Remembering Rick Majerus: A jovial, sad, complex man

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If you're a college basketball reporter of a certain age, you almost certainly have a go-to Rick Majerus story.

Here's mine.

It was the fall of 1996, barely a year after I got hired by Sports Illustrated. The magazine assigned me to write a scouting report on Utah for our college basketball preview issue. So I flew to Salt Lake City to watch the team practice and interview a few players as well as its charismatic, enigmatic coach. Before I left, I asked my veteran colleague, Alex Wolff, for some advice. "Talk to Majerus about stuff other than basektball," he said.

Unfortunately, when I got there, Majerus didn't want to talk at all. It's not that he was opposed to being quoted -- Lord knows, he liked being quoted -- but rather because he was in a rush to get to a Utah Jazz game. "You're only going to use one or two sentences, right?" he said. "So let me just give you one or two sentences."

I told him as politely as I could that my magazine had paid the expense of flying me across the country to interview him, so I was hoping to deliver more than a couple of sentences. Majerus offered to let me ride with him back to his hotel and interview him while he got ready for the game. First, however, he was concerned that I might be hungry.

"You're Jewish, right?" he asked.

"Yes, coach."

"You want a bagel?"

"No thanks, coach."

So we rode in Majerus' car back to his hotel. That's where he lived -- the Salt Lake City Marriott. He had his own suite. It wasn't anything extravagant. He simply liked the convenience. Majerus didn't want the hassles of renting an apartment or owning a home. At the Marriott, he could come and go as he pleased, order room service, have the place cleaned every day. As I often joked with him over the years, he must have accrued more Marriott Rewards points than any customer in the history of the franchise.

Anyway, Majerus jabbered about his team all during the car ride, the walk through the lobby, the trip up the elevator. I kept my tape recorder running the whole time. He continued to talk as we entered his hotel room. Having just left practice, he was still wearing his sweatsuit. He took of his jacket. He took off his shoes. He took off his shirt. He took off his pants. He took off his socks. He took off his underwear.

And there stood Rick Majerus, all 350 pounds of him, quite literally a man in full. Just the way God made him.

"Gee, I hope I'm not embarrassing you," he said.

Over the years, Majerus would laugh whenever I reminded him of that first close encounter. He was a man with many quirks and warts, as well as a total lack of self-consciousness. He was also quite smart. I just looked up the scouting report I wrote on the Utes that week, and darned if I didn't use two sentences from our entire conversation.

If you're a college basketball reporter of a certain age, you probably also have some eating-with-Rick-Majerus stories. The man was always eating, always too much, often late at night. There was the time when I rode with Majerus and a couple of his buddies back and forth to the Utes' game at BYU in Provo. (Majerus preferred not to travel with his team. He figured the players could use a break from him.) He told me that I could ride back to Salt Lake City with him as long as the team won. If they lost, he would ride with his assistants, and I would have to find another way back.

They won. He drove me back to Salt Lake and we ended up at a downtown diner at 1:30 a.m. As I reported in my story, Majerus ordered the super stack of pancakes topped with blueberries, bananas and chocolate chips (with extra butter and syrup), two eggs over easy, a toasted English muffin and two orders of bacon. "A lot of people say hunger is the best seasoning," he told me. "I think winning is."

Majerus won a lot, and he ate a lot. I remember another occasion when we had dinner in a restaurant with about a dozen people. I don't remember where it was, but I do recall that Wayne Embry, who at the time was the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, sat between us. I couldn't get enough of listening to the two of them talk ball. I also remember that when the waitress came over to take our order, Majerus laughed and said, "Just keep bringing us food. I'll let you know when to stop."

Majerus didn't mind if you made fat jokes around him, because he made more than you did. One time, when he came to speak at a Sports Illustrated event at the Final Four, I introduced him to the crowd as our next swimsuit cover model. He laughed harder than anyone. Majerus could crack black jokes, Jewish jokes and sex jokes, and somehow nobody would get offended. (Well, almost nobody.) He also told great stories about Al McGuire, whom Majerus played for as a walk-on at Marquette (Al called him "Rick the Pick") and later worked for as an assistant.

That's what it was like being around Majerus: You laughed a lot, you ate a lot, and you learned a lot.

When the news broke Saturday night that Majerus had died of heart failure at the age of 64, those of us who have covered him for a long time were sad but hardly surprised. We knew Majerus had been in the hospital since he stepped down two months ago as the coach at St. Louis. This very public man had disappeared from view; even his closest friends had not talked to him. Nobody knew the extent of his health problems, but what little they found out wasn't good.

Furthermore -- and let's be honest here -- we have always known that this was not a man destined to live a long and healthy life. He liked to project himself as a jovial, Falstaffian figure, but it is obvious he was also a sad, depressed, lonely man. He had lots of acquaintances but few close friends. He loved two things: Basketball and food. In the end, those things consumed him, not the other way around.

Majerus was more complicated than all these colorful anecdotes would suggest. He was charming, affable and available for national writers like myself, but the local beat guys couldn't stand him. You always heard horrible stories about Majerus' antics in practice, his treatment of people in the basketball office, especially his assistants. He belittled his players so badly that they transferred at an alarming rate. During one time-out huddle, he famously challenged a player's manhood by grabbing his testicles.

And yet, when his St. Louis team lost to Michigan State in the round of 32 in last season's NCAA tournament, senior Brian Conklin broke down in tears at the postgame news conference. He wasn't crying just because his team lost. He was crying because he wouldn't get to play for Majerus anymore.

It was all a part of the great Rick Majerus dichotomy. Another of my SI colleagues, S.L. Price, put it best at the end of his lengthy 2008 magazine profile of Majerus: "There goes the happy coach, back in his element. There goes the saddest man you ever saw."

It could have been different for him, if only he had taken better care of himself, had found a little more balance between homes and hotels, between life and basketball. Had he done so, he might have lived a lot longer and been a lot happier.

But then, he wouldn't have been Rick Majerus, who was wonderful and complicated and unique and funny and tortured and, ultimately, unforgettable. He shined brightly and burned out fast, our roundball comet streaking against the sky. What do you do when you're lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a shooting star? You feel grateful. Then you turn to whoever happens to be standing next to you and say, "Holy cow, did you see that?"