by Gene Wojciechowski
You should have seen Rick Majerus late last week, a phone pressed against his ear, a grimace on his face as he stood in a small room outside the Milwaukee Bucks locker room at the Bradley Center. The news from the Utah-Air Force game wasn't good.
"We're down by five with a minute to go," he said.
A few moments later, he hung up the phone and made his way down the hall to Bucks coach George Karl's office. Karl was less than a half-hour removed from a 17-point loss to the Houston Rockets, but here was his good buddy Majerus asking him to fire up the desktop and give him an update on the Utes' struggle against the Zoomies in Colorado Springs. Majerus, who thinks the Internet is something you use to catch fish, leaned over Karl's shoulder as the Bucks coach clicked his way to a final score.
Majerus saw it first. "I knew it," he said, turning away from the ugly numbers: Air Force 71, Utah 60. Gone was the Utes' seven-game win streak, a medium-size chance at an NCAA at-large bid, and the ability to control their destiny in the chase for the No. 1 seed in the Mountain West Conference tournament. Now Utah would need help -- lots of it during the next few days -- to stay atop the league standings and backdoor its way into a top seed.
"I had a bad feeling about this game," Majerus said. And then he muttered something about how difficult it is to beat Air Force, what with its players willing to take a bullet for their country and all. "I mean, you think they're intimidated by the Utes?" he said.
This is what happens when you go cold turkey on coaching. One mid-November evening in Salt Lake City, you're wincing your way to a victory against Idaho State. A few days later, you realize your knee is weaker than a banana republic. And, by the way, your mom has cancer. And your friend, former coach and mentor probably has less than six months to live, tops. As an added bonus, a couple of your arteries will soon decide to take some time off.
In the end, Majerus decided he'd rather spend time with who he loved rather than with what he loved. Basketball is his passion, but his mother Alyce and his friend Al McGuire are his true north on a compass that always points to family and friends first. So he limped away from the game this season, the better to tend to his mom in Milwaukee, to the Irishman in the nearby hospice, and to his own heart and knee.
That was months ago. Since then, his mother has begun treatment and the early returns are encouraging. Meanwhile, Majerus and his surgically repaired arteries are swimming a mile a day, and while he isn't ready for the ballroom dancing finals, he is walking without looking like he has a slug in his leg. As for the legendary McGuire, who coached Majerus and later hired him at Marquette, he died Jan. 26. Majerus served as a pallbearer.
This isn't the first time Majerus has missed time. Heart surgery forced him from the court after only six games of the 1989-90 season. Now, 329 games later, here he is sweating out the Utes' run at an NCAA bid.
But this is different. This time he had a choice. Majerus could coach if he really wanted to. His heart is fine. His knee is getting there. His weight is taking a turn south. Give him a sideline and a white sweater and he'd be good to go.
Instead, the nation's only undefeated Division I coach (1-0) takes his mom to a Sunday dinner at Red Lobster (her pick). He calls a friend whose infant grandson has suddenly died and offers to swing by the house. He drives about 30 minutes north of Milwaukee to watch a freckled, milky white junior forward from Homestead High School make a nervous dad proud. The dad? George Karl, who sat next to Majerus on the wooden bleachers as skinny Kobe hit a trey, blocked a shot, and triggered a fast break in the Homestead playoff win. George loves those transition baskets.
A little more than a week ago, Majerus made a surprise visit to Salt Lake for Senior Day. Ask the Utes' lone scholarship senior, center Nate Althoff, how much it meant to have his coach hand him a framed photograph that day.
Majerus will be in Las Vegas this week when No.1-seeded Utah plays in the Mountain West tournament. Turns out the Utes got the help they needed -- they beat New Mexico at Albuquerque. Then UNLV upset Wyoming to create a three-way tie in the league. Utah won the tiebreaker.
You should have seen him when he heard the news. He was happy for his players, and for assistant Dick Hunsaker, who has coached the team in Majerus' absence. But here's what made him the happiest: he was going to see his mom the next day.
Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He co-wrote Rick Majerus' book, My Life on a Napkin: Pillow Mints, Playground Dreams, and Coaching the Runnin' Utes. E-mail Geno at email@example.com.