In a week of somber news, remembering lessons from a basketball junkie
It certainly has been a somber week of news.
Wednesday evening, as I was leaving our eighth-grade basketball practice, I saw a message on my phone that two bodies found by hunters in eastern Iowa were believed to be the missing young cousins from Evansdale. That was later confirmed.
As a parent, hearing news like that puts a knot in your stomach. You’re always hoping for the positive outcome. But just like the Corinne Perry case when I first moved here in the mid-1980s, all too often the result in a missing person case is tragic.
Last weekend, I anticipated the joyous occasion of visiting the newly-purchased house by our son Brett and his wife Shawna in Nashville. It indeed was a terrific visit, but it seemed like bad news kept breaking.
First was the Kansas City tragedy Saturday morning, as Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered the mother of his child, then hopped in his car and drove to the Chiefs practice facility. He thanked coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli, and then shot himself in the head in front of them.
The aftermath of that event included a rant on our gun culture by Fox columnist Jason Whitlock — a former staff member at the Kansas City Star — which was controversially referenced on Sunday Night Football by NBC commentator Bob Costas.
Costas took a lot of heat, but I think some people were hearing what they wanted to hear — an attack on second amendment rights — when Costas was actually trying to inject some discourse on domestic violence in America. Afterward, he said the 90-second segment wasn’t adequate for such a debate.
“I do not want to see the second amendment repealed,” Costas later said on the Dan Patrick Show. “People should be allowed to own guns for their own protection. Obviously, those who are hunters ... But, access to guns is too easy in some cases. Why do you need a semi-automatic weapon? What possible use is there?”
Heck, on the same weekend, the news carried a report that a guy coming out of a convenience store didn’t like the loud music from a teenager’s car. When the kids refused to turn down the volume, he opened fire on the car and suddenly there was a meaningless homicide.
All you can do is shake your head at that stuff and wonder how our society produces such disregard for life.
The news that hit home for me last weekend was the death of famed college basketball coach Rick Majerus.
When I caught the coaching bug several years ago, Majerus was one of my key resources.
When Majerus spoke at an IBCA clinic in Urbandale, I had him sign my copy of his book, “My Life on a Napkin,” which chronicled his coaching life and experiences, many of which involved diagramming plays on restaurant napkins during sessions with colleagues “talking ball.”
When Brett told us he was going to attend the University of Utah as a freshman, the wheels started turning about getting further access to the longtime Utes coach.
But, alas, Majerus ended his 15-year stint in Salt Lake the spring before Brett enrolled at the university. Before taking the St. Louis University job in 2007, Majerus offered his expertise on ESPN broadcasts. I tuned in to any game he called, just to pick up any nuances I hadn’t heard before.
At St. Louis, CNA sports editor Scott Vicker had regular contact with him as he attended all of the press conferences in his involvement in campus radio coverage of the Billikens.
But he probably never got personally chewed out by Majerus like I did a few years ago at a clinic held in Marshalltown Community College’s gym.
I was sitting near the front, capturing his presentation on my video camera, so I could use it again, perhaps in an instructional setting with my teams. In particular, he was a master at utilizing the pick-and-roll in his offensive schemes.
Suddenly, he was in my face, telling me to turn off the camera immediately, and to give him the video tape. I think he worried it might end up on the Internet in some form, competing with his own videos that carried a price tag.
I compromised. I shut down the camera, but I did not hand over any of my own property. He let it go, but not before also yelling at a guy in the back row for typing on a laptop computer during his clinic.
(Majerus wasn’t technologically savvy, and did not realize the young coach was actually typing notes as the coach spoke. Majerus thought he was just not paying attention, and fiddling on his computer in a disrespectful manner.)
Beat writers covering his teams at Marquette, Ball State, Utah and St. Louis (517-216 record) often spoke of run-ins with the gruff, sometimes surly Majerus. But, he was also fascinating, and incredibly loyal to his players and his friends.
The fact that he could take a school like Utah to the 1998 national championship game (loss to Kentucky) was testament to his incredible ability in coaching, and recruiting. To get to the finals they beat Lute Olson’s No. 1-seeded Arizona in the West Regional, and then No. 1 overall seed North Carolina.
He had two NBA players in Andre Miller and Keith Van Horn there, and a bunch of others who knew their role and played with the same passion he brought to the gym every day.
I loved it that he shared his knowledge with coaches from every level, like a basketball everyman. With no pretense. He showed up at the Marshalltown clinic wearing an old T-shirt and baggy gym shorts, not like some slickster like Rick Pitino.
That’s probably from his upbringing in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., the son of a union labor leader and a housewife who did part-time factory work in Milwaukee. (I got a kick out of his thick Wisconsin accent, pronouncing the word “offense” as “oh-fence.” It was like he was talking between bites of bratwurst.)
Majerus was genuine and real, and yet from that background he grew a deep sense of intellectual curiosity. He could talk about a multitude of subjects beyond his life study, basketball.
He was equally concerned about his players’ academic effort and performance on the court. He said his 1998 team may have been the only Final Four team with two academic All-Americans on the floor.
It’s fitting that University of Utah officials will honor the legacy of Rick Majerus by hanging a replica of his trademark white sweater from the rafters at the Huntsman Center, where he toiled from 1989 to 2004.
Majerus died too early at age 64, after battling weight and heart issues for years. He was awaiting a heart transplant.
But he left behind lifelong lessons to many of us who gained from his unselfish sharing. Every time I teach the proper angle on a high screen, telling a kid to “turn the corner,” I’ll think of that unique big guy with that northeastern Wisconsin dialect.
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