Spirit of Rick Majerus propels Saint Louis Billikens
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Back in mid-December, when the Saint Louis team had played enough basketball to allow the shock to wear off, forward Dwayne Evans was asked if things were getting back to normal. "Normal," he said at the time to a reporter from the St. Louis Post Dispatch, "is an interesting word."
Normal is not one that anyone ever used for coach Rick Majerus. He always was way past "normal," well into "interesting," right through the day of his death, Dec. 1.
"He was a real unique guy," Evans said Saturday after he scored 24 points in a 67-56 win over Butler in the Atlantic 10 Tournament semifinals at Barclays Center. "You could never predict what was going to come out of his life, what story he was going to tell. He was definitely somebody you wouldn't forget."
This season has, appropriately, been way past normal for the players brought together and left behind. In December, they were pallbearers at his funeral, and here they are in March, with a regular-season title in hand, an NCAA Tournament in their grasp and a conference tournament trophy within reach.
"His fingerprints," said interim coach Jim Crews, who lost a boss, mentor and close friend to a heart condition Dec. 1, "are everywhere."
Crews knew Majerus for the better part of 40 years and loved the guy. He was the big, rollicking character's assistant coach on a U.S. under-22 team one year and never will forget a staff meeting in a hot tub. It was Majerus who talked Crews -- a member of Bob Knight's undefeated 1976 NCAA title team -- back into coaching, as an assistant, after a rough go as head coach at Army.
"Rick is someone we all miss and I certainly miss, not only as a comrade in coaching, but from a friend I've known for a long time," Crews said Saturday.
Crews had enough experience, confidence and humility to both honor Majerus' memory and keep the team moving forward. He and the players agreed that the chemistry that the late coach put in place, through the force of his larger-than-life personality, is what kept the Billikens going. Said the man who holds both the "interim" label and the conference's coach of the year title: "Relationships trump everything, in my opinion."
Majerus had a unique way of creating and fostering relationships. It became contagious. "You could just tell from the onset, from just meeting him," Evans said, "he just really cared about the people in his life, and basketball in particular."
Cody Ellis had 13 points Saturday and led the late first-half rally that got Saint (notice the school does not use the normal "St." abbreviation) Louis back from a slow start. He never will forget the day Majerus visited him at home in Perth, Australia, and gave an impromptu lesson on body surfing.
"I've lived by the beach my whole life and he's trying to teach me how to body surf. It was pretty funny," Ellis said, laughing at the thought of it. So the forward was asked, was he quiet and diplomatic in reply? "I had to be," he said.
Since December, it has been Ellis who has, unsolicited, continued Majerus' ritual of writing these words on the locker room whiteboard before every game: TO WIN . . . DEFENSE . . . REBOUNDS.
"You know, it was just a part of coach that has stuck with us," Ellis said. "It helps keep the guys focused."
The thing is, they keep each other focused. "These guys are my best friends and I hope I'm the same to them. Coach kind of brought us together like that," said center Rob Loe of Auckland, New Zealand. "Every time you do something bad, you think, 'What would he say about this? What would he suggest?' "
Saint Louis has done well much more often than it has done badly this year. Normally, you'd expect players to say that they wished their coach were here to see it. Except, Ellis said, speaking for the team, "We know he's still watching us."