Althoff took no
offense—to that or any other aspect of playing for Majerus. "Best
experience of my life," he says. "By far."
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
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!'"
Applause. Majerus pauses, then nails the punch line: "I never rode the bus
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
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.