SI 60 Q&A: S.L. Price on getting life lessons from Rick Majerus
When S.L. Price's story, "The Life and Times Of Rick Majerus," was published in the Jan. 21, 2008 issue of Sports Illustrated, it was considered an excellent and original profile of one of college basketball's true characters, but it otherwise passed without much fanfare. But when Majerus died from heart failure in 2012, Price's story took on a second life. He spoke to SI.com about the piece, the coach and the unforgettable lesson he learned that he carries with him to this day.
SI: Where did the idea for this story come from?
PRICE: One day I was at a Heat-Jazz game in Miami when I bumped into somebody who was very familiar with Majerus from his days as the head coach at Utah, and he just went into incredible detail about this bizarre personality that Majerus had that was completely contrary to the image of a Falstaffian, jovial, wisecracking fat man that he had.
SI: Like what?
PRICE: He went into detail that Majerus would get naked a lot, how tough he was on players, all these different things. Majerus is a fascinating guy, a brilliant basketball mind, but he also thought about politics, labor issues – he came from Milwaukee where his dad was a union organizer -- and social issues, and he had a keen sense of history.
He was an irresistible figure anyway, but when you hear something completely contrary to the prevailing image that’s a story. It’s man bites dog. So I was interested. He was single at the time, he was doing college basketball commentary for ESPN. At one point he was known for his quotes, one of the first viral quotes, where he was talking about Rudy Gay and he said, “I’m a big Gay guy.”
SI: What did you make of him?
PRICE: I just thought he was dead serious and incredibly complex, but my time with him was quite the opposite of fun. There was an air of sadness and loneliness. At that point we weren’t really doing many stories on TV guys. There was a great Rick Reilly piece on Bryant Gumbel, but TV pieces were few and far between. I went to my editors at SI and said, “Put this in mind, and I don’t want anyone else to do this: When and if Majerus gets another job as a head coach I want to do that piece.”
A couple years later he washed up at Saint Louis. The instant I heard the news I said, “You gotta put this on my schedule, I gotta do the story.”
SI: What did you think you would find going in to the reporting?
PRICE: My feeling is, if a story is exactly what you think it is when you plan it in the office you’re not doing your job. Almost always when you go out reporting and talk to people you find out things you didn’t know and it takes the story in a different direction.
I was interested in him holistically. I certainly felt the other stuff – the loneliness, the brilliance, the complexity – was all stuff that I wanted to explore. I called Saint Louis and said, “I want to do a story.” That was one reason they hired Rick Majerus, for the publicity, because he was a big hire. That was part of it too: There was this weird element to Majerus of, and you could sense it, that he wanted the big time but maybe knew he wasn’t made for leading a top flight program. There was a weird insecurity there where maybe he didn’t think he was worthy of it. What is it about him that was stopping him? He was the one stopping himself from taking the final step.
SI: Were you surprised at some of the things you found about him, like about how he treated players and how he was frequently naked around them, both of which got a fair amount of attention when the story came out?
PRICE: It wasn’t a surprise to anyone inside the program. He was savagely tough on his players, and there’s the famous six-inch story that’s in there. Do I feel like people knew him? No. I think he was such a complex figure. As for the nakedness, that became instant Internet fodder. Part of the interesting thing to me about it was, and he didn’t really want to go into it, it was oddly not sexual. [SI senior writer] Seth Davis tells a hilarious story about going to Majerus’s room once and Majerus gets naked and takes a shower in front of him. That was common and it wasn’t lascivious. You could look at it like, is he using this as a weapon to put people on their back heels? Was he being tactically psychological or was he just a fat man who was incredibly comfortable with his body? That alone in our culture is fascinating.
The players I spoke to never felt like he was coming on to them. You could interpret that either as a) a power play but also b) this strange obliviousness to people. This was the mystery. I was in it and I don’t pretend to know what motivated that part of Majerus.
SI: You also wrote in the story about how he had pledged to be near and take care of his mother, and that might have affected why he didn’t go to a bigger-profile school. What did you make of that stuff?
PRICE: I will say -- paging Dr. Freud here, because you could sit down and do seven hours and still not know the effect of mothers on the dominant male -- but I actually took that at face value. His mom was ailing and she was the only family he had left. I took it as an excuse for why he needed to be in a place near Utah. He couldn’t be in Los Angeles, he couldn’t be in Kentucky. I took it as an excuse for not taking for the final step into a bigger job.
SI: With in-depth profiles like these, inevitably you’re going to be confronted with aspects of a someone’s personality that beg some analysis. How do you handle the psychological parts of the story?
PRICE: I don’t mind raising the question but I usually like to report it out and let the reader decide. The naked stuff was explosive and sensational and you get something like that and it dominates everything. If anyone remembers the Majerus story at all it’s because that’s the story where players talk about how he was naked all the time. I was trying to be extremely careful to fold in that part of his personality as opposed to doing what may have been the Associated Press, straightforward version. I could have trotted that out in the first five paragraphs as a news story but I felt like this is a part of him and it seemed harmless. It’s not like it harmed anybody, it was just strange. I didn’t want to present it as some unbelievable revelation that was part and parcel of the sadness and loneliness and complexity of Rick Majerus.
SI: Did he take issue with that subject, or anything else you wrote?
PRICE: He got his back up with me and he said, “Knock yourself out.” He was pissed, like, Bring it on, do what you can do. I was told that afterward by someone who is really close to him that Majerus appreciated the piece and thought I got him. I got a note from ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski, who is very close to Majerus, and that was probably the most gratifying part of the story. Because I’m a parachute guy – I parachute into town for a few days and write a story – and so it’s easy to see things and blow up one small interaction as the soul of someone. Gene had spent a lot of time with Majerus and wrote me a nice note saying that he thought I did a great job. I really respect Gene, I think he knows what he’s doing and the fact he thought it was good meant a lot.
SI: What other reaction did you get to it?
PRICE: My biggest thing is: Did I get the facts right? Nobody from the school responded like this was outrageous but there was a controversy right at the time it came out. Majerus got into a war of words the same week the story came out so that sort of overwhelmed my story. People certainly referred to this story but no one backed off what they told me.
As a writer, I do profiles. I believe you need to advance the story in any kind of writing you do. You gotta tell me something I didn’t know. If you write about Muhammad Ali you hope to advance it a quarter of an inch because so much has been written about him. Every once in a while you get to advance the story a mile and you change the perception of a person you think you know. I think I was able to do that with Majerus. I believe I altered our understanding as much as I possibly could with him. It was one of the few times where I felt like I was controlling the story. Even thought there is sensational stuff I didn’t think it controlled me.
No one ever said to me we should raise that naked stuff and put it in the lead. I appreciated it because I think they understood what I was trying to do. I would understand the impulse otherwise. For me it’s just one of my favorite pieces for all kinds of different reasons. The reporting of it and the crafting of it and the strategy of it. I usually don’t figure things out that far in advance.
SI: Did you ever talk with him again?
PRICE: I never heard form him again. I love the story and I really respected the guy. I found him odd, quirky and valuable. What I mean is there’s so much sameness and safety to how coaches portray themselves or allow themselves to be seen but even before my story there was nobody like Majerus. He was just one of the most unique people I’ve ever encountered in my life.
His philosophy of children is something that I still carry with me as a parent. This is a guy who didn’t have kids, and he said, essentially, “There’s something about parents today they don’t want their kids to experience pain, they’re trying to protect their kids from feeling any kind of pain. The pain is the only way you learn. That experience is how you get better, get wiser.” I’ve carried that with me ever since with my own children. Majerus saw himself as the pain that these parents would not subject their kids too.
I’ve thought about that so often since I did that story. That’s stayed with me. It’s an important thought. I think he was a profound figure, who for whatever reason didn’t allow himself to test himself to see if he could be fully great on the biggest stage. That tension was and remains fascinating to me.
SI: What do you think was holding him back?
PRICE: I don’t know. I never solved that mystery. That was a barrier of the story. It may have been self-image, it may have been understanding that that whole nakedness he could get away with at a place like Utah or St. Louis he could not sustain that at North Carolina or Kentucky. The tolerance would not have been there for that and it would not have remained secret within the basketball cocoon. I would have to trim my sails so I could fit in there or I wouldn’t be as effective or I wouldn’t be myself.
It’s the get I didn’t get. I felt like I advanced the understanding of Rick Majerus but you didn’t come away with a full understanding and I console myself with saying I don’t think any human being is capable of getting the full understanding of Rick Majerus.
SI: What did you think when he died?
PRICE: I really like him. I respected him and he was good company and I liked wrestling with the idea of Rick Majerus so I certainly was sad when he was gone. It was no surprise as everybody knows. Most people looked at Rick Majerus and thought he’s got a clock ticking. He loved to eat and he was not svelte by any means. I will tell you that because the reaction to the story the first time around was fairly tame, but when he died I was surprised that so many people referred to my story. I think I got a bigger reaction when he died that when it originally came out, because of Twitter. People spoke about it positively in a way I didn’t think about the first time. I didn’t realize it had made an impact at all until he died.
It’s absolutely one of my all-time favorite stories that I experienced. I can’t tell which stories are better than the others but in terms of my experience with a story it’s top five, right up there with Aliquippa and the Mike Coolbaugh story. It was a remarkable journey. I really appreciated that he allowed me to go on it with him. He was very cooperative, he got his back up about certain things but he understood I was going for something a little deeper than other people.