SOMETHING ABOUTthe game: Was it the rat-a-tat of a ball dribbled on a wooden floor? The stinkof sweat and morning breath mixed with drafty gym air? The thousands ofshuffling feet on game night, the voices rising as tip-off nears? Yes, allthat. But even more, it was the thought of those young faces looking at him,waiting. It was practice that brought Rick Majerus back. Because there he hadthe answers. Because there—in his watchmaker-precise breakdowns of what the fanlater mistook for improvisation and flow—was where he lived. He learned thiswhile bombing around the country the last three years, another ex-coach TVanalyst with his face pressed against the glass, around basketball but nottruly in it. Practice was pure. Practice wasn't subject to opponents' whims orthe pressure of parents frowning from the stands or some producer chiding himfor essentially declaring on-air that the mere sight of actress Ashley Judd wasbetter than porn. Practice was his alone.
This is an article from the Jan. 21, 2008 issue
There were rulesfor those sessions, of course. Players on a Majerus team are warned: You mustwant it as much as he does. Lock your eyes on the man when he speaks; glanceaway and he'll blow you to bits. If Coach calls your name? Run—never walk—andstand in front of him, eyes wide, like a puppy panting for a treat. And forGod's sake, don't take anything he says personally. Put a filter on your brain,let the knowledge from one of the great coaching minds of his time drip throughand throw away all that profane sediment, all those gibes about your characteror family, all the humiliation that comes from seeing your most embarrassingweakness paraded before teammates and then stomped.
Many of Majerus'sformer players at Utah consider him a rare and good man: center Michael Doleac,whose 10-year NBA career is due almost entirely to Majerus; Andre Miller, theProp 48 project who graduated on time with a sociology degree and now stars forthe Philadelphia 76ers; Keith Van Horn, whom Majerus counseled all night afterbreaking the news that the player's father had died; forward Hanno Mottola, whosays that in his eight years of pro ball he has never worked as hard, played aswell or felt the game as deeply as he did under Majerus.
In 15 seasons atUtah, from 1989 to 2004, Majerus won 10 conference titles, coached his teams totwo Sweet 16 finishes, one Elite Eight and an NCAA tournament final. His Uteswon 30 games twice. Four of his players were named academic All-Americas, andeight went on to play in the NBA. "He's the total package," Millersays, "and I'm grateful for it."
But then,consider this: Of the 80 recruits Majerus signed with the Utes, only 33survived to play as seniors. Nearly 59% of them transferred or otherwise leftearly, most unable or unwilling to meet Majerus's exacting standards or endurehis mercurial, sometimes crude, even cruel behavior. And some who stayedconsidered bolting too. By Christmas of his freshman year, 1996, Mottola hadscribbled himself this note: This is beyond what I can handle. For the nextthree years his stomach lurched each time he saw Majerus step onto thecourt.
Last October,after the coach started drilling his new team at Saint Louis, Mottola felt pityfor the players. "I would love to be there to see those Saint Louisguys," he said from his home in Greece, "who have no clue what's hitthem."
If they hadspoken to any of his former Utes, Majerus's new players might know that heregularly called his players a vile word for the female sexual organ. That helambasted stars and backups alike and wasn't averse to poking them in theirchests. That he once brought Van Horn to tears after catching him looking athis stats after a loss to archrival Brigham Young. That during the 2001--02season Majerus reportedly called Lance Allred, a backup center who was 75%deaf, "a disgrace to cripples" who had "weaseled [his] way throughlife using [his poor] hearing as an excuse."
Allred, whoreported those quotes to a Salt Lake City newspaper in 2004, transferred out ofUtah in '02 along with four other players. Allred's parents complained, and thematter was investigated by the university's Office of Equal Opportunity, which,according to Utah athletic director Chris Hill, "found no discriminationcase" against Majerus, technically clearing but not explicitly exoneratinghim. When asked about the incident, Majerus says, "I honest to God don'tremember. I'm not even going to address it." Allred, now playing in theNBA's development league, declined to talk to SI, but two players from the'01--02 team confirm the account he gave to the Salt Lake City paper. One ofthem, Chris Burgess, Utah's starting center that season, recalls that when aninjury knocked him out of the lineup, Majerus's badgering reduced Allred totears: "Lance came crying to me, 'Chris, when are you going to be back?Please. I don't want to start tomorrow. I don't want to play anymore. I needyou to take the pressure off me.'"
But nothing aboutMajerus is as simple as it seems. Just ask Burgess, who transferred from Duketo play for Majerus in 1999, whether he made the right move."Absolutely," he says. "I loved it."
He's not alone.During a game in 1999 Majerus gathered his team around him during a timeout andzeroed in on struggling center Nate Althoff. "You've got none ofthese," Majerus growled, and then reached over and lightly backhandedAlthoff's groin. "You've got no nuts!"
Althoff took nooffense—to that or any other aspect of playing for Majerus. "Bestexperience of my life," he says. "By far."
SOMETHING ABOUTthe man: Is it the cartoonish profile, all bald head and ballooning contours,like the Michelin Man come to life? The .737 winning percentage, up there withthose of Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams? His role as St. Louis's newestsports celebrity? Yes, all that. But even more, it's Majerus's humor thatbrings out a barful of boosters this October evening. In public andoff-the-cuff Majerus is famously funny, a one-man counterweight to theBelichicks and Rileys who make sports seem like the siege of Stalingrad. Whenthe Saint Louis president, Father Lawrence Biondi, introduced the Billikens'new basketball coach last April, he tried to invest the press conference withproper Jesuitical gravity by explaining the Latin origin of Majerus's name("Magnus, meaning great"). Majerus corrected him. "The name isreally from Luxembourg," he said, "and I think it meanssausage-eater." Then the new coach, a product of a Jesuit educationhimself, broke up the room by musing that "the greatest mystery of faith tome is not the resurrection or the virgin birth. I want to know if theCorinthians ever wrote back."
Now Majerus sitson a stool and gives the boosters a bit of that. He busts one fan's chops for aquestion "longer than War and Peace," and when the man scampers to themen's room, Majerus cracks, "Let's hope that senator from Idaho isn't inthere." He says that when ESPN analyst Hubie Brown dies, "they shouldgive his prostate to the Mayo Clinic" because Brown can broadcast for hourswithout having to go to the bathroom. Majerus pinballs from Chicago politics toDick Cheney to recruiting, yet it all meshes into a kind of performance art:brilliant and bumbling, effortlessly charming. The fact that Majerusoffhandedly rips his 7-foot senior center, Bryce Husak, as passionless and hisstarting power forward, Barry Eberhardt, as a bit of a con man only helps. Theson of a Wisconsin toiletmaker, and with seven heart bypasses under his belt,Majerus, 59, does Common Man like few others.
But when askedabout basketball, he is suddenly transported to a coaching round table in whicheveryone refers to Don Nelson as Nellie and knows who plays man or zone, andwhy. He launches into a soliloquy about how Utah Jazz future Hall of FamersJohn Stockton and Karl Malone "pushed middle," and as the boosters'smiles assume a pasted-on quality, he babbles about "angles" and howhis teams "invariably try to force baseline and out" before trailingoff with a mystifying "those are big adjustments."
Someone reels himback in with a question about his coaching philosophy. "You always coachbased on your personnel," Majerus begins, but he veers off again. "Youknow, at Utah I had five, six, seven teams [with hardly] a brother on them.It's hard to live without brothers. But if I took a black kid at Utah.... It'svery difficult...."
Now he's talkingabout a trip he took to Africa with Nellie in the early '90s, and he goes offon a tangent about being an assistant coach for Dream Team II in 1994 and howit was criticized for running up scores. "How much has changed sincethen?" he asks. Silence. Then Majerus describes how he sat in an arena oneday in Africa, the one white man in a sea of black faces, and "people werereally nice to me," and he must sense he's losing the crowd because heveers back to the one topic that never fails. He tells about boarding a bus inKenya, "and you jam yourself in like a New York subway and it's all blackand I'm, like, the talk of the bus, obviously. So I said to this woman, 'Whatare they saying?' And she said, 'They're saying there's a big rich American onthis bus, and you're so fat that you're taking up a lot of space!'"
Hilarity.Applause. Majerus pauses, then nails the punch line: "I never rode the busafter that."
SOMETHING ABOUTfood: Is it a weakness? A way to ease loneliness? To relieve postgame tension?Yes, all that. But now he's got to control himself. Majerus neared 370 poundswhen he left Utah; he looks a bit slimmer these days. "The only bad thingabout tonight's meal?" he says as the plates are cleared after a latedinner at his St. Louis hotel. "The time we ate it. I had a pretty goodpiece of steak, but it was small and I trimmed off whatever fat there was. Hada salad, a little cup of bean soup, didn't touch the bread. Now I'm going tobed."
Without dessert.Majerus's weight has always been the most serious obstacle to his dream of, ashe puts it, "dating Cindy Crawford," i.e., coaching at a prestigiousprogram. He missed most of his first season at Utah because of septuple bypasssurgery. He coached one game in 2000--01 before taking a leave to undergo kneesurgery, have stents installed in two coronary arteries and help his motherrecover from cancer. Then, in January '04, two weeks after Allred went publicwith his allegations, Majerus quit Utah for good because of more suspectedheart trouble that ended up being a savage case of diverticulitis. Over theyears Majerus has attracted interest from many big-time schools and pro teams,most notably Southern Cal in '04, but nothing came of it. He accepted the USCjob only to back out three days later. Again, "no question about it,"he says, his health was a big factor in the decision.
But just asthere's an element of self-sabotage in every overeater, there's also thesuspicion that Majerus could never feel truly at home commanding a team likeNorth Carolina or Notre Dame. At Marquette, Ball State, Utah and now SaintLouis, Majerus has been what he calls "a build" guy, the contractorcalled in to make a program nationally presentable. He has some rich pals suchas Utah billionaire Jon Huntsman, but rubbing elbows in L.A. with botoxedactors and the Zen Master, as he calls Lakers coach Phil Jackson, is hardly hisstyle. "I just wasn't ready," Majerus says.
His retreat fromthe Trojans was no doubt also due to the declining health of his 81-year-oldmom, Alyce. Rick's father, Ray, who was a power in the Milwaukee labormovement—Jimmy Carter called the house the night he won the presidency in1976—has been dead for two decades, and Alyce has slept with his sweater everynight since. Two summers ago Rick and his two sisters put her in a home, but insix weeks Alyce sank so precipitously that they took her out again. "I'llsee her through to the end," he says. "I told her, 'Mom, as long as I'malive, you're not going to have to worry. You're not going in that home unlessyou want to.'"
Now Alyce livesin a Milwaukee condo, MedicAlert at the ready, and Majerus makes a point ofspending his parents' anniversary, his dad's birthday and Christmas with her.They watch war movies. Alyce tells how Ray lost 50 pounds fighting on Okinawain World War II, licking water off leaves and sucking leather shoelaces to stayalive. Home from the war, Ray ate and ate and became the big man Rick worshipsstill. After deciding last spring to get back into coaching, Rick drew a mentalradius—five-hour car ride, max—around Milwaukee. Saint Louis wasn't CindyCrawford, Lord knows; witness the 9--7 Billikens' record-low 20-point output ina loss at George Washington last Thursday. But a new on-campus arena is coming,and he's near enough to get home fast.
"It's hardgetting old in America," Majerus says. "Tonight I wanted to call my mombut didn't have time. Tomorrow morning I'll call her, and it'll be a call aboutnothing—like Seinfeld—but that's good. It's her half hour. She'll wonder aboutmy health, how's the team look, but she won't know what the team is. We went tothe Final Four, and she said, 'What division?' I said, 'Uh, Mom ... it's goingto be a big crowd.'"
Network TV andout-of-town scribes love Majerus. For them he'll open up practice and meetings.He calls his greatest career moment the day Andre Miller graduated; he's beenknown to give players a game off to prepare for exams; he can list the reasonswhy Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger is a great story. He speaks movinglyof participating in civil rights marches with his father, and even those whodon't like him will tell you about the countless times he's helped cancerpatients, the solicitous letters he's sent in times of grief. This Majerus, ofcourse, dovetails with his joke-cracking persona; it follows that someone whopokes fun at himself might have a healthy perspective on life. Even the NCAAviolations that helped put Utah on three years' probation in 2003 came off asendearing; Majerus paid for a few players' meals, provided milk and cookies atfilm sessions. Who do you figure won that p.r. battle, the NCAA or the guysharing his Oreos?
Not that Majerusgoes out of his way to polish his image. Sometime before he left Utah, a SaltLake City waitress left him a baby with a note. Majerus, married once,childless and 20 years divorced, famously lived in a Marriott hotel nearcampus; everyone knew where to find him. The woman figured Majerus could findthe baby a good home, and word around ESPN is that he nursed the infant with abottle while watching film. That couldn't be a more humanizing tableau, butwhen the subject is raised, he tries to slough it off.
No, he saysfinally, the bottle-and-film part isn't true. "I brought somebody in, a galto help me," he says. "Momentarily I thought about keeping [the child],but I couldn't. Then I called one person who might want to take this baby in,but the paperwork and the legal aspects were overwhelming. My attorney wasworried about liability issues. I made another call, found a place. I named thebaby after my mom and a friend: Boom, it's gone." He doesn't know to whom.He doesn't know where. He sent along $5,000, seed money for college. "Ithad to be gut-wrenching for the mom," he says. "It was a tough deal forme."
His players gotglimpses of that Majerus when he'd bring in a deaf team to teach the value ofcommunication, or go out of his way to help the players' families. When thenfreshman forward Britton Johnsen was falsely accused by a North Carolina playerof using a racial slur during the 1998 NCAA semifinals, Majerus publiclydeclared himself so sure of Johnsen's innocence that he promised to quit if theallegation proved true. "I was terrified," Johnsen says, "and thatjust relieved me of everything. It was unbelievable that he did that forme."
So, no, it'snever shocking to hear people use the word compassionate or great to describeMajerus. "And they're absolutely right," Burgess says. "There'sjust other parts about him that are...." He stops to find the right word."Puzzling."
SOMETHING ABOUTthe body: Is it a weapon? A shield? Or is it just that Majerus, unlike so manyin our fit-versus-fat culture, simply doesn't care about the impact of hisphysique? He may be the least self-conscious man alive. How else to explain hispropensity to get naked—in practice, watching film, at meetings, duringinterviews? Nearly every former player of Majerus's has a can-you-believe-itanecdote.
"The firsttime, [Utah was] recruiting me, and after the game I went down to the [Utes']locker room," says Jeff Johnsen, who signed with Utah in 1996. "Hishair's everywhere and his sweater's off and he's just drenched, and he's eatinga whole pizza in front of me and he's like, 'You want any?' I grab a piece, andthen he starts undressing and gets in the shower and is still talking to me. Itwas funny. It was weird. How many grown, fat, naked men do you see when you'rea high school kid?"
Another playerremembers Majerus calling him up to his hotel room on various occasions, and"he'd answer the door in his towel and I'd come in and the towel would falloff and it was like nothing had happened. He'd just be standing there bucknaked. One year he had this lower-back injury, and he would have the trainermassage it with ultrasound. But instead of just lowering his pants a littlebit, Majerus would pull his pants down to his ankles and sit in a chair andcoach us. Sometimes he'd be like, 'Guys, bring it in, take a knee.' We'd comein, and we're just like, No way this is happening."
None of theseplayers believes that his habit of dropping trou was sexual. In a sense, theplayers look upon it as their coach's greatest sight gag, made even loonier byhis deadpan expression. "He's oblivious," Burgess says. "He justdoesn't care."
Indeed, Majerusdoesn't see why anyone would look at his casual nudity as odd. "I mean, weall have foibles," he says. "Talk to my two secretaries [at Utah]; I'mvery close to them. [One time] I had to get a colonoscopy. Kelly [Miller] tookme down for it and then took me back to the hotel, because you can't drive[after the procedure], and she undressed me and got me on the bed. I didn't askher to; she took care of me. My last secretary, Whitney [Lindgren]? People usedto walk in my room or the coaches' room, and Whitney would be walking on myback. She was about 100 pounds, and I told her, 'Here's the vertebrae andhere's what we're trying to align.' Or she'd sit on my back with her buttfacing my feet, because it flattened out whatever those things are. I used tolook at film while she'd do it."
Yet there havebeen instances, with even his favorite players, in which Majerus's behavior wasdecidedly odd. Doleac spent his first three years at Utah shell-shocked byMajerus's tirades, his knack for calling his players "c----." It didn'thelp that once during the 1995--96 season Majerus got so desperate—to make apoint, to lighten the mood—that he flashed his team. It was during a morningshootaround. Majerus kept telling Doleac that he needed to keep six inchesbetween himself and his opponent in the post. When Doleac was caught shortlyafter leaning on his man, the coach erupted. "'Jesus f------ Christ,Doleac! When a guy catches the ball in the post, you gap him six inches!'"Doleac recalls Majerus yelling. "Then he turns to the guys sitting on thebaseline and says, 'Six f------ inches,' and he says, 'the size of the averagewhite d---!' and pulls it out. That story spread like wildfire, but at the timeit's not funny. At the time you're terrified."
Yet in retrospectDoleac considers that stunt harmless. What galls him is that Majerus'sfour-hour practices drained all fun out of the game, that Majerus abruptlydecided that backup Jordie McTavish couldn't play and ran him out of theprogram. "I love Majerus to death; he's a friend to this day," Doleacsays. "That doesn't mean I think he's done everything right."
Doleac describesthe huddle during a Sweet 16 struggle with Stanford in the 1997 NCAA tournamentin which Majerus grabbed Mottola's testicles and said, "Have some f------balls, Hanno!" That, Doleac says, "did cross the line." Majerus, headds, "hit me in the chest once. Whoom!" But Doleac can't helpdefending his old coach. "It's not like he was swinging at me. He was mad,and he just popped me in the chest hard. Could you say that crossed the line?Of course. Did it really? Was he trying to molest Hanno? No, he was mad and hedid something impulsively and it got the point across and we wound up winning.He didn't choke a guy."
McTavish, whoplayed at Utah for two years before transferring to Idaho State in '98, says,"He punched me a lot. Other coaches would get in big trouble for doingthat. The fact that he could grab a young man's balls in a timeout or punch youin the chest numerous times ... that's just unbelievable."
Majerus says thatall players, particularly disgruntled ones like McTavish, embellish their warstories. And it's true that semantics come into play; when pressed, the formerplayers describe Majerus's "punch" as a short jab. "I don't think Iever hit a kid," Majerus says. "I've pointed at a guy's chest, yeah.But all of a sudden I'm hitting guys? That's not me."
And it'ssignificant that in 15 years no Utah player complained to Majerus's superiorsabout physical force. "I've never heard that," says Hill, the AD whohired Majerus in 1989. "I've heard stories that seemed crazy, and I wouldfollow up on them. There's times you need to discipline your coach, but you doit in private rather than in public."
Regardless, it'sclear that something about the game triggers something in the man. He's earthy,irreverent, insightful and blunt. Basketball amplifies thosequalities—sometimes to extremes—and many who know Majerus have been leftwondering, What happened to the funny guy, the one who wells up at the mentionof his dad? "It would be a lifetime job trying to figure him out," saysone of the coach's longtime associates. "I can't explain him. I can'treconcile the two people you see."
EVERY DAY has awinner and loser. That's sports. That's another thing Majerus missed. Thelosers today, during his fifth official practice as Billikens coach? Everyone,really: There's a constant shuttle of miscreants off the court, banished thereto run sprints for the minutest of errors. "We're live!" Majerus keepsshouting, and the players move—hoping that, just once, they might actually geta shot off—but after two steps the coach yells, "Stop!" like a kidplaying freeze-tag. This is less athletics than choreography. A guard was fiveinches off his spot. Or a forward ran a semicircle instead of a straightline.
"Majerus isby far the best coach I've ever played for," says Doleac, a MinnesotaTimberwolves center who has played for NBA legends Chuck Daly and Pat Riley."He's got an unbelievable ability to see the game; he can watch a play andknow what all 10 guys are doing and what each did wrong. You wouldn't believeit, but then you'd watch the film and he was right every time. He has thispresence, and he backs it up because his energy is the same every day. If youcoach kids for a week, after a while you get tired of correcting them. But henever lets it go. That's why people hate him: Because every time you mess up,he blows you up."
Today it's easyto identify his prime target. "He's been hell for me," says Billikensjunior guard Tommie Liddell III. "But I look at it as a positivething." Sleepy-eyed and talented, with a meddlesome father and tardinessissues to boot, Liddell is almost custom-made to drive Majerus mad. Three timesthe coach lights into Liddell for middling effort. When Majerus sees who's justblown past his prodigy to score an easy layup, it's too perfect. Today'swinner? Mike the Walk-On. Majerus says these words once, twice, and suddenlyhe's addicted to them; Mike the Walk-On becomes an honorific, like Peter theGreat, for sophomore guard Mike Jones.
Dribble,shuffle—stop! "Mike the Walk-On would give his right nut to have yourability," Majerus tells Liddell. Dribble, shuffle—stop! "How does a5'9" walk-on knock you out of the play?" Later Majerus admits that heloves Mike the Walk-On, but it's nothing personal. He loves the whole breed,the practice players who work out the scholarship boys because they live thegame and this is as close as they'll ever get. "Because they try hard andthey're no good," Majerus says. "Because I'm a walk-on."
Majerus got cutfrom his high school team in Milwaukee. "He was always the fat kid whowould've given anything to be on a team and never was," says a longtimeassociate of the coach's. "He was somewhat the laughingstock." Alleffort and elbows, he somehow walked on to Marquette's freshman team, but ayear later the school's hallowed varsity coach, Al McGuire, labeled him one of"the crappiest players I've ever had" and cut him. In Majerus'sautobiography, My Life on a Napkin, McGuire recalls bringing "Rick thePick" to tears after he begged to play in a glorified scrimmage. "I'dput Willie Wampum in," said McGuire, referring to the school mascot,"before you."
But Majerus founda Milwaukee junior high to coach, then was hired by his old high school, and ayear after graduating from Marquette, in 1970, he became McGuire's thirdassistant, with a $5,000 salary. He spent the next six years under McGuire, andthough he couldn't look more opposite to the lean, voluble New Yorker, it'sstriking how closely he followed McGuire's lead. The coach taught Majerus thatbeing a glib, larger-than-life bon vivant could play in the media, and thatbrutal honesty worked best behind the scenes. While other recruiters wooed andcooed, Majerus told Mr. McDonald's All-American that he was too skinny andinformed a hotshot guard that his defense made Majerus want to puke. "Atfirst, it pissed me off," says Trent Whiting, who lasted one semester withthe Utes, in 1999. "It wasn't like the other colleges, [which] were feedingyour head about how great you were and how bad they wanted you."
"With Majerusyou know exactly what you are getting," Mottola says. "He can be inyour face for 3 1/2 hours during practice, and when we are walking toward thelocker room, he wants to be your best friend. And he is. He's not fake. He'sthe most honest coach I've encountered."
In a sense, it'sthat quality that got Majerus into his no-win battle with Allred, the playerwho's 75% deaf. Two teammates from Allred's time say he frequently engaged inunaided dialogue off the court. "Lance could hear you, could have a full-onconversation with you, so who's to say what he could and couldn't hear?"says former forward Jeff Johnsen. "Rick thought he purposely was notlistening to him, using the excuse, 'Oh, I couldn't hear you because I'm deaf.'But Lance is a different guy; nobody really understood him, I'll behonest."
Majerus admits hecan go too far. He regretted making Van Horn cry, so he took him out for bagelsthe day after and explained, "You're living my dream. I'm hard on youbecause you're special, because I never was any good myself." Van Hornlater made Majerus his daughter's godfather.
The six-inchdisplay? Majerus says he's not the same coach he was a decade ago. "I'mprobably a little embarrassed about some things I've said or done inpractice," he says. But he's not going to apologize for calling things ashe sees them. "You know what my doctor told me?" he says. "'You'lllose weight when you get tired of seeing your fat ass in the mirror.' I don'tthink he's being mean. He's telling it like it is.
"I got onBryce [Husak] really hard the other day: 'If you're just another big guy whodoesn't want to play, but you feel obligated because of your size and becausewe gave you the scholarship? Let me give you a hug, you got the scholarship;let's part ways. Because why should Luke Meyer and Kevin Lisch and Liddell havethis passion and we're a team and you don't have it?' There's a lot of guys I'dwant to go camping with; there's not a lot of guys I want to win with. Is thatfair? Yeah. I don't take it personally. I love my doctor."
It's a sunnyThursday, around noon. Majerus is sitting at a table outside his hotel,ordering lunch. He's just come from a swim; he's wearing a baggy pair of shortsand a black Saint Louis T-shirt with a hole in the left armpit. So? He's got nowife to answer to, no children to pick up at school; he never wears a tie.There are those who say that Majerus changed with his success at Utah, sheddingfriends he'd made at the beginning, yet if you look at his life, change is thelast thing Majerus seems to want. If he has a complaint, it's that the world isless fun than when he was 12 and he and his pals would shoot baskets all day.It's no exaggeration to say that his days unwind like a 12-year-old's fantasyof adult life: living in hotels, hanging out with the guys, the whole world alocker room where you can b.s. about the latest movie and nobody blinks if youstrip to take a shower. Work 18-hour days, then take off for three months inHawaii? Sure. Majerus's two-room suite is a mess, but he knows where everythingis: the paper with all his phone numbers, the boxes of cold medicine, hisNational Geographic. By the door is a box of Milwaukee Braves baseball cards,his childhood heroes right at hand.
Majerus's foodcomes. When he finishes lunch, he will go upstairs, sling a bag over hisshoulder, thank the housekeeper for her hard work and race off to meet with hiscoaches. But for now? The waitress has fixed his bowl of soup just right.
"You wantsome?" he says between spoonfuls. "She did a great job gettingvegetables into this. These are fresh-cut carrots and the celery's fresh-cut. Ilove that. You should get a bowl."
SOMETHING ABOUTpain: Rick Majerus prizes his. Because pain teaches you. Because pain is theprice of chasing one's passion, and if you don't do that, you're not alive.Because, ideally, losses like tonight's 22-point thrashing at Boston Collegeshow how limited your immediate future is, and that kind of clarity can onlyhelp. Majerus inherited this Saint Louis team. Few doubt he can put the programin the national picture, but he figures on a three-year struggle, and who knowshow long his body will hold up? He's got a team, but for now it feels nothinglike Utah.
"I realizethe position I'm in here now: These guys didn't pick me; I didn't pickthem," Majerus says after the Dec. 4 game. "We're in each other'sworlds, and we're looking at each other, like...." He shrugs. "It iswhat it is. I like these kids, they're really nice kids. I would like any oneof them as a son."
That only soundsdismissive. Majerus knows basketball cost him a marriage, kids. More than oncehe investigated adopting a child alone and allowed himself to be talked out ofit. But the boys he never had and raised are never far from his mind. Theboosters saw that in the bar back in October, when, apropos of nothing, hedropped into a public reverie, his voice gone mournful and soft. "I wish Icould've had a kid like Dwayne Polk or Luke Meyer," he said of two of hisseniors. "I don't have any regrets other than that. I look at Luke andthink, Boy, his parents must feel so special to have that kind of akid."
That sparked atangent about parents today, and how they "want to take all the pain, allthe heartache and all the sadness out of their kids' lives. All the things thatmake you a better person, a better coach, a better teacher—all the things thatare so much the fabric of life. I'm so much better for every loss I've had. Ican...."
Majerus paused,and everyone in the place leaned forward in his seat. It was pin-drop quiet.When he spoke again his eyes had filled with tears, and the words came outslowly; suddenly it was 1998, March 30, and Doleac and Miller and Alex Jensenwere beating Kentucky in the NCAA final, up by 12 early in the second half. Noone had expected them to even get there. No one had expected Utah to beatArkansas, Arizona and North Carolina—all those traditional powers—and nowMajerus saw Kentucky, too, in his grasp. Then came Utah's collapse, hisovermatched players finally run down and beaten 78--69, the whole awful film ofit unspooling again in his head.
"I don't knowhow to tell you this," Majerus rasped. "I don't think I can get youguys there; I probably can't, because it's so tough to get to the Final Four.But, you know, I was just a bad player; any walk-on with me now is much betterthan I ever was. But I always loved to play, and I knew how to get my way in:I'd find all those guys who were good shooters and set picks for them and I'dgo on the floor for loose balls. [At Utah] I had such great kids. I love thosekids. They played their asses off, and we got to the national championshipgame; I can remember every moment of that game. You become so much better aperson for all the bad things that happen to you. But all these helicopterparents, they just hover there, and they want to take all that away from theirkids. They don't want them to fight through it."
And at thatmoment it became clear: the task Majerus set for himself long ago. It's notjust the searing losses that will teach his players. It's him too: dealing outthe hard knocks and heartbreak that he felt once. If parents won't do it?Majerus will be the pain their kids fight through every day. Some mayunderstand. He's almost past caring. Majerus will walk that long tunnel to thelocker room alone, head down, two people indeed. There goes the happy coach,back in his element. There goes the saddest man you ever saw.
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