IT WAS JUST before 2 o'clock in the morning when Keith Van Horn woke up to a knock on his dorm-room door. He was 18 years old in February 1994, a star freshman on the University of Utah's basketball team, deep into his first winter in Salt Lake City. Van Horn lifted out of his warm bed and opened the door. He saw the imposing figure of his coach, Rick Majerus, standing in the hallway. "I had a lot of thoughts running through my head," Van Horn says today from his home in Denver. "What could I have done so wrong to have Rick Majerus at my door at 2 in the morning?"
In his first few months with the Utes, Van Horn had come to view Majerus with some strange combination of love and fear. The coach could be mercurial with his players, frequently profane, occasionally even cruel. Van Horn remembers the feeling of foreboding that came over him before each practice: "The hardest three and a half hours of your life were coming up," he says. But away from the court, Majerus was warm and funny, a man with no family beyond his mother and his players. Basketball and the kids who played it for him had Majerus' whole heart.
That night in his darkened dorm room, however, Van Horn felt his chest tighten, fear boxing out the love. Majerus asked him to come out of his room, and they walked into one of the dorm's common areas, into a kitchen. That's when Majerus explained the reason for his late-night visit. Van Horn's mother had called from his native Los Angeles with news too devastating to deliver by phone: His father had died of a heart attack. Nearly 20 years later, Van Horn's memory of that crushing instant is all too clear. "The moment you find out you've lost your father stays with you," he says.
His memories of what happened next were made less clear by his numbness and grief. After Van Horn had cried himself out in that kitchen, Majerus told him to get dressed. They were going to grab something to eat. "With Coach Majerus, you had to eat, regardless of the circumstances," Van Horn says. They drove through Salt Lake City's quiet, deserted streets and found a quiet, deserted diner. Majerus ordered them breakfast -- eggs, Van Horn remembers. Lots of eggs.
And then Majerus and Van Horn talked, about fathers and the holes that absent ones leave, and the ways their sons might fill them. Majerus' father had died seven years earlier, and he told Van Horn how that had felt and how the days and years after had felt. The sense of loss never really goes away, Majerus said. All you can do is find other sources of the things for which you needed your father.
After more than three hours of eggs and wisdom, Majerus picked up the check -- "That was probably an NCAA violation," Van Horn says, only half-joking -- and they headed back out into the cold. Van Horn felt different, almost physically changed by his predawn breakfast, as though he had sat down at the table as one person and risen as another. Now he truly knew how hard three and a half hours could be.
Majerus was there in LA for the funeral. After, when Van Horn returned to Salt Lake City, he began his search for new sources of the things for which he had needed his father. He found them in the gym, where he spent more and more of his waking hours, losing himself in the levels of the game. And he saw them in the coach he didn't fear anymore. When Majerus died a year ago this month, Van Horn was driving to dinner with his wife. His phone started ringing and ringing. The shock forced him to the side of the road. "It was really hard," he says. "I wish I'd had the chance to say goodbye."
Van Horn had routinely gone to Majerus for advice long after that night in the diner. In 2006, after nine years with five teams in the NBA, Van Horn, then a 30-year-old father of four, had started feeling torn between his family and his working life. He called Majerus and told him he was thinking of retiring, and he waited for the man who loved basketball so much to tell him he was out of his mind. But Majerus agreed with him: Death isn't the only thing that makes fathers absent, the way fathers aren't the only ones who leave holes to fill.