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The Life and Times of RICK MAJERUS
S.L. PRICE
January 21, 2008
He's funny, charming and loved by many of his former players, but something about the game he adores brings out the worst in the new Saint Louis coach
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January 21, 2008

The Life And Times Of Rick Majerus

He's funny, charming and loved by many of his former players, but something about the game he adores brings out the worst in the new Saint Louis coach

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Althoff took no offense—to that or any other aspect of playing for Majerus. "Best experience of my life," he says. "By far."

SOMETHING ABOUT the 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 with those of Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams? His role as St. Louis's newest sports celebrity? Yes, all that. But even more, it's Majerus's humor that brings out a barful of boosters this October evening. In public and off-the-cuff Majerus is famously funny, a one-man counterweight to the Belichicks and Rileys who make sports seem like the siege of Stalingrad. When the Saint Louis president, Father Lawrence Biondi, introduced the Billikens' new basketball coach last April, he tried to invest the press conference with proper Jesuitical gravity by explaining the Latin origin of Majerus's name ("Magnus, meaning great"). Majerus corrected him. "The name is really from Luxembourg," he said, "and I think it means sausage-eater." Then the new coach, a product of a Jesuit education himself, broke up the room by musing that "the greatest mystery of faith to me is not the resurrection or the virgin birth. I want to know if the Corinthians ever wrote back."

Now Majerus sits on a stool and gives the boosters a bit of that. He busts one fan's chops for a question "longer than War and Peace," and when the man scampers to the men's room, Majerus cracks, "Let's hope that senator from Idaho isn't in there." He says that when ESPN analyst Hubie Brown dies, "they should give his prostate to the Mayo Clinic" because Brown can broadcast for hours without having to go to the bathroom. Majerus pinballs from Chicago politics to Dick Cheney to recruiting, yet it all meshes into a kind of performance art: brilliant and bumbling, effortlessly charming. The fact that Majerus offhandedly rips his 7-foot senior center, Bryce Husak, as passionless and his starting power forward, Barry Eberhardt, as a bit of a con man only helps. The son of a Wisconsin toiletmaker, and with seven heart bypasses under his belt, Majerus, 59, does Common Man like few others.

But when asked about basketball, he is suddenly transported to a coaching round table in which everyone refers to Don Nelson as Nellie and knows who plays man or zone, and why. He launches into a soliloquy about how Utah Jazz future Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone "pushed middle," and as the boosters' smiles assume a pasted-on quality, he babbles about "angles" and how his teams "invariably try to force baseline and out" before trailing off with a mystifying "those are big adjustments."

Someone reels him back in with a question about his coaching philosophy. "You always coach based on your personnel," Majerus begins, but he veers off again. "You know, 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's very difficult...."

Now he's talking about a trip he took to Africa with Nellie in the early '90s, and he goes off on a tangent about being an assistant coach for Dream Team II in 1994 and how it was criticized for running up scores. "How much has changed since then?" he asks. Silence. Then Majerus describes how he sat in an arena one day in Africa, the one white man in a sea of black faces, and "people were really nice to me," and he must sense he's losing the crowd because he veers back to the one topic that never fails. He tells about boarding a bus in Kenya, "and you jam yourself in like a New York subway and it's all black and I'm, like, the talk of the bus, obviously. So I said to this woman, 'What are they saying?' And she said, 'They're saying there's a big rich American on this 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 bus after that."

SOMETHING ABOUT food: 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 pounds when he left Utah; he looks a bit slimmer these days. "The only bad thing about tonight's meal?" he says as the plates are cleared after a late dinner at his St. Louis hotel. "The time we ate it. I had a pretty good piece of steak, but it was small and I trimmed off whatever fat there was. Had a salad, a little cup of bean soup, didn't touch the bread. Now I'm going to bed."

Without dessert. Majerus's weight has always been the most serious obstacle to his dream of, as he puts it, "dating Cindy Crawford," i.e., coaching at a prestigious program. He missed most of his first season at Utah because of septuple bypass surgery. He coached one game in 2000--01 before taking a leave to undergo knee surgery, have stents installed in two coronary arteries and help his mother recover from cancer. Then, in January '04, two weeks after Allred went public with his allegations, Majerus quit Utah for good because of more suspected heart trouble that ended up being a savage case of diverticulitis. Over the years 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 USC job 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 as there's an element of self-sabotage in every overeater, there's also the suspicion that Majerus could never feel truly at home commanding a team like North Carolina or Notre Dame. At Marquette, Ball State, Utah and now Saint Louis, Majerus has been what he calls "a build" guy, the contractor called in to make a program nationally presentable. He has some rich pals such as Utah billionaire Jon Huntsman, but rubbing elbows in L.A. with botoxed actors and the Zen Master, as he calls Lakers coach Phil Jackson, is hardly his style. "I just wasn't ready," Majerus says.

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