ST. LOUIS — The last time I had dinner with Rick Majerus, the meal turned into the usual feast.
But this had little to do with the food. In a guilt-free dining experience, we both ate healthy on that warm March evening. A small miracle, yes. But our dinner was special because of the conversation.
In a few days Majerus would lead St. Louis U. to its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2000. The coach was completing a personal comeback, returning to the big stage of the NCAA tourney for the first time since taking Utah there in 2003.
Majerus truly loved coaching his Billikens, and at this moment of his life nothing made him happier than the satisfaction of seeing the excitement bubbling around the practice gym, and the SLU campus.
Majerus was in a reflective mood. We spent two hours talking about basketball, politics, movies, restaurants, baseball, books, journalism, leadership and social media.
We talked about life.
We talked about death.
It was on his mind. Majerus still missed his mother, Alyce, who succumbed to lung cancer in the summer of 2011. A close Majerus friend, afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease, was rapidly fading. Majerus was frustrated. There was no cure. Majerus couldn’t help. He couldn’t ease his friend’s pain. He couldn’t provide comfort. He couldn’t recruit the finest doctors in the world to make it better.
Watching another man trying desperately to hold on to life had put Majerus in a dark place. For years now, Majerus had been in and out of hospitals, repeatedly getting his heart repaired to put more time on his clock.
Try as he might, and he tried awfully hard, Majerus didn’t always take good care of himself. He’s had a legendary love affair with food, and you know how love goes: Sometimes we get caught in a bad relationship but can’t break it off.
Majerus swims, counts calories and takes multiple medications. He’s been under the care of a terrific heart specialist. He goes away for a couple of weeks each summer on a healthy-lifestyle retreat where he recommits and freshens up.
As an esteemed college coach with a brilliant basketball mind, Majerus has won 70 percent of his games. But he’s had a losing record against cholesterol, saturated fats, sugar and starch. Majerus lives with constant fear, and everyone close to him knows it. It’s not all about the food, either. Genetics have worked against Majerus. His father, grandmother and several uncles died of heart failure. The odds have always been lined up against him.
So that’s why we talked about the fear of dying back on that warm March night. I’m sorry to insert myself into the story, but I deal with the same struggles, the same fears. It’s among the reasons I’ve been fortunate to have Rick Majerus as a friend.
There aren’t many people you can turn to who truly understand the agony of failure on a deep, personal level. If you don’t understand this, I don’t blame you. If you are reading this and shaking your head and thinking, “Go on a diet, problem solved,” well, I get it. I wish it could be that simple for me, and for Majerus. But it isn’t, and I can’t explain it. I can’t tell you why we lapse and put ourselves at risk. It’s dumb, and it’s selfish, and it makes no sense. Please believe me when I tell you that I’m trying to solve that mystery every day of my life.
I don’t expect others to know about these intense feelings, but Majerus did. And I know exactly what he goes through, too. We could relate. We could talk about this lifetime burden in an open, honest and no-holds-barred manner. We could challenge each other, support each other.
We could talk about wanting to live. We could talk about dying. Nothing was off the table — except for that basket of Italian bread we wanted to avoid.
Friday, when I learned that the big man was in a hospital in Southern California, it left me shaken. According to SLU, Majerus is receiving care for a serious heart issue, and he won’t coach the Billikens this season. SLU is calling it a leave of absence. That would be OK. I wish I could believe that Majerus would take some time off, get well, regroup, and return to coaching for the 2013-2014 season.
But Majerus doesn’t have a contract beyond this season. Even before this health crisis the SLU administration had shown no interest in giving Majerus a contract extension. Majerus is a maverick, and he challenges authority, and that doesn’t play well with the big boss who runs SLU as his personal midtown kingdom.
In all likelihood, this was going to be Majerus’ final season at SLU. But I don’t care about that now. We can talk about the future of SLU basketball in a column to be written later.
This is about Rick Majerus and his will to live. To be blunt, I fear the worst. I don’t like what I’m hearing. It troubles me that the people closest to Rick have shut down. They won’t talk about his situation. They won’t tell us to stop fretting, because everything will be OK.
I want them to tell me that Majerus needs another surgical procedure to fix the heart, and that he’ll be fine in a few months. But they won’t tell me that. And that troubles me.
In the wee hours of Saturday morning, I turned on the digital recorder that I’d used for an interview with Majerus during our dinner. I wanted to remember what Majerus told me when he spoke of his dying friend.
“You grieve for him,” Majerus said. “But you also think about your own mortality. You examine your life, your values, your failures, the things that make you proud. You think about the people you’ve helped, and the people you’ve let down. And then you rethink it all over again.
“You assess your own life. And it makes you realize how much you want to live. And how much there is to live for.”
A few days later, on a Friday night in Columbus, Ohio, Majerus put on a coaching clinic to school a much faster and athletic Memphis U. team.
It was the typical Majerus masterpiece; he controlled the game’s tempo and watched his players outthink the superior athletes. SLU defended with great tenacity and never seemed to be out of position. Flustered and frustrated, Memphis folded in the second half.
SLU upset Memphis in a triumph of coaching, fundamental excellence and determination. Two days later, the Billikens took No. 1 seed Michigan State down to the wire before losing. Majerus received tributes from MSU coach Tom Izzo, and members of the national media were happy to spread the news: Big Rick was back.
Majerus had tears in his eyes after losing that final game. He knew he would never coach senior Brian Conklin again, and the emotion overwhelmed him. Conklin is one of Majerus’ all-time favorites, an overachiever who personified the coach’s core basketball principles. Conklin was the backbone of a close, unselfish team that finished 26-8. But the coach knew he had other kids to teach. His work wasn’t done.
“I’m tired, but happy,” Majerus, 64, told me in a corridor outside the SLU locker room. He was sitting down. The rigors of a long season had caught up to him. “I think I’m more exhausted than I’ve ever been in my life. But I’ll head to the beach and jump in the ocean and relax. I’ll rest up. I’m looking forward to next season. I think we have a chance to be very good.”
Majerus won’t get a chance to coach the returning Billikens. They’ve been touted as a Top 25 team going into the season, but Coach Majerus won’t have that last hurrah at SLU.
Here’s what I want more than anything else right now: to hear my mobile phone ring, and to look down and see the name Majerus on caller ID. I want to answer that call, and hear Majerus making a joke about needing a new oil filter and cables to jump-start his battery. I want him to tell me that he’s trying to charm a nurse into smuggling in some bratwurst.
I want to hear Majerus say he’ll be back to St. Louis later in the year, and that he’s going to take me to some neighborhood joint in South City where he’s discovered the best beef stew in the U.S. But here’s the thing that kept me awake Friday: I’m afraid I won’t get that call, or hear his voice. I hope I am wrong about that. I want to be incredibly, stupidly, ridiculously wrong.