Every so often, Rick Majerus comes to town and reminds us of what might have been.
Right now, he is coach of the St. Louis University Billikens. If they have any sense in St. Louis, they are counting their blessings, and not just the basketball fans.
This is a man as accomplished as they come in his sport. It is also a man as complicated as they come in life.
His basketball team is in Anaheim this weekend to play in the 76 Classic, a creation of ESPN, as is much of the sports landscape these days. Its sole purpose is to provide programming. It attracts dozens of fans and entertains the little gatherings with the worst mascot in the history of mascots — a person dressed as a gas pump. The closest thing to a local team is UC Riverside, which doesn’t appear to be heading to the Final Four.
Chances are excellent that tickets will be available when they play the tournament final Sunday.
Majerus’ Billikens will be in that final. Friday, before an estimated crowd of 431 at the Anaheim Convention Center, they showed why basketball fans, especially basketball purists, love Majerus’ teams. St. Louis U. beat a previously unbeaten Villanova team, 80-68, with muscle, finesse, suffocating defense and a team togetherness that is becoming rare in this age of athletic ego. Think of it as the “look at me” era.
“They just made the extra pass, the extra play,” said Villanova’s Jay Wright, himself a great coach and tactician. “They are going to be hard to beat.”
That the Billikens are 5-0 and on the verge of being nationally ranked recalls those days in the winter of 2004, when Majerus accepted the job as coach at USC, and then handed it back four days later.
“One of the hardest things I ever did in my life,” he said Friday, “was walking out after that second press conference. I thought I could have won a national championship there.”
With most, that’s hyperbolic dreaming. With Majerus, it was based on having taken Utah to 11 conference championships, as well as the NCAA final in 1998, where, leading Kentucky by 12 points in the second half, the fatigued Runnin’ Utes couldn’t run anymore.
Majerus at USC might have completed the greatest sports hiring exacta of the decade. Mike Garrett, USC’s athletic director then, now living in the retirement shadow of Reggie Bush, could have titled his biography: “I hired Pete Carroll and Rick Majerus.”
It is seven years later, including Majerus’ three years as a TV analyst before taking the St. Louis job, and basketball fans are still confused. Most settled on the obvious — that Majerus, now 63, had health issues. He has always been heavy and has had seven heart bypass operations. Or, as he likes to say, “One for each food group.”
Friday, it became time to be painfully honest, right to the specifics. His decision was a health issue, but not his.
“I was all set,” he said. “I had a home picked out in Santa Monica, about 20th Street, just north of Montana. I wasn’t in great shape health-wise, but I knew I could be when I’d take over in April.
“And then, my mom called.”
Some background is needed here. Majerus is the son of Raymond Majerus, once a prominent labor leader in the Midwest and an important operative in the Wisconsin Democratic Party. When Jimmy Carter won the presidential election in 1976, he phoned Ray Majerus to thank him that night. When Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Selma, Ray Majerus was alongside.
Ray Majerus never finished high school. He had a family to feed. He started on the loading docks and worked his way up. When the labor movement brought a strike at the massive Kohler Co., in little Kohler, Wis., Majerus led the way.
His wife, Alyce, raised her son and two daughters and worked in the factory for three winter months every year so she could buy Christmas presents. Her son calls her Rosie the Riveter.
Ray Majerus died in 1987 at age 63. Alyce, then 60, with never a sick day in her life, was diagnosed with breast cancer just months later.
On Thanksgiving Day the next year, Rick Majerus drove his mother from Milwaukee to Chicago for dinner at a relative’s house.
“We were arguing,” he said Friday. “She said she didn’t want to live, that her husband was gone. She wanted no treatment. No radiation, no chemotherapy.
“The more we argued, the faster I drove. I got it up to 80, then 90, even 100. She started crying, telling me to slow down. I asked her why, since she didn’t want to live anyway.
“Then a cop stopped me. He recognized me as Ball State’s coach, then saw my mother crying and asked what was going on. I told him. He gave me a long look and said, ‘Have a nice day.’”
Two days after Majerus took the USC job, his mother called. She had long ago beaten the breast cancer, after giving into her son’s treatment demands, but years later was diagnosed with another form, small cell cancer.
I don’t want you to do this, she told her son. You are too far away.
He offered to buy her a house in Los Angeles. A friend pointed out that her canasta club was not in Los Angeles. Nor were her friends, or her life.
Alyce Majerus died in August. The Catholic church where they held her memorial service wouldn’t allow a union solidarity song she loved. So Majerus hired a trio to play it, anyway.
It had been 23 years since she said she didn’t want to go on living and her crazy basketball-coaching son played chicken with her on the highway.
“I wouldn’t trade those years for anything,” Rick Majerus said Friday.
And he clearly didn’t.