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The Life and Times of Rick Majerus (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday January 16, 2008 11:53AM; Updated: Wednesday January 16, 2008 11:53AM
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By S.L. Price

Miller, one of eight Utes Majerus sent to the NBA, came in as a Prop 48 but left with a degree in sociology.
Miller, one of eight Utes Majerus sent to the NBA, came in as a Prop 48 but left with a degree in sociology.
Manny Millan/SI

Allred, who 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!"

Althoff took no offense -- to that or any other aspect of playing for Majerus. "Best experience of my life," he says. "By far."

Something about 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 very difficult...."

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!' "

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