the game: Was it the rat-a-tat of a ball dribbled on a wooden floor? The stink
of sweat and morning breath mixed with drafty gym air? The thousands of
shuffling feet on game night, the voices rising as tip-off nears? Yes, all
that. But even more, it was the thought of those young faces looking at him,
waiting. It was practice that brought Rick Majerus back. Because there he had
the answers. Because there—in his watchmaker-precise breakdowns of what the fan
later mistook for improvisation and flow—was where he lived. He learned this
while bombing around the country the last three years, another ex-coach TV
analyst with his face pressed against the glass, around basketball but not
truly in it. Practice was pure. Practice wasn't subject to opponents' whims or
the pressure of parents frowning from the stands or some producer chiding him
for essentially declaring on-air that the mere sight of actress Ashley Judd was
better than porn. Practice was his alone.
There were rules
for those sessions, of course. Players on a Majerus team are warned: You must
want it as much as he does. Lock your eyes on the man when he speaks; glance
away and he'll blow you to bits. If Coach calls your name? Run—never walk—and
stand in front of him, eyes wide, like a puppy panting for a treat. And for
God's sake, don't take anything he says personally. Put a filter on your brain,
let the knowledge from one of the great coaching minds of his time drip through
and throw away all that profane sediment, all those gibes about your character
or family, all the humiliation that comes from seeing your most embarrassing
weakness paraded before teammates and then stomped.
Many of Majerus's
former players at Utah consider him a rare and good man: center Michael Doleac,
whose 10-year NBA career is due almost entirely to Majerus; Andre Miller, the
Prop 48 project who graduated on time with a sociology degree and now stars for
the Philadelphia 76ers; Keith Van Horn, whom Majerus counseled all night after
breaking the news that the player's father had died; forward Hanno Mottola, who
says that in his eight years of pro ball he has never worked as hard, played as
well or felt the game as deeply as he did under Majerus.
In 15 seasons at
Utah, from 1989 to 2004, Majerus won 10 conference titles, coached his teams to
two Sweet 16 finishes, one Elite Eight and an NCAA tournament final. His Utes
won 30 games twice. Four of his players were named academic All-Americas, and
eight went on to play in the NBA. "He's the total package," Miller
says, "and I'm grateful for it."
consider this: Of the 80 recruits Majerus signed with the Utes, only 33
survived to play as seniors. Nearly 59% of them transferred or otherwise left
early, most unable or unwilling to meet Majerus's exacting standards or endure
his mercurial, sometimes crude, even cruel behavior. And some who stayed
considered bolting too. By Christmas of his freshman year, 1996, Mottola had
scribbled himself this note: This is beyond what I can handle. For the next
three years his stomach lurched each time he saw Majerus step onto the
after the coach started drilling his new team at Saint Louis, Mottola felt pity
for the players. "I would love to be there to see those Saint Louis
guys," he said from his home in Greece, "who have no clue what's hit
If they had
spoken to any of his former Utes, Majerus's new players might know that he
regularly called his players a vile word for the female sexual organ. That he
lambasted stars and backups alike and wasn't averse to poking them in their
chests. That he once brought Van Horn to tears after catching him looking at
his stats after a loss to archrival Brigham Young. That during the 2001--02
season Majerus reportedly called Lance Allred, a backup center who was 75%
deaf, "a disgrace to cripples" who had "weaseled [his] way through
life using [his poor] hearing as an excuse."
reported those quotes to a Salt Lake City newspaper in 2004, transferred out of
Utah in '02 along with four other players. Allred's parents complained, and the
matter was investigated by the university's Office of Equal Opportunity, which,
according to Utah athletic director Chris Hill, "found no discrimination
case" against Majerus, technically clearing but not explicitly exonerating
him. When asked about the incident, Majerus says, "I honest to God don't
remember. I'm not even going to address it." Allred, now playing in the
NBA's development league, declined to talk to SI, but two players from the
'01--02 team confirm the account he gave to the Salt Lake City paper. One of
them, Chris Burgess, Utah's starting center that season, recalls that when an
injury knocked him out of the lineup, Majerus's badgering reduced Allred to
tears: "Lance came crying to me, 'Chris, when are you going to be back?
Please. I don't want to start tomorrow. I don't want to play anymore. I need
you to take the pressure off me.'"
But nothing about
Majerus is as simple as it seems. Just ask Burgess, who transferred from Duke
to play for Majerus in 1999, whether he made the right move.
"Absolutely," he says. "I loved it."
He's not alone.
During a game in 1999 Majerus gathered his team around him during a timeout and
zeroed in on struggling center Nate Althoff. "You've got none of
these," Majerus growled, and then reached over and lightly backhanded
Althoff's groin. "You've got no nuts!"