak.

''We're leaving,'' he told the resident, who had not seen the name on the sign, ''but I still hope you'll vote for O'Leary'' - Bulger's opponent.   Continued...

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