The Life and Times of Rick Majerus (cont.)
Posted: Friday January 18, 2008 9:13AM; Updated: Friday January 18, 2008 12:46PM
Not that Majerus goes out of his way to polish his image. Sometime before he left Utah, a Salt Lake City waitress left him a baby with a note. Majerus, married once, childless and 20 years divorced, famously lived in a Marriott hotel near campus; everyone knew where to find him. The woman figured Majerus could find the baby a good home, and word around ESPN is that he nursed the infant with a bottle while watching film. That couldn't be a more humanizing tableau, but when the subject is raised, he tries to slough it off.
No, he says finally, the bottle-and-film part isn't true. "I brought somebody in, a gal to help me," he says. "Momentarily I thought about keeping [the child], but I couldn't. Then I called one person who might want to take this baby in, but the paperwork and the legal aspects were overwhelming. My attorney was worried about liability issues. I made another call, found a place. I named the baby after my mom and a friend: Boom, it's gone." He doesn't know to whom. He doesn't know where. He sent along $5,000, seed money for college. "It had to be gut-wrenching for the mom," he says. "It was a tough deal for me."
His players got glimpses of that Majerus when he'd bring in a deaf team to teach the value of communication, or go out of his way to help the players' families. When then freshman forward Britton Johnsen was falsely accused by a North Carolina player of using a racial slur during the 1998 NCAA semifinals, Majerus publicly declared himself so sure of Johnsen's innocence that he promised to quit if the allegation proved true. "I was terrified," Johnsen says, "and that just relieved me of everything. It was unbelievable that he did that for me."
So, no, it's never shocking to hear people use the word compassionate or great to describe Majerus. "And they're absolutely right," Burgess says. "There's just other parts about him that are...." He stops to find the right word. "Puzzling."
Something about the body: Is it a weapon? A shield? Or is it just that Majerus, unlike so many in our fit-versus-fat culture, simply doesn't care about the impact of his physique? He may be the least self-conscious man alive. How else to explain his propensity to get naked -- in practice, watching film, at meetings, during interviews? Nearly every former player of Majerus's has a can-you-believe-it anecdote.
"The first time, [Utah was] recruiting me, and after the game I went down to the [Utes'] locker room," says Jeff Johnsen, who signed with Utah in 1996. "His hair's everywhere and his sweater's off and he's just drenched, and he's eating a whole pizza in front of me and he's like, 'You want any?' I grab a piece, and then he starts undressing and gets in the shower and is still talking to me. It was funny. It was weird. How many grown, fat, naked men do you see when you're a high school kid?"
Another player remembers Majerus calling him up to his hotel room on various occasions, and "he'd answer the door in his towel and I'd come in and the towel would fall off and it was like nothing had happened. He'd just be standing there buck naked. One year he had this lower-back injury, and he would have the trainer massage it with ultrasound. But instead of just lowering his pants a little bit, Majerus would pull his pants down to his ankles and sit in a chair and coach us. Sometimes he'd be like, 'Guys, bring it in, take a knee.' We'd come in, and we're just like, No way this is happening."
None of these players believes that his habit of dropping trou was sexual. In a sense, the players look upon it as their coach's greatest sight gag, made even loonier by his deadpan expression. "He's oblivious," Burgess says. "He just doesn't care."