Rick Majerus, 1948-2012

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Rick Majerus, 1948-2012

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To many on the outside, the health of Rick Majerus seemed to be a nonfactor. The irreverent coach had a history of health scares during his career as a collegiate head coach – at Utah in 1989, he underwent heart surgery, missing most of the season; he retired from the Utes in 2003 after coaching just 20 games. 

But, except for a brief absence due to a leg infection in 2011, Majerus seemed to be happy and healthy as the head coach at Saint Louis University. Following the only losing season in his nearly 30 years as a head coach, the maestro Majerus guided the Billikens to the third round of the NCAA Tournament, their first trip there in over 11 years.

At the post-game press conference, following a 65-61 loss to No. 5 seeded Michigan State, Majerus remarked to the gathered media that he was exhausted, tired, in need of a break, a beach and maybe a few beers. The crowd laughed. Majerus sighed.

Perhaps the joke was more of a foreshadowing. On Aug. 24, Majerus announced he would be taking medical leave from his job as head coach and would not be coaching in the 2012-13 season. Shortly after, on Nov. 16, SLU announced he would not return to the Billikens’ sideline.

Neither the school nor any of Majerus’ associates said why. The basketball community would have to find out the hard way.

On Dec. 1, in a Los Angeles hospital, Rick Majerus, the larger-than-life former head coach of the Saint Louis University men’s basketball team, passed away. He was 64.

According to Jon Huntsman Sr., a longtime friend of the coach, Majerus was told three months prior that he would require a heart transplant in order to survive the latest complication of his cardiac system. Because of Majerus’ extensive history of heart procedures – including a stent inserted in August 2011 – doctors concluded that he was not an eligible candidate for a transplant. He was taken off life support after his condition severely deteriorated.

He is survived by his sisters, Jodi and Tracy, and dozens of friends and former players.

“We join the rest of the basketball world in sending our condolences to Rick Majerus’ family and friends,” SLU director of athletics Chris May said in a statement released by SLU. “Coach Majerus put his heart and soul into the Billiken program, and for that we will be eternally grateful.

“What I will remember most about Rick’s tenure at SLU was his enduring passion to see his players excel both on and off the court,” May said. “Wins and losses meant a lot to him, but no more than to see our student-athletes succeed in the classroom. He truly embraced the term ‘student-athlete,’ and I think that will be his lasting legacy.”

SLU will hold a memorial service for Majerus on Friday, Dec. 7, at 3:30 p.m. at Chaifetz Pavilion. He will be buried Saturday, Dec. 8, in his hometown of Milwaukee.

Following Majerus’ passing, outpouring of support for his family and fond memories of encounters came from across the basketball community.

“He treated me like I was his brother,” Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl, a former assistant of Majerus’, said. “He’s one of my best friends and I think most people in basketball know that. I’m mad at him, I’m angry he’s gone, there’s a lot of emotions going on in my head. Most of it is I’ve got to figure out how to celebrate our friendship for the rest of my life even though he’s not going to be with us.”

Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, who played for Majerus at Marquette, couldn’t even remark about the passing of his coach when asked on Saturday.

“That’s a tough one for me,” Rivers told reporters in Milwaukee as he choked back tears. “I mean, he’s the one who gave me my name.”

Loyola University Chicago coach Porter Moser, an assistant under Majerus at SLU from 2007-10, tweeted, “RIP to my friend and mentor Coach Majerus. I learned so much about the game and life. We lost one of the best! My heart is heavy tonight.”

Closer to home, SLU students wore black on Sunday, Dec. 2, during a contest of the Billikens and Valparaiso to honor Majerus’ legacy.

In an interview with The University News, Alex Jensen, head coach of the NBA Development League’s Canton Charge, a former SLU assistant coach and player of Majerus’ at Utah, described his former coach as “one of a kind.”

“Love him or hate him, there is no one that will surpass his knowledge and dedication to the game of basketball,” Jensen said. “No one parallels him in that category.”

Jensen lamented that Majerus didn’t allow the public to get to know the more private, intimate side of his personality.

“There are very few people who got to know Coach Majerus well, unfortunately,” he said. “I don’t think his legacy will have an overarching impact on a great number of people. On the other hand, those who did get to know him are grateful for that relationship. I know I am. I hope the things that he taught and shared with me affect me in a better way, whether it be how I coach or treat other people.“

Majerus’ legacy includes a record of 517-215, 12 trips to the NCAA Tournament, including finishing as national runner-up, and a 50-32 record with the NBA Milwaukee Bucks.

But perhaps his most lasting impression is on those he left behind.

Following the loss to Michigan State, a sobbing Brian Conklin left an ode to Majerus for all to hear and see.

“I couldn’t imagine playing for a better coach, a better person,” he said. “He doesn’t just teach you about basketball, it’s about life.”