The Promise (and Majerus’ Curse)

In an era when events like “The Decision” are sensationalized and covered by every major news source around, I wanted to discuss something that was very important to me. “The Promise.”

The reason I created this blog was to give myself a creative outlet to express thoughts and insights during this waiting period in my basketball coaching career. With only three stories on my site, I think you have a general idea that I want to be creative, humorous and witty as I address topics that arise in the wide world of sports.

However, this entry will be a bit more personal.

Recently, Rick Majerus, a true basketball mastermind, tactician and historian, passed away. With his passing, many sports columnists and basketball coaches that were associated with him expressed their views on Rick Majerus. Doug Gottlieb’s article in particular did a great job capturing Majerus’ dichotomy as a person and coach.

This got me thinking of my brief experience with Coach Majerus.

I was at a Nike Coaching Clinic in Uncasville, CT at the Mohegan Sun Resort Casino. I believe it was in 2004. I am not exactly sure the year because my clinic notes, along with almost my entire life, sits in a 10’ x 11’ storage facility on the East side of New Haven right now (but I will get back to that later).

As an aspiring basketball coach, I was eager to move up in the coaching ranks and Majerus’ was presenting on a great topic that any coach should be familiar with. He was discussing the “9 Ways to Defend the Pick and Roll.” I think I could only name seven ways at the time, so I was very excited!

However, as Majerus began to talk, it was clear that he was never going to address all the ways to defend the pick and roll. He was so knowledgeable that the hour and fifteen minute allotment that he was given by Ed Janka, Nike Clinician, was not going to be able to touch on even half. He discussed trapping out of the ball screen, which led to a story. Then switching out of the ball screen, which led to a story. And so on, and so on. His stories were so vivid and detailed, all of us who were lucky enough to hear him speak that day felt like we were in the moments he was describing.

As the Head Men’s Basketball Coach at the University of Utah, he had the opportunity to see John Stockton and Karl Malone in their glory years with the NBA’s Utah Jazz. Majerus was a former assistant with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and his connections to Frank Layen and Jerry Sloan (former Jazz Head Coaches) gave him access to Jazz games and practices. This allowed him to be quite the connoisseur on the pick and roll, a staple of the Jazz’ offense during Stockton and Malone’s careers.

However, it is not the pick an roll that really caught my attention. As I was fiercely taking notes, Majerus went off on a tangent. He began to talk about the 1998 NCAA Championship game which his Utah Utes lost to the Kentucky Wildcats, 78-69. It was here that he said, “Have you ever been so close to your dream that you could see it? I have watched that game countless times and know every possession in that game. I replay those mistakes in my head time and time again and realize that I was so close to my dream.” It haunted him.

Majerus continued that basically he loved watching game tape so much that he would routinely eat four to six pizzas in his hotel room, which is where he lived, while breaking down game tape. Needless to say, Majerus did not live in a traditional home. Also, it was because of his compulsive personality that he “was divorced and had no children.” He had basketball and basketball had him. That was his intimate realationship.

Majerus said this so matter-of-factly and then continued on his topic.

I thought, “Wow! This is a coach that is at the top of his game, has coached at the highest level and he is haunted by the thought of that one loss.”

It makes you wonder if it would have been better if Majerus had never reached the 1998 title game.
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Let’s fast forward to February 23, 2011…

My Penn State Beaver team was going for its fourth consecutive conference tournament championship. We were up 10 points at the half although we were not playing our best brand of basketball. As the second half wore on, I could see the game slipping away. This is an awful feeling for a coach, especially when you feel there is nothing you can do to gain the momentum back. I called timeouts, ran quality offense, used the bench, got to the foul line, but to no avail. Penn State Brandywine, with the game tied, knocked down a 3pt field goal on the left wing with just seconds remaining to give them a lead.

I drew up a press breaker and 3pt shot for my best 3pt shooter, who grazed the right side of the rim as time expired. We had lost, 57-54.

My team was devastated. I have only watched the end of that game once. It was at the start of the next practice as we received an automatic bid to the national tournament. We watched it in pain together to put it behind us and prepare for the national championship tournament. I haven’t watched it since.

I think about that game from time to time. It was one we should have had and my seniors would have won four conference championships to cap their storied careers. However, I will not memorize that game because I do not want those memories to haunt me each an every day. Coach Majerus taught me that. I felt his pain in our loss. Both, Majerus’ and mine, are still very, very real.

Our team rebounded, won three games in a row and made it to the national finals. Again we lost, 80-55. The seniors walked off of that floor together at the final buzzer, as they should have. Despite the score, they were champions in my eyes.

That game, I have NEVER watched.

And I never will.

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Let’s fast forward again…

It’s now the beginning of October 2012. My wife and I are expecting in December (we just had a beautiful baby girl on December 2nd, ironically the day after Coach Majerus passed) and we are excited about the huge change in our lives that is about to occur. Although we own a great home near Clarion, Pennsylvania, we both have applied for positions to better our family and our career and financial situations.

I have made it no secret to my administration and head coach that I wish to continue the climb up the coaching ladder and run my own Division II basketball program or get back into division I basketball once again.

Amazingly, my wife, who works in higher education, was offered a job at Yale University during our search. This is truly a great opportunity for both of us. She can pursue her career ambitions and we will be closer to our family in Rhode Island when the baby arrives.

In the short term, we decide that I will take a week or so to see the birth of our child and then I will return to Clarion to finish the season and take care of our home during the selling process. However, our home sold in four days and after seeing how my wife was living in our new apartment, by herself with limited (basically no) furnishings, I decided that I could not live with myself seeing her like that or focus on anything. Plans had to change. I was afraid to be a 50/50 husband and father and a 50/50 coach. My family and my players deserved better than that. I had to make a tough decision.

An emotional three weeks ensued, where I had to say goodbye to my players rather hastily. It was one of the most difficult things I had to do.

I coached my last game on Saturday. Finished packing up the house on Sunday and moved to New Haven, Connecticut the next day, Monday, November 19, 2012, so I could be reunited with my wife and soon-to-be newborn. We now live in a good sized apartment, with most of our belongings in that 10′ x 11′ storage facility I so fondly referred to earlier (I hope you can sense my sarcasm).

Not having a basketball season these past few weeks has been difficult for me. My whole existence up to this point has evolved around “my promise.” My promise is what motivates me, although it has evolved through time just as I have.

My first “Promise” was to be a college head coach and earn my master’s degree before I was 30. I accomplished that.

Then I redefined my “Promise” to support a family once again though coaching. I accomplished that.

Then my “Promise” was to get my dogs, Murphy and Benny, a yard. Again supporting a family but having a home to call our own. I accomplished that.

Then my “Promise” was to become be a NCAA Division II Head Coach or NCAA Division I Assistant Coach. I was so close to realizing my dreams with all of my interviews in the summer of 2011 that I could taste it. Just like Majerus.

However, that “Promise” has not come true yet.

My recent resignation from basketball, has led me to have this empty feeling where I have relived the sacrifices I have made to pursue my basketball journey and coaching career. I have questioned my very existence from a professional standpoint. I find myself wondering where I will end up once job openings begin come available in March and April.

Then I think of my wife and my newborn.

Then, I recall that Coach Majerus lost his family because of his obsession. No wife. No children. I remember the emptiness in his voice that day. I remember the suffering. The loss haunted him, but I believe that he was expressing that day was that he had lost much more than a the 1998 Men’s Basketball National Championship game. I have never forgotten that.

And I never will.

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One comment on “The Promise (and Majerus’ Curse)

  1. Brad Palmer says:

    I was at that same coaching clinic and at the “social hour” that followed, things were winding down and Coach Majerus ambled up to our table, which was located at the far end of the room. He asked to sit down, then proceeded to ask if we knew of any good pizza places in town. Classic!
    His book, “My Life On A Napkin”, was a fabulous read.

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