Saint Louis deals with real loss

Red-hot Billikens aim for A-10 title while coping with the death of former coach

Originally Published: March 6, 2013
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- They all have stories. Anyone who crossed paths with Rick Majerus had a story, and so naturally the last team to play for him has them, too.

There was the time Majerus came to Cody Ellis' place in Perth, Australia, and the Milwaukeean gave the kid who grew up two blocks from the beach bodysurfing tips.

Or the in-home visit with Kwamain Mitchell, during which Majerus chastised the skinny high schooler for eating only one plate of his mom's cooking.

Then there was the visit to Dwayne Evans' home, where Majerus not only offered up basketball tips to Evans' 78-year-old grandmother; he demonstrated them.

[+] EnlargeRick Majerus
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonLess than a month into the season, the SLU players were mourning the coach who recruited all of them.

"And I'm pretty sure he left with all of the leftover pizza," Evans said.

But these Saint Louis basketball players treasure one story more than any other because it is theirs alone.

It came Dec. 8, 2012, when they escorted Majerus on his final journey.

"That was unreal," Ellis said. "When we were asked to serve as pallbearers, it sent shivers down my spine. To be able to walk alongside his casket among all those people who meant so much to him and he meant so much to, it was the greatest honor."

Jim Crews likes to say there is no blueprint for what Saint Louis has done this season.

Hopefully the one the Billikens have drawn won't need to be duplicated. A team should not have to bury its coach in the middle of its season.

On Dec. 1, Majerus died. On Dec. 2 and Dec. 5, the Billikens played basketball. On Dec. 8, they went to their coach's funeral, and on Dec. 15, it was back to basketball.

In the movie version, the Billikens, inspired and impassioned, go on to something fabulous in their season.

On the surface, that's exactly what this looks like. Saint Louis is ranked No. 16 in the nation, atop the Atlantic 10 standings, 23-5 and riding an 11-game win streak into Wednesday's game at Xavier.

Except this isn't a movie. This is real life, and real life is a lot more complicated and raw.

"You know, before all that, Kwamain got hurt, and so you're used to taking those hits," Crews, the interim coach, said Friday before the Billikens played George Washington. "Everyone takes hits like that in their season -- injuries and things. That's real life, but this is real real life."

So what do you do when there is no script to follow, no path?

In an emotional post-practice locker room minutes after the team learned of Majerus' death, Crews never once asked his team to do well for Majerus, to win games for him.

He saw illogic in such an argument. If a win could be considered a tribute to the late coach, what would a loss be? A dishonor?

Instead, Crews decided to follow the advice of a wise coach he once knew.

"We told them three things," Crews said. "First we told them to pray, have your prayers for Rick and his family. Number two, honor his lessons and laugh at the memories. And three, we said to do like Coach did: Live your life forward. Live your life forward. That's all you can do, guys."


Crews has a Majerus story, too. Majerus was the head coach for the U.S. under-22 team, and Crews was an assistant. The tournament was in Australia, and on the way, the team stopped in Los Angeles to practice.

Crews brought his family, and on the first day in L.A., he headed back after breakfast with his wife to get ready for practice.

[+] EnlargeSaint Louis' Rick Majerus
Greg Bartram/US PRESSWIRERick Majerus built Saint Louis on grit, toughness and sharing the ball -- and plenty of classic stories.

He changed into his swimming trunks. Puzzled, his wife, Kim, looked at him and asked where he was going.

"I said, 'staff meeting,'" Crews remembered. "She said, 'But you've got your bathing suit on,' and I said, 'Yep. Rick said meet in the hot tub in 10 minutes. He's bringing the food.' My wife looked at me and goes, 'You love Rick, don't you?' I said, 'Yep,' and I walked out."

Crews loved Majerus so much that, years later, he let the old schemer talk him into a job in St. Louis, even though Crews was relatively content on his coaching sabbatical.

That was a year ago, in what would be Majerus' last run.

By August he was hospitalized because of a heart condition and said he was taking the year off.

In November the school announced he wouldn't be returning.

And then he was gone.

Asked whether he thinks it all happened for a reason, that he let Majerus coax him back to the court, Crews didn't hesitate.

"Oh yeah, definitely," he said. "There are too many connect-the-dot things that weren't logical. Absolutely. I'm supposed to be here."

It's an impossibly strange spot to be in. Crews is both caretaker and coach, charged with preserving what Majerus built and yet cautiously making it his own.

Majerus' handprints are everywhere. The Billikens are a defense-first team, built on grit, toughness and sharing the ball. Despite a 12-2 league record, it wasn't until this week that a single Saint Louis player was honored as Atlantic 10 player of the week.

That wasn't a conference oversight, either. No one on the team is statistically wonderful. Six guys average 7.2 points per game or more, none more than 12.6.

"We have a lot of guys," Crews said, "who are quietly incredible."

The coach has been, too.

"Unbelievable," Evans said simply.

Another man might win national coach of the year this season. Jim Larranaga and John Thompson III, among the front-runners, are both deserving candidates.

Crews ought to be on the short list, too.

[+] EnlargeJim Crews
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesKwamain Mitchell says interim coach Jim Crews deserves credit for keeping the team together.

No one has done what Crews has done, and maybe no one else could have.

There has to be a greater purpose in all this because a younger assistant would have struggled. A man who hasn't had time to enjoy the highs and suffer the lows as Crews has might have been more hell-bent on making the Billikens his own.

Not Crews. The man who cut his teeth playing for and working with Bob Knight has been around enough and through enough that his ego doesn't need any massaging.

The longtime Evansville head coach saw a system that 13 players knew well, knew better than he did, and figured, why upset the applecart? Rather than teach them something new, he'd let them teach him.

"He's kept everything together," Mitchell said. "Our team is filled with experience and maturity, but he's made sure that we live in the moment. He's helped us keep our focus through all of this."

Crews is so in the moment that he hasn't even given a thought to his own future. In a day and age when everyone is looking for the next rung, when instant gratification is the norm and speculation is its own sport, Crews won't discuss his future beyond this season.

He won't say whether he will be the Billikens' coach next season or even whether he wants to be.

"Let me give you a hint about interim," he said. "We're all interim. My future is OK. Whatever it is, it's all good. I'm not trying to be coy. When [the administration] talked about this thing, they talked about this particular job description. I've only accepted that job. I don't know what the other one is. And instead of worrying about next year, how about let's enjoy this because this is pretty good."


Two years after Kwamain Mitchell sheepishly grabbed another plateful of dinner at his future coach's request, his mother, Ava, was diagnosed with cancer.

Years earlier, Majerus had walked away from a job at USC because his beloved mother, Alyce, faced cancer for the second time.

"He loved her like I love my mom," Mitchell said. "There was a special connection there because of that. We talked about life as much as basketball. He was really a father figure to me. Losing him, it was just hard."

In the end, this all comes back to the Billikens.

Majerus did an incredible job teaching them. Crews has been amazing holding them together.

They, however, have done it.

Practice was just ending Dec. 1 when Crews noticed his managers and a few others scurrying in and out. He knew something was up. He just wasn't sure what.

"It turns out that Rick told his girlfriend, Angie, to get the coaches and the team together, to make sure we were the first to know," Crews said. "He knew what was happening, or about to, and to do that … extraordinary."

Practice ended, and Crews held the players back, afraid to let them scatter and hear the news another way. Within the hour, Majerus had died.

[+] EnlargeCody Ellis
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerThe Billikens want to play the way Majerus taught them, says Ellis.

For many of the Billikens, it was their first experience with death, a life moment that doesn't come with a how-to guide.

Every single player came to Saint Louis to play for Majerus. They loved him even though at times they loathed him -- "a blunt force," is how Ellis described Majerus' coaching methods -- and now they were here and he was gone.

It is so easy to say the platitudes, that you will soldier on because someone would have wanted it that way.

It's more difficult to do it.

"Grief shows up at different times for different people," Crews said. "Everyone thinks, 'Well, that's how you act when somebody dies.' No. There's no formula."

Indeed, the Billikens' road hasn't been entirely straight -- they suffered back-to-back losses in January, to Temple and inexplicably at home to Rhode Island -- but it has been remarkably steady.

An unselfish team by Majerus' design, they are not a rah-rah group by nature.

Saint Louis has done some things to honor its coach -- the players have dog tags, and Ellis has taken it upon himself to write, "To win: Defend, Rebound" on the board before games, like Majerus used to do.

Mostly, though, the Billikens have honored their coach with their play.

"It's not motivation in that it's we have to do this, we have to win," Ellis said. "It's more like we want to play the way he taught us to."


One last story.

The other day, Crews sat down to eat a sandwich. He took one bite and realized he had spilled mustard all down the front of him.

"Guess who I thought of?" he said. "If anyone knows Rick, that's Rick. That's what I mean when I say it shows up in the strangest places. It doesn't stop, thinking about him. But you know what? We all have battles. That's how life is. Everyone has challenges. You just have to move on."

And live life forward, as a wise coach once said.

Dana O'Neil | email

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