SAN ANTONIO — So you think you had a good week. Try topping Rick Majerus of Utah, the man who ran the Runnin' Utes into the national championship game here Saturday.
The 50-year-old Majerus returned to Salt Lake City last weekend after coaching his team to a shocking upset of defending champion Arizona in the West Regional final. He was riding high, but facing a doctor's appointment with dread. His doctor had ordered him in Tuesday for a procedure that would remove polyps from his colon.
Later Tuesday, he was told the two tumors removed were benign.
So a man who has been through heart bypass surgery and who tends to fear the worst when it comes to health matters, was able to head for the grotto of college basketball, the NCAA's Final Four, with a clear head and a light heart.
And it only got better here Saturday night, when the unexpected--and to many knowledgeable about college basketball the unbelievable--sent Majerus' Utah team past powerhouse North Carolina, 65-59, and into Monday night's final against Kentucky.
"Tuesday, I was scared to death. I thought I had cancer," Majerus said. "But I guess I have a little angel on my shoulder."
On a day in his life when he knew there really was no such thing, Majerus found sanctuary on a Stairmaster.
It was 10:30 a.m. Saturday, about eight hours before the game, and the lone machine in the small hotel workout room pumped up and down. Majerus needed to sweat, needed to get the release that comes from exercise, needed to get about 45 minutes of escape from the insanity that has swirled around him ever since Utah drowned Arizona at the Pond of Anaheim last weekend.
"If I don't do this, I'll just eat," he said.
Also, there on the Stairmaster, he wanted to tell a friend about his little angel.
"Her name is Sarah," he said. "She died about two weeks ago. I'm going to wear a pin on my sweater tonight, just this one pin--the hell with the NCAA pin--for her."
The pin is an organ donor pin. Sarah, daughter of Jerry Haggerty of Milwaukee--a friend of Majerus'--stayed alive for more than a year because she received three different organs from donors. Eventually, the infection that spread throughout her body killed her.
"I couldn't do anything," Majerus said. "I can wear the pin. That's all. I hope somebody sees it, lots of people see it, and decide to put their name on the donor list. My mom's name is, lots of my friends. Mine too. Nobody is gonna want my heart, but I sure go to the bathroom a lot, so I must have great kidneys for somebody."
On this, the biggest day of his basketball life, Majerus is a swarm of demands, requests, expectations.
As he grinds away on the Stairmaster, there is a steady stream of managers and assistants, each with yet another detail to handle. He had gotten a call from somebody he couldn't remember, but who said they had played basketball together many times at Hart Park in Wauwatosa, a Milwaukee suburb. Got any tickets, coach? Then there were his friends who had asked for, and received, two tickets and now wanted to get two more for their bartenders.
He handled each request with aplomb. If this basketball gig ever goes bad and Murray's Tickets is looking for a top-notch employee, Majerus is its man.
Through all of the requests, his line of decision is clear. He has made himself responsible for 340 tickets, and friends--those who have stuck with him through the good and bad from the playgrounds of Milwaukee to the stops along the way at Ball State and the NBA, to those who have stayed faithful during his years at Utah--will be taken care of.
One such friend is a man named Mike Schneider.
"He called me as soon as he got back from the West Regional," Schneider said. "I'm a nobody, just a guy, and he called me and told me he wanted me here."
Schneider and Majerus went to grade school together, back at St. Catherine's in Milwaukee. Schneider said that they played basketball every day as kids, no mean feat in Milwaukee's winters.
"It would snow, we'd shovel it, and we'd get out and play," Schneider said. "We'd even skip school if we had to. I guess we're old enough to admit that now."
In July 1977, Schneider was vacationing in northern Wisconsin when a tornado hit his campsite. His daughter, age 6 and Majerus' goddaughter, was killed when a tree crushed their trailer.
"I drove home. I couldn't think, I couldn't feel," Schneider said. "When I got to my house, Rick was there. Don't even ask me what he said. I have no idea. But he was there."
Majerus lives on his friends, dotes on them and them on him. His life consists of communicating the intricate skills of the game of basketball to young men at an age when they seldom are interested in intricate skills of anything, and taking his friends out to share a meal and stories.
The friends range from guys who played on the playgrounds with him and are now box boys. To Kevin Costner.
Costner and Majerus, America's new odd couple, had a party here earlier in the week.