If you're Rick Majerus, the valentine's Day card you received last week should have been garnished with a surgically repaired heart. Less than 15 months ago you weighed some 325 pounds and were in an operating room undergoing a septuple bypass that would lay you up for most of your first season as basketball coach at the University of Utah. Now you're back, a not-quite-svelte-yet 270 pounds, and your Utes are champions of the Western Athletic Conference. You beat Brigham Young 81-74 on Saturday night, the eve of a 43rd birthday you count yourself very lucky to have seen. A posse of your players, staff and supporters was going to toss you in the shower, but they have borne enough weighty burdens of late, so you walk in voluntarily. "The nicest shower I ever took with 25 guys," you call it.
You are 24-2 and ranked No. 14 despite having only one player who can really be described as a star, junior forward Josh Grant. You've been told that of the top 80 teams in the nation, yours is the only squad with merely one player scoring in double figures. Yet nine of your men average double-figure minutes because, in your words, "Everyone can bring something to the party."
Your team's success is so at odds with the accepted formula at the highest levels, runs so counter to the preseason forecasts, which picked you no better than sixth in the league, that it inevitably attracts national attention. Most of the eyes are focused on you, and you find this discomfiting. So you talk up your players. "People like our team because they can identify with it," you say. "We have two ends of the spectrum. Little kids come to the game and love Jimmy Soto, our 5'7" backup point guard. On the other end is Walter Watts, who used to weigh 318 pounds. People who see him may have a weight problem of their own, or know someone who does. What's more like an underdog than to be minuscule or to have a problem that half of America is trying to deal with?"
You have set a weight limit of 260 for Watts, your 6'8" senior center. If he doesn't make weight on game day, you will sit him down, which hasn't happened this season. "Coach doesn't want me to end up with a big scar on my chest like he did," says Watts. "We're both trying to do the same thing. I'm trying to do it to play. He's trying to do it to live."
Between the two ends of that spectrum are players of every shape and background. You brought in a couple of guards, 6'3" Byron Wilson and 6-foot Tyrone Tate, from the Rust Belt cities of Gary, Ind., and Chicago, respectively, and they have proved to be rust-free despite sitting out last season as academic casualties. If 6'5" M'Kay McGrath and 6'3" Craig Rydalch, both Mormons, had proselytized on their missions in Des Moines and Manchester, England, even half as 2 aggressively as they play, most of the citizens of those cities would be members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by now. Guard Phil Dixon, a 6'5" Jamaican-born Canadian, still limps, the result of his lacerating a nerve in a calf muscle when he accidentally put his leg through a window while roughhousing with friends on Dec. 14, 1989, the same fateful day you went under the knife.
In the fall you almost lost Paul Afeaki, your 6'10" backup center from Tonga, in a deportation proceeding. Last Thursday night, a few hours after your team beat league rival Wyoming 77-72, you almost lost him, period. Afeaki was returning home with his wife from a postgame meal in Salt Lake City when some crazyman with a semiautomatic pistol took issue with his driving etiquette and pumped a bullet into his shoulder. The guy sped from the scene without so much as a trace, and as of Sunday, the police had no real leads. Afeaki will be out at least until tournament time next month. "Last year the adversity came early," Wilson says. "This year it's come late."
Grant, who leads the team in scoring (17.7 points a game), rebounding (7.5), blocks (36) and steals (43), is your constant. "But everybody steps up to bat one game or another," Grant says. On Thursday it was Dixon, who hobbled his way to three treys as well as the dunk that iced the game. Last month against Texas-El Paso it was Soto, who tossed in 16 points and grabbed five unlikely rebounds. On Saturday Wilson went off, flicking in six soft threes. You hesitate calling them good kids because that sounds like a bromide. But you go ahead and call them that anyway, because that, you decide, is exactly what they are. You elaborate: "On Christmas Day they go to the hospital of their own volition. If anything, I could use one or two with a little asshole in 'em."
In a state that is essentially a Mormon theocracy, you are a Catholic-educated skeptic. In a part of the world where more than two people sipping Cokes together after 9 p.m. passes for Runyonesque, you jar people's sensibilities simply by being yourself, which is single, outspoken, disheveled and an in-season insomniac. You learned about basketball from Al McGuire as an assistant at Marquette, and about the world from your father, Raymond, a United Auto Workers lifer who was beaten up by factory guards during a strike and who dragged you along when you were 12 to open-housing marches through Milwaukee's South Side. You still carry your union card and pay your dues to the Brewery Workers, Local 9.
"I'm probably the antithesis of what Utah's all about," you confess. "Mormon-ism's not for me, not with that 10 percent [tithing] rule and those three-hour services. But I'll tell you this much: They're the best goddam people in the world. They've got decency, kindness and heart. I'm not good enough for 'em."
Somehow you have fashioned a family in this land where family is all. "He's more or less married to basketball," says Rydalch. "And the team's really his family." Rydalch is one of five of your players who are married; you live alone in a hotel near campus. You like having someone there to take your messages, and the switchboard operator recognizes your mother's voice. Lord knows you need the maid service. The one drawback to this hotel life is that strangers knock on your door at all hours, inviting you to join in their wedding receptions.