CHICAGO – Rick Majerus‘ formal connections to the NBA were modest. He spent one season as an assistant coach on Don Nelson’s staff with the Milwaukee Bucks (1986-87), and for a number of years was a TV analyst of the college prospects on NBA Draft coverage.
But basketball is basketball. Xs & Os are the 1s & 0s of the game’s binary code, a universal language across its many levels.
The man who died Saturday at age 64 after years of battling heart disease – for all his NCAA success at Marquette, Ball State, Utah and most recently Saint Louis – had friends, mentors and devotees who reached basketball heights (The Finals, the Olympics, the Naismith Hall of Fame). And he had fans and now mourners who never left the gyms and playgrounds of Salt Lake City or Milwaukee, where Majerus was most comfortable, after all.
Tom Thibodeau, coach of the Chicago Bulls, had known of Majerus through Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers -– it was Majerus, remember, who christened the kid formerly known as Glenn with that nickname (Rivers wore a Julius “Dr. J” Erving T-shirt to a summer basketball camp where Majerus was working). But after Thibodeau got hired by the Bulls in 2010, a friendship developed between the two basketball lifers.
That first year, Thibodeau met Majerus in Milwaukee for a long dinner about basketball and life – the stout and curious Majerus rarely had any other kind. Then in the summer of 2011, the two got together – with mutual hoops junkies Scott Layden (now Spurs assistant GM) and Jay Larranaga (Celtics assistant), and Majerus’ girlfriend – for a week in Santa Barbara, Calif.
More coaching chatter. More lavish meals, no matter how low-rent the joint. More philosophizing. Genuine and not one of those sideline strutters from central casting.
“We’d talk basketball during the day,” Thibodeau said late Saturday, after the Bulls’ victory over Philadelphia at United Center. “Went out to dinner at night. Went for rides and stuff. He could talk about so many different things.
“The guy was just mesmerizing. He could talk about any aspect of the game. I have piles of notes about his basketball philosophy. He’s probably one of the top five basketball coaches at any level.”
Like many who knew Majerus, Thibodeau thought of him as a combination of the Marquette coaches who gave Majerus his start, part gamesman like Al McGuire, part details guy like assistant Hank Raymonds. But Thibodeau also saw, so many years later, the influence of Nelson, the Bucks’ “mad scientist” coach, from their season together and subsequent friendship.
“Nellie is very innovative, and it opened up the way Rick looked at things,” Thibodeau said. “He was one of those guys, I think he could have been a great coach in any sport. He understood things like team building.”
Majerus had attended the Bulls’ home game against Denver last spring at United Center – Nuggets coach George Karl was another of his great NBA friends. Thibodeau spoke with him in June, when Majerus’ exit from Saint Louis was still a health sabbatical, not yet the forced retirement that was announced last month. They missed each other in L.A., unknowingly staying in the same hotel when Thibodeau went out to meet with free agent Omer Asik.
“It’s so sad. I feel terrible,” Thibodeau said. “He lived life to the fullest, that’s for sure.
“The job he did at Utah – unbelievable, taking that team to the championship game against Kentucky. Think about that. Last year he had such a great year, too [with the Billikens] and he had that team coming back.
“He was one of those guys who got absolutely the most out of his teams. Whatever ‘the most’ could be, he did it year after year after year. To me, that’s the mark of greatness, to be able to do it over a long period of time. And he did it so many different places.”
Here are other reactions from Saturday night, from Majerus’ NBA connections:
Rivers: “That’s a tough one for me. He’s the one that gave me my name. … I knew before the game that he wasn’t going to make it through the night. I don’t want to talk much about it.”
Bucks assistant Jim Boylan, the point guard on Marquette’s 1977 NCAA title team: “For me personally he’s always been there. He’s one of those guys where, you don’t see Rick for a while and then when something is going wrong or you needed some help, boom, he’d be there. He did so much for me over the years when I was trying to get my career going, just extending himself and giving you whatever you needed, whether it was a phone call or having me come out to Salt Lake and stay with him 4-5 weeks at a time working. He would basically give you the shirt off his back if that’s what you needed – whatever it took. He’s going to be really missed. A great person.”
Milwaukee scout Bo Ellis, top player on that Warriors squad: “When I came to Marquette, Rick was still very young. He was just getting started too. But always prepared. Great basketball mind. I remember, he stole all of [Al McGuire's] jokes. A good person and a fantastic basketball man.”