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McGrath: Rick Majerus’ quirks have brought life to college basketball

NCAA Basketball Tournament - St Louis v Michigan State

NCAA Basketball Tournament - St Louis v Michigan State

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Updated: October 1, 2012 5:53PM

K entucky’s victory in the NCAA tournament title game back in April was no more suspenseful than Team USA’s in the Olympic gold-medal match three weeks ago.

With the Gasol brothers, Rudy Fernandez and Serge Ibaka, Spain brought some NBA firepower and could at least mount a challenge to LeBron and Co. in London.

With John Calipari artfully manipulating the one-and-done rule to stock his NBA waiting room, Kentucky always has more talent than any team it will face and should never lose a college game.

It was Kansas, by the way, whom the Wildcats defeated for the national championship. The wins tend to run together when they’re that monotonous.

Absent any Final Four drama, the enduring takeaway from this year’s tournament was St. Louis’ 61-54 victory over Memphis in a first-round game. The precise dissection of a physically superior squad put Rick Majerus back on the college game’s big stage five years after he walked away from a comfortable ESPN gig because he’d rather coach basketball than talk about it.

And he loves talking about it.

His Billikens ran out of tricks against Michigan State two days later, but the way they acquitted themselves in their first tournament appearance in 12 years proved Majerus hadn’t lost his touch. He was bringing nearly everybody back from a 24-8 team, too, so a deeper tournament run in 2013 was a reasonable expectation. He would take his customary break to recharge his batteries, then go back to work with typical vigor. He couldn’t wait.

Except it’s not that simple. The heart problems Majerus has battled since he was a young man recurred over the summer. The batteries didn’t recharge. Bad genetics, worse eating habits and the unrelenting demands of a high-stress job combined to lay him low again, and he has been ordered off the bench for the coming season.

It has happened before, but there’s a more ominous feel to Majerus’ sabbatical this time. He’s 64 — pretty old in a young man’s game — and in the final year of a contract St. Louis has been in no hurry to extend, in part because of concerns over his health — heart problems tend to linger as a person ages.

Basketball will be the worse for it if Majerus has coached his last game.

On the other hand, if trading his seat on the bench for a chair in an ESPN studio means a longer, healthier life, tell Dick Vitale to slide over. I want what’s best for my friend.

I go back 40 years with Majerus. He was a graduate assistant coach at Marquette when I was a student journalist there, and we hit it off.

He’d been promoted to full-time assistant and would be doing much of the recruiting by the time I left for my first newspaper job in Freeport, Ill., and as I departed he urged me to keep an eye out for players. “Like I’m going to find any in the Gateway to Galena,” I thought.

Well, one year there was one, a 6-foot-4 guard from one of the farm towns with a live body and a nice shot. Majerus came down for a look on the worst shooting night of the poor kid’s life. It was painfully obvious Marquette wouldn’t be recruiting him, but ever-gracious Rick pointed out some things the kid should work on and chatted up his mother about schools he might consider.

On the drive back I was mortified by this waste of my friend’s time, but Majerus was having none of it, insisting he’d had fun.

“But just remember,” he added, “we’re trying to win the national championship, not the Stephenson County Ag League.”

All these years later, the exchange still makes me smile. Anyone who knows Majerus or has been around him for any length of time knows the feeling. He’s a delightful, generous, warm-hearted guy, great fun to be around, even (or maybe especially) at dinner, when you can’t help but feel like an enabler.

A little quirky, to be sure — the cream-colored sweater with the red stripe around his middle really did make him look like Uranus — but that’s part of his charm.

After 40 years, I don’t recognize the picture that has emerged from some misguided media attempts to psychoanalyze those quirks. The brats at the Deadspin website have given him a particularly rough ride, portraying him as some sort of lunatic ogre.

Not for a second. It’s sadly ironic but somewhat understandable that Majerus’ heart has been the cause of his problems. He has led with it all his life.

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