Saturday, December 1, 2012
Rick Majerus did it his way, always
By Dana O'Neil ESPN.com
Sports are filled with those upon whom fate smiles. Good genetics, good fortune or even just good karma follows them along if not a gilded path, then at least one on which things come easily.
That wasn't Rick Majerus' road.
Life didn't offer him handouts or fast tracks. Instead, it offered him opportunities -- and he attacked every one, partnering curiosity with intellect to form a successful career despite a litany of hurdles.
Majerus died Saturday, his heart finally giving out. The same heart that pumped the blood to fuel the drive that made the man. His legacy in these days will be about wins -- he accumulated 517 of them -- and players and basketball. But his life was about so much more.
Rick Majerus led Saint Louis to an NCAA tournament victory over Memphis in March.
Basketball was merely the conduit, the place he directed his honed sense of purpose and intelligence.
To walk away from the biography of Rick Majerus' life and see just a basketball coach is to miss the broader picture.
Here was a man whose parents challenged him to think at every turn, taking him to civil rights marches and union rallies. He was reared to understand that for most people, life didn't come easy -- for his own family included. His father was a union labor leader, his mother a housewife and part-time factory worker in blue-collar Milwaukee.
He also was raised to understand that life required hard work aided by a sense of self and more, a sense of right and wrong that was both community engineered and personally driven.
Raised a devout Catholic, he nevertheless had no problem challenging his own religion by supporting stem cell research and pro-abortion rights.
How many other basketball coaches can we say we know are either pro-abortion rights or anti-abortion, are anything more than pro-man-to-man versus pro-zone defense?
In a room full of tinkerers, Majerus was a thinker.
His was not a constant competition for Mr. Popularity or Mr. Congeniality. Not everyone loved him, but the people he counted as his friends loved him dearly and faithfully. They weren't acquaintances of convenience, hangers-on who were hoping to lap up some of his scraps of success for their own good.
They were his friends, true friends.
And then there was the rest of us, the ones he charmed with his self-deprecating humor or amazed with his smarts.
You could line up 10 people from the basketball world, and five of them will have a Majerus story, a quintessential encounter that they remember vividly because it was unique or quirky or simply funny.
But what made Majerus special is that he achieved greatly not because he could translate his own talent for others -- he had to walk on as a freshman on the Marquette team -- but because he approached basketball in the same way his parents taught him to approach life.
To probe, to ask questions, to not accept things for what they seem or what others say they should be.
So when others said Ball State and Utah and Saint Louis couldn't succeed, he ignored them and made those teams winners.
Rick Majerus won 323 games at Utah, leading the Utes to the 1998 NCAA title game.
When others said he was crazy to turn down a job at USC, he turned it down because his mother, Alyce, needed him more than he needed another rung on the career ladder.
And when one heart bypass surgery turned into two turned into seven; when the sanctity of a home became the four walls of a hotel room; when overplated dinners arrived for a man who needed less, not more; no one thought it was a good way for Majerus to live.
But it's how he wanted to live, and so he did.
Some will say he paid for all that, dying at the fairly young age of 64, his heart unable to keep up with his lifestyle. But at least he lived while he could.
Instead of turning away from challenges or making the choices that were easy, Majerus did what his parents wanted him to do -- he listened to his own gut and his own convictions.
So many of us put our heads on the pillow, our minds overwhelmed with fear or worry. For some of us, it's real. For others, it's miniscule. And for too many of us, that worry or that simple pace of the real world stops us from achieving and living and being.
It never stopped Majerus.
And so to remember him today as just an eccentric basketball coach who could spin a yarn or break down a defense is to do the man a grave disservice.
He was that, yes, but he was so much more.
Majerus was a teacher and a thinker, an insatiable intellect and a fearless one.
In a world full of passers-by on the highway of life, Majerus was never along for the ride.