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The Life and Times of RICK MAJERUS
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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"I got on Bryce [Husak] really hard the other day: 'If you're just another big guy who doesn't want to play, but you feel obligated because of your size and because we 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 have this passion and we're a team and you don't have it?' There's a lot of guys I'd want to go camping with; there's not a lot of guys I want to win with. Is that fair? Yeah. I don't take it personally. I love my doctor."

It's a sunny Thursday, 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 shorts and a black Saint Louis T-shirt with a hole in the left armpit. So? He's got no wife 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, shedding friends he'd made at the beginning, yet if you look at his life, change is the last thing Majerus seems to want. If he has a complaint, it's that the world is less 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 fantasy of adult life: living in hotels, hanging out with the guys, the whole world a locker room where you can b.s. about the latest movie and nobody blinks if you strip to take a shower. Work 18-hour days, then take off for three months in Hawaii? Sure. Majerus's two-room suite is a mess, but he knows where everything is: the paper with all his phone numbers, the boxes of cold medicine, his National Geographic . By the door is a box of Milwaukee Braves baseball cards, his childhood heroes right at hand.

Majerus's food comes. When he finishes lunch, he will go upstairs, sling a bag over his shoulder, thank the housekeeper for her hard work and race off to meet with his coaches. But for now? The waitress has fixed his bowl of soup just right.

"You want some?" he says between spoonfuls. "She did a great job getting vegetables into this. These are fresh-cut carrots and the celery's fresh-cut. I love that. You should get a bowl."

SOMETHING ABOUT pain: Rick Majerus prizes his. Because pain teaches you. Because pain is the price 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 College show how limited your immediate future is, and that kind of clarity can only help. Majerus inherited this Saint Louis team. Few doubt he can put the program in the national picture, but he figures on a three-year struggle, and who knows how long his body will hold up? He's got a team, but for now it feels nothing like Utah.

"I realize the position I'm in here now: These guys didn't pick me; I didn't pick them," Majerus says after the Dec. 4 game. "We're in each other's worlds, and we're looking at each other, like...." He shrugs. "It is what it is. I like these kids, they're really nice kids. I would like any one of them as a son."

That only sounds dismissive. Majerus knows basketball cost him a marriage, kids. More than once he investigated adopting a child alone and allowed himself to be talked out of it. But the boys he never had and raised are never far from his mind. The boosters saw that in the bar back in October, when, apropos of nothing, he dropped into a public reverie, his voice gone mournful and soft. "I wish I could've had a kid like Dwayne Polk or Luke Meyer," he said of two of his seniors. "I don't have any regrets other than that. I look at Luke and think, Boy, his parents must feel so special to have that kind of a kid."

That sparked a tangent about parents today, and how they "want to take all the pain, all the heartache and all the sadness out of their kids' lives. All the things that make you a better person, a better coach, a better teacher—all the things that are so much the fabric of life. I'm so much better for every loss I've had. I can...."

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 out slowly; suddenly it was 1998, March 30, and Doleac and Miller and Alex Jensen were beating Kentucky in the NCAA final, up by 12 early in the second half. No one had expected them to even get there. No one had expected Utah to beat Arkansas, Arizona and North Carolina—all those traditional powers—and now Majerus saw Kentucky, too, in his grasp. Then came Utah's collapse, his overmatched players finally run down and beaten 78--69, the whole awful film of it unspooling again in his head.

"I don't know how to tell you this," Majerus rasped. "I don't think I can get you guys 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 better than 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'd go on the floor for loose balls. [At Utah] I had such great kids. I love those kids. They played their asses off, and we got to the national championship game; I can remember every moment of that game. You become so much better a person for all the bad things that happen to you. But all these helicopter parents, they just hover there, and they want to take all that away from their kids. They don't want them to fight through it."

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