At Rick Majerus' final stop, the lone concession to the coach's health woes were the footstools stationed at each corner of the practice court.
Close by anytime he needed a breather. Close enough, too, to jump up for some hands-on assistance with the proper stance or to lead a quick walkthrough.
The jovial, basketball-obsessed coach who led Utah to the 1998 NCAA final and had only one losing season in 25 years with four schools, died Saturday. He was 64.
Utah industrialist Jon Huntsman, the coach's longtime friend, confirmed in a statement released through The Salt Lake Tribune that Majerus died of heart failure in a Los Angeles hospital. The coach had been hospitalized there for several months.
Rick Majerus had always been there for everyone else.
If you had a problem? Rick to the rescue. If you had a medical issue, he was on the phone with names of doctors and recommendations for treatment. (One time I had to tell him: Coach, I have a head cold. I think I’ll be OK in a couple of days. I don’t need to fly to Los Angeles to see a specialist. But thank you.)
If you didn’t have a father, or a trusted friend to guide you through a troubling stretch of life, the big man filled the void. As a basketball man, he coached “help” defense. As a human being, Majerus was help defense.
Majerus had always been there for others. If he promised a mother that her son would graduate, then the player would graduate.
Which is why every year on Feb. 17, Majerus’ birthday, the first phone call of the morning came from Andrea Robinson. She’s Andre Miller’s mother. Miller was the point guard for the Utah team that lost to Kentucky in the 1998 national championship game, and Majerus loved him.
Miller began his NBA career in 1999, and he’s still playing. But Miller got that diploma from Utah. As it turned out, Miller didn’t need it; his long NBA career has been lucrative. But among all Andre’s many accomplishments, the college degree ranks No. 1 with his mother. That’s why she called Majerus every Feb. 17, to thank him for keeping his word, for taking care of his son.
Majerus was there for Keith Van Horn, his brightest star at Utah. The coach received a late-night call in 1993. It was Van Horn’s mother. She had shocking news: Keith’s father was dead. A sudden heart attack took his life. And Van Horn’s mom didn’t know how to tell her son. She asked Coach Majerus to do it.
Majerus, of course, was there. At 2 a.m., he took Van Horn to a diner. They sat down. The coach told the freshman the worst words imaginable: Your father has died. Van Horn broke down in tears. Majerus consoled him. They sat there all night, telling happy stories about their late fathers, eating breakfast, and handling the pain. They cried together. They shared bagels. They hugged. They talked some more.
When Van Horn finally walked into the morning light of Salt Lake City, he was ready to face the tragedy. Van Horn said he entered that diner as a kid, and by the time he left, he’d become a man. Majerus pulled him through.
Majerus never had kids of his own, but he raised plenty of them through basketball. On the court, off the court, whatever was necessary. Whether the player needed calm advice, or an old-school cursing out, Majerus was there. He was always there.
That’s why senior St. Louis University power forward Brian Conklin sobbed in the interview room in March, after the Billikens competed like crazy only to get eliminated by Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament.
It was Conklin’s final game for SLU. The finality of the occasion overwhelmed his emotions. Most of all, Conklin knew he’d never have another chance to play for Majerus, to learn from Majerus. The inevitable change that’s inherent in life’s passages would take Conklin away from the coach he loved. And Conklin cried. Majerus was always there for him. What would Conklin do from now on?
“He’s a great coach,” Conklin said that day. “I couldn’t imagine playing for a better coach, a better person. He doesn’t just teach you about ball, he teaches you about life.”
We didn’t know it at the time, but that honorable loss to Michigan State would be the last game for Rick Majerus. His last moment in the big arena that brought out the best of him, his last day of teaching and making a difference. His last day of being there for others.
“You get attached to kids,” Majerus said that day, as he paused to wipe a tear from his eye.
When Rick Majerus died Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, after failing to survive the heart disease that had diminished him, I hope he had loved ones around him. I hope those closest to him where there, holding his hand, getting him through this final day — just as Coach Majerus got Andre Miller through Utah and to that graduation ceremony, just as Coach got Keith Van Horn through the initial disbelief and grief of unexpectedly losing a father, just as Coach got Brian Conklin through the stages of development that took him from being an awkward and unsure freshman to a commanding, confident senior leader.
I hope Rick Majerus knew how much he was loved. I hope he realized that he’d made a tremendous, positive impact on so many lives. You’re going to have to forgive me for making this personal, which I don’t do often, but I cried on Saturday night, and I don’t even know how I pulled myself together to write this wholly inadequate tribute to Rick.
In a previous column, written in late August, at the time Majerus took his leave of absence, I explained our friendship. And how we tried to help counsel each other as we each trudged through our lifelong conflict with obesity. Majerus knew what I was going through. I knew what he was going through. It was our bond. It was a bond I wish we didn’t have.
When I received word of Rick’s death, I was sitting in the living room of our home. My wife was nearby. I lost it. And I hope this doesn’t make you uncomfortable, but I want to share what I told her: “I know you probably understand this, but I want to say it anyway. You and anyone else that cares about me owe a lot to Rick Majerus, because he played a major role in my turnaround. He was a factor in my decision to do whatever I had to do to get healthy and lead a better life. Without Rick Majerus, I don’t know if I’d still be here.”
I never got the chance to thank him, and that causes me considerable anguish. With constant encouragement and support from Majerus, I was able to reverse a damaging, deadly course. I’ve lost more than 100 pounds. I’ve never been healthier. And I think about this man every day. When I’m eating the right food. When I’m grinding away on the elliptical trainer. When I want to reach for that extra dessert.
Majerus had devastating heart problems that he couldn’t overcome. That’s why he’s left us too soon, at age 64. When we had our heart-to-heart talks, Rick always delivered the message I needed to hear. He told me how much he loved life, and how he wanted to live a long time. But he worried about his demise. He lived with the constant fear of death. And his sincere advice to me: “Do something for yourself now. Do it for the people that love you. Don’t wait until it’s too late.”
We know about the basketball stuff. Majerus coached 25 years, the last five at SLU. He won 517 games. He took 12 teams to the NCAA Tournament. He got the Billikens there for the first time in 12 years. They won their first NCAA Tournament game since 1998. And this delighted Majerus. He was so proud, so happy, so satisfied. Looking back, I’m so glad that he got that final chance to stand with his team in the spotlight, so everyone could see, for the final time, the excellence of his coaching.
We know about the basketball stuff, but I’ll always treasure Majerus for his teaching, his lessons. The way he helped the Millers, the Van Horns, the Conklins and even the lowly sportswriters. When we were together, I could feel his immense desire to live, and somehow he transferred that to me, before it was too late.
Majerus was there for me. He was there for anyone who needed him. This sad day doesn’t end our relationship. Rick Majerus will be there for me forever.