At the start of a muggy Wisconsin summer in 1980, a young Chicagoan named Glenn Rivers walked into Marquette University’s summer basketball camp. The heralded freshman recruit sported a t-shirt with Dr. J on the front. The coach running the camp ominously pulled Rivers aside before practice started. Noting the t-shirt, the coach annonuced Rivers would now go by the nickname "Doc." Nearly three decades later, the enduringly christened Doc Rivers would win an NBA title coaching the Boston Celtics, while the guy who gave him the nickname would take his fifth college basketball job, still with the dream of coaching his first team to an NCAA championship
That dream died when Coach Rick Majerus died Saturday. Too many Majerus obituaries will mention words like "appetite" and "food" and "Utah" and "runner-up" at the risk of ignoring his legacy living on in the impact he had on those he cared about – whether or not it manifested itself in the form of a nickname, or a shared late-night meal, or an on-court lecture.
News of Majerus’ death rippled through, then fully submerged Twitter on Saturday. Instead of waiting for a statement from Majerus’ family or Saint Louis University to come out, former SLU associate head coach Porter Moser let the world know Majerus had died with a simple tweet mourning the loss of his mentor. It was as if Moser sought to add his condolences to news that had already been well established. But the news of his death wasn't established at all. In fact, it caught everyone off guard. The process of revealing his death played out much like the way Majerus’ lived his life – it was impulsive, unofficial, and blunt. When something needed to be said it was simply, if not strangely, said.
Majerus battled weight and heart issues for many years before stepping down as head coach of the Saint Louis Billikens basketball program for health reasons just 16 days ago. He was the erstwhile leader of the Billikens, Utah Utes, Ball State Cardinals and Marquette Golden Eagles, and if you’re reading this chances are you already know that he led a 1997-98 Utah Utes team with All-American Andre Miller to the national championship game against Kentucky.
The great Sports Illustrated writer Frank DeFord once boasted that he owned the world’s largest collection of hotel shampoo bottles. The monastic Majerus – "some guys like to chase women, I’m a big barbecue sauce guy," he famously quipped – might have rivaled it. Known for frequent and lengthy stays on the road, Majerus had a basketball knowledge that rivaled any of his peers’.
But beyond being a student of the game, beyond constantly being noted for his weight, Majerus was a strange figurehead in college basketball whose self-effacing nature was as cryptic as it was comedic. His notable one-liners and comebacks made him a media favorite. They also tended to obscure a deeper understanding of a paradoxical, if not iconoclastic, individual.
In Al McGuire’s words, Majerus was one of the "crappiest" players to ever play for the Marquette Golden Eagles, but he was one of the best to ever coach the team.
His former players termed Rick Majerus a great guy, but they called Coach Majerus a profane taskmaster.
He was known for delivering sharp one-liners, but made headlines when he stormed off the set of a Final Four broadcast because of the show's repeated attempts to confine his analytical comments to 45 seconds.
He cared during the season for his sick mother, Alyce, who died in 2011, but claimed that he couldn’t even remember the day when his father died in 1987.
He joked with St. Louis media when he took time off from the Billikens about feeling like he should have an AARP card and getting a senior discount, but he lived in what Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz that same day called "a dark place" with "a fear of dying."
He was not married and never had children, but took in several players like Keith Van Horn as surrogate children when they lost father figures.
As college basketball in the 21st century continued to emphasize its players professional viability over their academic success, Majerus notably doubled down on academics, calling players’ academic success his most important job.
He was the godfather of an NBA player’s children. He was also the godfather of a U.S. presidential candidate’s children.
What any of these contrasts illustrate is unclear. What is clear is that on Saturday college basketball lost a coach with an unequivocally original personality at a time when, if anything, it needs more of them.