SALT LAKE CITY —
It was the 1990s, when Utah was still a beast in basketball. I stood alone with Rick Majerus outside the locker room. For some reason, I asked him what his mother would think of all his success.
He started to answer but then his voice choked off. Tears flooded his eyes. He couldn't even get through his response, so we both silently decided it was better if we moved on.
It was no secret he treasured his mother, the closest person in his life. And he loved his players, there was no denying that. After Utah lost to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament one year, he was asked about the Utes' nemesis and what it would take to beat the Wildcats.
"I don't know," he said before stammering, "I thought our guys played their hearts out. I'm just discouraged right now. I'm not upset with the team at all . . . And I'm sad because I'm losing (Trace) Caton. I love Caton and Britton (Johnsen). I mean, they're . . . I mean I . . . they're hard kids to say goodbye to . . . "
He stopped, the tears flowing.
"Any more questions?"
Just one, a day after the famous former Utah basketball coach passed away: Did anyone really know him?
I've never covered a more complicated man.
When the news broke, I realized I had been wondering about this day for 20 years. Everyone knew Majerus had heart problems for several decades. The years passed as the procedures and surgeries mounted. He never did fully get his weight under control. I used to worry about him myself, not only because I knew him, but because I wondered if he might have a heart problem during a game; that I would be writing about something far more serious than just basketball.
Almost everyone in the media and at the U. had their ups and downs with Majerus. There were a lot of aspects to him. One was Majerus the comedian, who used to make weight jokes at his own expense and wisecrack about asking out Ashley Judd and Cindy Crawford.
It's true that he could be difficult to deal with. One Ute employee told me he used to dream of teams as good as the ones Majerus built, but that working with him was so hard that it made him think losing might be better.
But I also remember getting off a hotel elevator in 1995 at the Final Four in Seattle and running into Majerus. I had my son and daughter with me and he stopped and asked how I was doing. He was genuinely kind to my kids. Another time he stopped me in a hotel lobby and asked why I hadn't said hi to him as I was running on the waterfront that day (I hadn't seen him.) A time or two he talked amiably with me about Jazz columns I had written.
I did once get an e-mail from a Crimson Club member, asking me what I thought about Majerus calling my columns "total garbage" at a luncheon. For some reason, that made me laugh. He was good at that — making me laugh.
I knew he had given me enough great quotes and good columns that I had no reason to begrudge him.10 comments on this story
I never was totally sure where I stood with Majerus. But I know where he stood regarding his mother. And I know what he thought of his players. More than once I heard him talk about the LDS returned missionaries on his team and how basketball wasn't their biggest priority. He said it with admiration. So much so that he said if he ever had sons, he would want them to be like players such as returned missionaries Mark and Craig Rydalch and Alex Jensen. He said the same of other non-LDS players, including Andre Miller, Keith Van Horn and Michael Doleac.
He would say it at the end of the season, and fairly often he would get choked up.
When I think of Majerus, that's what I'll remember most. The laughs, yes, there were a million of them. Those were good moments. But the best part of Majerus was the tears.