It is Saturday night at the Honda Center in Anaheim, there are basketballs bouncing all around me, sneakers squeaking and fans cheering. UCLA is playing San Diego State in the Wooden Classic, and I don’t care.
Being a basketball court, this is Rick Majerus’ living room and he won’t ever sit in it again. He is gone, dead at age 64.
The man with the huge heart and similar body shape, the man who knew more about basketball than 99.6% of the human race and coached it every day of his adult life as if it were the Gospel, left us Saturday afternoon. The heart that was so gigantic, that gave so much of itself, in and out of the sport, could carry the load no more.
He had been at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for months. The lining of his heart was too thick, had carried the burden of well over 300 pounds for far too long. He awaited a new heart, but never got healthy enough to stay long on the active recipient list.
It was a quiet ending. He had a world of friends, including this typist who knew him from childhood days in Sheboygan, Wis., and newspaper days in Milwaukee. But few were allowed to see him in his final months. He was too proud.
Scott Garson sits 10 yards away from me as I type. He is one of Ben Howland’s UCLA assistants. He was also a longtime Majerus assistant when Majerus was building one of the best programs in the country at Utah. Garson just now stood up and yelled at the referee. He was going on, coaching basketball. Majerus would be smiling. Howland, too, was a disciple. He says he wouldn’t have gotten the UCLA job without all he learned from Majerus.
Garson was among the few who got to visit Majerus in the final weeks.
“He couldn’t speak,” Garson said. “There is no way to describe how much weight he lost. I held it together in the room, but then I just went to the cafeteria and cried like a baby.”
The weight was his scourge. When Majerus was an assistant for Al McGuire at Marquette, including on McGuire’s 1977 national title team, McGuire was often merciless about the weight. It was a labor of love and futility. One day, McGuire took one look at what Majerus called progress and labeled it “a deck chair off the Titanic.”
Majerus loved hosting friends at dinner. He would often start by ordering a dozen entrees. If you liked something, he’d order three more.
He single-handedly kept pizza stores in business. His life mantra was, “Never eat anything green.”
He won 516 games and lost 215 in a college head-coaching career. That career took its shape on the playgrounds of Milwaukee, where he drilled 14-year-olds to perfection. Several became pros. He started as an assistant at Marquette High in Milwaukee, and when McGuire saw what he had done for one playground rat named Allie McGuire, Majerus became a Marquette University assistant.
This was the same Al McGuire who had cut the heavy-set, slow-moving, fundamentally perfect Majerus off the Marquette freshman team, calling him the “worst player I have ever seen.”
Majerus coached at Marquette, Ball State, and as an assistant with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks for his friend, Bucks owner and U.S. Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin.
He made his big splash at Utah, where he coached the likes of Keith Van Horn and Andre Miller and got to the 1998 Final Four. On game day, he invited a friend to the pregame walk-through. When it ended, he called his players together and invited the friend to listen. Utah was about to play lightning-quick North Carolina in the national semifinals. Utah consisted of huge, slow guys and Miller, soon to be a superb pro guard. Majerus told his team the strategy was to rebound, make an outlet pass and go, because “we are quicker than they are.” He said that, once they wore down North Carolina, Coach Bill Guthridge would have to call a timeout, go to a zone and then they had them.
The big, tall, slow Runnin’ Utes looked at him as if he had finally lost his mind.
That night, Utah got the ball off the boards and ran. Soon, Guthridge called timeout and went to a zone. Majerus had been right. He just hadn’t been specific. What he meant was that Miller, who took most of the outlet passes and dashed to the basket, was quicker than North Carolina.
The next night, Utah stopped running with a lead and about seven minutes left in the game and lost to Kentucky. Most of Majerus’ important NCAA tournament losses came at the hands of Kentucky.
“They ought to just bury me at the finish line of the Kentucky Derby,” he said after one particularly galling loss, “and let those horses just keep trampling me.”
He was always in coaching-hunt conversations. He took the job at USC for a week, then turned it back, saying he’d be too far away from an ailing mother in Milwaukee. He was close to getting the job at Notre Dame until a prominent alum objected to his coarse language in practice and to a passage in a book about him, where he said he once cheated on a school test.
“I never did,” he said later. “I was just trying to make the book more interesting.”
He’d built the St. Louis University team into a contender again. He won 26 games last season and would have been better this year.
That is, had the big heart not failed the big body.
Let’s be sentimental here and presume that there was meaning in Majerus’ dying on the day of the Wooden Classic. Let’s presume that, up there somewhere, two guys are off in a corner, talking zone traps.
Rest assured, Wooden will listen.