RICK MAJERUS, the University of Utah basketball coach and reformed eat-a-holic, is sitting in a restaurant at the Denver airport, practically licking his chops. He's hungry, and now he has a couple of weapons at his disposal - a menu and a waiter.
"Are you ready to order?" the waiter asks."Yeah," says Majerus. "I'll have the charbroiled eggplant."
The waiter doesn't bat an eye, as if everyday someone walks in off the street and orders two eggplants to go.
"Anything else?" the waiter inquires.
"Yeah. I'll have the salmon. Is it fresh?" The waiter assures him it is.
"I'll have that, and a side order of rice and soup. Uh, does that soup have chicken broth or beef broth?"
After a few minutes, the waiter returns with the meal, and Majerus downs it with enthusiasm, occasionally asking his guest if he'd like a bite. No, he says.
Majerus, the former poster boy for Oscar Mayer, the one-time Fast Food Man of the Year, has changed his ways. A year ago he underwent bypass heart surgery that forced him to miss most of one season of basketball, the passion of his life. Since then, he's traded hot dogs for eggplants, pizza for chicken, red meat for greens. Now he's back for another basketball season, chipper, clear-eyed, happier, more relaxed, a little gentler than a year ago. But not noticeably thinner.
"How's your weight?" his guest asks.
"I don't know. You pick a figure."
If Majerus, a thick, squat man of about 250 pounds, is offended by such questions, he never lets on. He handles it with a keen sense of humor, most of it at his own expense. Earlier in the day, reporters were telling him how good he looked, but he didn't buy it. "I shaved this morning," he told them. "I know how I look."
But there are reminders anyway. Majerus tells this story: During the off-season he was staying in a certain Cincinnati hotel. So was Paul McCartney, who was in town for a concert. Waiting for a glimpse of the star, some 2,000 fans surrounded the hotel, held at bay in a long line by police. Majerus was leaving the hotel when a young boy - who had attended one of his basketball camps - broke through the line and asked for his autograph. Suddenly, 2,000 people pressed in around Majerus for the same thing, thinking he was part of the McCartney entourage. "Who is he?!" they were shouting. "Who is he!?" Then came some theories: "It's one of the Stooges!" And, "It's Uncle Fester from the Adams Family!"
"I had to watch 48 hours of cable to see who Uncle Fester was," says Majerus. When he saw who it was, "I was disappointed."
Jokes aside, Majerus is fighting for his life. Food, stress and heredity are his mortal enemies. He's beaten the first one, can't do anything about the last one and he's working on the middle one. Basketball - his main source of stress - is always an obsession. Name another man who breaks out in a sweat just diagramming plays on a chalkboard - until finally his shirt is soaked. He would, he says, like to curb his obsession. During the season, he'd like to take in a movie, or have a conversation that didn't include the subject of basketball, and spend Thanksgiving with friends instead of alone in a restaurant. "I'd like to think about something other than basketball for 24 hours a day," he says. So far he's failing.
During a morning press conference, while other coaches were taking turns at the podium evaluating their teams, Majerus was writing furiously at the head table. "Why are you writing this down?" asked UTEP coach Don Haskins. "It's all in the media guides."
"I'm not," says Majerus. "I'm writing down thoughts on my own team."
Later, while waiting for a ride from the hotel to the airport, he wishes aloud that he had a reservation for an another flight - one that would get him home all of 20 minutes earlier. "I could get back in time for two more (practice) drills," he explains.
Later Majerus confesses: "Since practice began, I haven't had a thought yet that wasn't related to basketball."
No wonder his assistant, Jeff Judkins, told him recently, "You need a girlfriend."
Meanwhile, Majerus' health is fine, thank you. He jogs daily. He plays ball. Last summer he played six games in a three-on-three basketball tournament in 90-degree August heat. "If I can do that, I ought to be able to take anything," he says.