The great basketball coach, Rick Majerus, died yesterday, December 1, 2012; the news reports cited heart failure. Though his intellect and lack of ego were what made him interesting and unique in his profession, it was his passion (driven no doubt by his oversized heart) for helping people: the player overlooked; the mother who needed support; the blue collar worker; the colleague who had come upon tough times in a hard luck profession; that made him a man that will be hugely missed. And does it not seem a contradiction, a hypocrisy, that anyone would think his heart failed him?
Many coaches and players and basketball people knew Rick Majerus better than I did (most of my contact with him came within only one week I spent as his guest when he was at The University of Utah) and the stories from his associations are being told and re-told today. Mine are similar: the “you going to eat those fries?” before I had even sat down with my tray at lunch; the details of teaching the game to players down to the adjustments of inches in footwork. When I flew to Salt Lake City, Majerus asked me how my flight was. I told him I spent the time reading and immensely enjoying a book by the environmental activist and novelist Edward Abbey. By the time I left later that week, Majerus had bought the book, read it and thanked me for the recommendation.
When coaching in the NTL clinics or camps, I quote stuff I heard Majerus say on the basketball court all the time: “get strong in the post; bend at the hips”; “direct correlation between the time spent looking at the rim when making a post move and making the shot”; “pass the cutter from hand-to-hand” (when the cutter goes baseline); “when getting back on defense point, touch, talk”. Whenever his teams played on television, I made sure to watch. It was all about effort and execution. They triple-threated and were ready on every possession. I also rooted for his teams no matter who they played. And when he became an analyst with ESPN, his commentary was not to be missed by anyone who was interested in learning more about the game.
I made the trip out there because I had been let go at Harvard (technically not elevated from top assistant to head coach) and was trying to network with coaches I already had relationships with (Mike Krzyzewski at Duke; Pete Gillen at Xavier; Majerus). I watched their practices and spent time talking basketball and the basketball life with each of them. Majerus, uniquely, invited me to meals (naturally), staff meetings and practices. He made me feel an equal – imagine that? – a coach who had not just been fired but a guy, like him, who cared for the idea of deeply analyzing the game and everything associated with it. He most obviously believed in creating a structure with his teams that forced them to work very hard, to believe in the value of that work, and, perhaps most importantly, to believe in each other. As a player, as a student, as a child with your parent, you do not forget those lessons learned.
Majerus famously lived out of a hotel suite when at Utah. On my visit I stayed in a room down the hall. Upon my leaving, he went through a pile of Utes Basketball t-shirts in his room and handed me a couple, caring, like a brother or father or uncle, that he gave me the right size. When he shook my hand and wished me well, he told me to call him every day to let him know how my efforts to stay in college basketball were going. He repeated “call me every day”. So I, of course, didn’t call him every day, probably talked to him just a few more times. But from that “every day” and from my time that week with him I took the message that he lived with his players, his colleagues, his family: care about the people you meet and care about what you do. And it might sound corny, but care enough to put your heart into it. He sure did.