- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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It is, you could say with a heap of irony, heartbreaking.
Rick Majerus has spent the past five years building Saint Louis from also-ran to Atlantic 10 front-runner, crafting the Billikens with the same mold he used to build Utah.
Playing SLU now is about as fun as going to the dentist for a root canal sans Novocain while having a professional wrestler simultaneously knot your arms behind your back.
Just the way Majerus likes it.
After a breakthrough season a year ago, this was to be the year that it all came together for the Billikens.
It still might. But the master craftsman won’t be there.
Saint Louis announced on Friday that Majerus was taking the 2012-13 season off to deal with a health issue. The university didn’t disclose the extent of Majerus’ problems, but the school did say via a press release that the coach is in a California hospital undergoing "evaluation and treatment for an ongoing heart condition."
That’s serious business for anyone. For someone like Majerus, who has had seven heart bypasses in his lifetime and who just last summer had a stent put in, it is sit-up-and-take-notice serious.
And to his credit, the coach has sat up and taken notice, recognizing that the game is not worth the literal heartache.
Few people have been put through the physical ringer more than Majerus. He has missed games throughout his career to deal with his own health, even leaving Utah eventually because of it.
Two years ago, just when he seemed to have found a little slice of heaven in St. Louis, it all unraveled in a mess. Two of his best players were suspended; his beloved mother Alyce, died from cancer, and he was sidelined by a freakish injury, developing an infection after banging his toe on the scorer’s table.
In the middle of it all, the Billikens spiraled to 12-19.
That year, just as he has throughout his career, Majerus managed to plug along.
So the fact that in August, a good seven weeks before the season begins, he has shelved himself for the entire year ought to underscore the gravity of this situation.
Sitting the year out is without question the right decision.
Seeing tomorrow is abundantly more important than seeing the fruits of Majerus’ labor.
The good news for both Majerus and SLU, the Billikens’ loaded roster will be placed in the more-than-able hands of Jim Crews. Named an assistant last season, Crews, who was named the interim head coach, has two-plus decades of head-coaching experience and is cut of the same old-school cloth as Majerus.
Majerus might not be there to guide Saint Louis, but you can bet the Billikens will play as if he is still pulling the puppet strings.
And the players already appear ready to go with a Gipper theme.
“As if we needed motivation,’’ tweeted junior Dwayne Evans shortly after the news was announced.
“Band of brother gotta stick together. #TeamTogether. #RiseOfTheBillikens,’’ added senior Cody Ellis.
Of course, there is nothing quite like being there, and watching from afar won’t be easy for someone like Majerus. He is maybe the ultimate basketball lifer. Never married, has called various hotels home throughout his career and defines contentment as most of us might, just with a slight twist -- a good meal with good friends … and a serving of hoops on the side.
So the fact that this year, of all years, he has to step aside even temporarily is truly heartbreaking.
But a broken heart needs time to heal.