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DAN McGRATH: Rick Majerus was great coach, better friend

FILE - In this March 18 2012 file phot Saint Louis head coach Rick Majerus reacts during first half an

FILE - In this March 18, 2012, file phot, Saint Louis head coach Rick Majerus reacts during the first half of an NCAA men's college basketball tournament third-round game against Michigan State in Columbus, Ohio. Majerus, the jovial college basketball coach who led Utah to the 1998 NCAA final and had only one losing season in 25 years with four schools, died Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. He was 64. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

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Updated: January 10, 2013 6:43AM

MILWAUKEE — The drive up here Saturday was dark, damp and a little depressing, a fitting
metaphor for the purpose of the trip: Rick Majerus’ funeral.

A radio tribute to Dave Brubeck didn’t help much. The jazz legend also passed on last week, joining Majerus in leaving the world a slightly less interesting place.

The Rev. William Kelly, the celebrant of the funeral mass, spoke about friendship in his eloquent homily and noted that promoting it was a Majerus legacy the mourners could cherish.

High-end basketball figures such as George Karl, Doc Rivers and Andre Miller were on hand, along with broadcasting luminaries, dozens of Majerus’ former players and at least that many ordinary folks who might have attended one of his camps or clinics or taken advantage of his humble nature and ‘‘talked ball’’ with him on the street, at a ballgame or in a Milwaukee dining spot.

Friendship? The Church of the Gesu on the Marquette campus was overflowing with it. In Rick’s honor.

Since his death last week from chronic heart disease, nearly every Majerus remembrance I’ve read — including some from writers who claimed to know him — describes a sad, lonely and depressed man. Maybe I lack sensitivity, but I never saw or thought of him that way over a 40-year friendship. As another longtime pal put it, how sad or depressed could he have been when he was laughing so much of the time?

The lifelong struggle to manage his appetite and the weight problem that resulted from his failure was a glitch in his psychological wiring, I suppose, but most people dealing with demons of their own know better than to be judgmental.

I saw how great he was with my kids and with other people’s kids, and I suspect he might have liked to be a family man, with a son of his own to complement the dozens of surrogate sons he helped to raise by being a personally involved coach whose cares and concerns went well beyond victories and losses.

But over time, I think he decided the commitment he had made to being a great basketball coach left him too little time, effort and energy for any other full-time attachments. So he lived in a hotel, came and went and did as he pleased and traveled when and where he wanted. Save for an inspiring devotion to his mother and unswerving loyalty to his players and his friends, he lived life pretty much unencumbered and enjoyed it.

Unconventional? Absolutely. But it worked for him. Pretty well, I think. He took losses hard, definitely — he was as fierce a competitor as he was generous a person — but if he was sad or depressed the rest of the time, he fooled me.

Years ago, when he still was making his coaching bones as a graduate assistant at Marquette, Majerus was typically 24/7 basketball one summer, working Al McGuire’s camp during the day and running kids’ clinics for Milwaukee’s Model Cities program during the evening.

The clinics were held at litter-strewn, no-net playgrounds in some of Milwaukee’s diciest neighborhoods, and many of the little hoopsters didn’t have the $5 they were supposed to pay for a T-shirt and a week’s worth of basketball instruction. Rick crouched down for a face-to-face chat with each kid.

‘‘Do you really want to play?’’ he asked, all business.

‘‘Oh, yeah, Coach, I want to play.’’

‘‘OK, go on over there.’’

The $5 for each of at least 20 kids came from his pocket. He was making less than $5,000 at the time.

But that was Majerus, a kind, caring, compassionate soul. He never changed.

At a memorial service on the Saint Louis campus, Kwamain Mitchell, a senior point guard and a fellow Milwaukeean, thanked Majerus for teaching him how to be a man.

Among other things, I would thank him for teaching me how to be friend. I’ll never be as good at it as he was.

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