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Original Issue

Big Doings in Utah

Undaunted by a septuple bypass, recruiting obstacles and hunger pangs, coach Rick Majerus has led Utah to the WAC title

If you're Rick Majerus, the valentine's Day card you received last week should have been garnished with a surgically repaired heart. Less than 15 months ago you weighed some 325 pounds and were in an operating room undergoing a septuple bypass that would lay you up for most of your first season as basketball coach at the University of Utah. Now you're back, a not-quite-svelte-yet 270 pounds, and your Utes are champions of the Western Athletic Conference. You beat Brigham Young 81-74 on Saturday night, the eve of a 43rd birthday you count yourself very lucky to have seen. A posse of your players, staff and supporters was going to toss you in the shower, but they have borne enough weighty burdens of late, so you walk in voluntarily. "The nicest shower I ever took with 25 guys," you call it.

You are 24-2 and ranked No. 14 despite having only one player who can really be described as a star, junior forward Josh Grant. You've been told that of the top 80 teams in the nation, yours is the only squad with merely one player scoring in double figures. Yet nine of your men average double-figure minutes because, in your words, "Everyone can bring something to the party."

Your team's success is so at odds with the accepted formula at the highest levels, runs so counter to the preseason forecasts, which picked you no better than sixth in the league, that it inevitably attracts national attention. Most of the eyes are focused on you, and you find this discomfiting. So you talk up your players. "People like our team because they can identify with it," you say. "We have two ends of the spectrum. Little kids come to the game and love Jimmy Soto, our 5'7" backup point guard. On the other end is Walter Watts, who used to weigh 318 pounds. People who see him may have a weight problem of their own, or know someone who does. What's more like an underdog than to be minuscule or to have a problem that half of America is trying to deal with?"

You have set a weight limit of 260 for Watts, your 6'8" senior center. If he doesn't make weight on game day, you will sit him down, which hasn't happened this season. "Coach doesn't want me to end up with a big scar on my chest like he did," says Watts. "We're both trying to do the same thing. I'm trying to do it to play. He's trying to do it to live."

Between the two ends of that spectrum are players of every shape and background. You brought in a couple of guards, 6'3" Byron Wilson and 6-foot Tyrone Tate, from the Rust Belt cities of Gary, Ind., and Chicago, respectively, and they have proved to be rust-free despite sitting out last season as academic casualties. If 6'5" M'Kay McGrath and 6'3" Craig Rydalch, both Mormons, had proselytized on their missions in Des Moines and Manchester, England, even half as 2 aggressively as they play, most of the citizens of those cities would be members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by now. Guard Phil Dixon, a 6'5" Jamaican-born Canadian, still limps, the result of his lacerating a nerve in a calf muscle when he accidentally put his leg through a window while roughhousing with friends on Dec. 14, 1989, the same fateful day you went under the knife.

In the fall you almost lost Paul Afeaki, your 6'10" backup center from Tonga, in a deportation proceeding. Last Thursday night, a few hours after your team beat league rival Wyoming 77-72, you almost lost him, period. Afeaki was returning home with his wife from a postgame meal in Salt Lake City when some crazyman with a semiautomatic pistol took issue with his driving etiquette and pumped a bullet into his shoulder. The guy sped from the scene without so much as a trace, and as of Sunday, the police had no real leads. Afeaki will be out at least until tournament time next month. "Last year the adversity came early," Wilson says. "This year it's come late."

Grant, who leads the team in scoring (17.7 points a game), rebounding (7.5), blocks (36) and steals (43), is your constant. "But everybody steps up to bat one game or another," Grant says. On Thursday it was Dixon, who hobbled his way to three treys as well as the dunk that iced the game. Last month against Texas-El Paso it was Soto, who tossed in 16 points and grabbed five unlikely rebounds. On Saturday Wilson went off, flicking in six soft threes. You hesitate calling them good kids because that sounds like a bromide. But you go ahead and call them that anyway, because that, you decide, is exactly what they are. You elaborate: "On Christmas Day they go to the hospital of their own volition. If anything, I could use one or two with a little asshole in 'em."

In a state that is essentially a Mormon theocracy, you are a Catholic-educated skeptic. In a part of the world where more than two people sipping Cokes together after 9 p.m. passes for Runyonesque, you jar people's sensibilities simply by being yourself, which is single, outspoken, disheveled and an in-season insomniac. You learned about basketball from Al McGuire as an assistant at Marquette, and about the world from your father, Raymond, a United Auto Workers lifer who was beaten up by factory guards during a strike and who dragged you along when you were 12 to open-housing marches through Milwaukee's South Side. You still carry your union card and pay your dues to the Brewery Workers, Local 9.

"I'm probably the antithesis of what Utah's all about," you confess. "Mormon-ism's not for me, not with that 10 percent [tithing] rule and those three-hour services. But I'll tell you this much: They're the best goddam people in the world. They've got decency, kindness and heart. I'm not good enough for 'em."

Somehow you have fashioned a family in this land where family is all. "He's more or less married to basketball," says Rydalch. "And the team's really his family." Rydalch is one of five of your players who are married; you live alone in a hotel near campus. You like having someone there to take your messages, and the switchboard operator recognizes your mother's voice. Lord knows you need the maid service. The one drawback to this hotel life is that strangers knock on your door at all hours, inviting you to join in their wedding receptions.

Over the years, for the longest time, you made late-night calls to room service, and that was what nearly killed you. After leaving your old job at Ball State for Salt Lake City, you began noticing your breath getting shorter. You attributed this to the altitude. Then came the chest pains, which you thought you could fix with a little VapoRub. Finally, six frenetic games into the '90-91 season, you went to the president of the university's Crimson Club, who happened to be a cardiologist. "Everywhere else I'd been, the head of the booster club was a condo developer or something." you say. "I'm not a big believer in divine providence, but it was fortuitous that I had this problem here."

You knew you were in trouble from the way the medical people whispered among themselves when they first got a look at your angiogram.

"Wait a second," you said. "We're not doing anything until the season ends."

"No, you wait a second," you were told. "Or there won't be any season's end."

A day later you turned your team over to your assistant, Joe Cravens, and didn't go see the Utes play again until the WAC tournament in March. You had a more pressing coaching job to do, on yourself. You jog regularly and watch your diet as best anyone can whose hobby is eating out. But there are limits. "I don't want to go the nuts-and-sprouts route totally," you say. "For a while I was eating so many oats I started counting with my foot."

You have a gift for working a sideline, for making decisions by the seat of your pants, a seat that has now been taken in considerably. You are esteemed more within the profession than without, respected as a coach's coach, all substance and no style. In Albuquerque, one of the more hostile outposts in your far-flung and underrated conference, a sportswriter describes you as "a 270-pound combination of Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Vince Lombardi and Andrew Dice Clay." More than most college coaches, you bring an NBA sensibility to the subtleties of the sport, the result of a year's apprenticeship under Don Nelson with the Milwaukee Bucks. Nellie-like, you hunt down mismatches obsessively, and exploit the bejesus out of them once they're found. Grant, one of 12 kids whose father built the family home in Salt Lake City with an indoor basketball court, allows you the latitude to do this, for he is 6'10", with a handle on the game. "If big's on him, we put him outside and run him off screens," you say. "If small's on him, we run him into the post."

Cravens, who guided the Utes to a 16-14 finish last season in your absence, is back at your side. "This is my 13th year of college coaching," he says, "and Rick makes me feel like I've been a plumber for 13 years."

You and your staff struggle to prevail upon Mormon youngsters, the ones who come up playing ward ball, the LDS equivalent of the CYO ball you know so well, to choose secular Utah over the church's own Brigham Young. "I've gone zero-for-the-religion recruiting kids out of high school," you say. "If the Eleventh Commandment was 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's players,' I'd be on my way to hell, big time."

You really wanted one local high school senior, a 6'7" forward named Justin Weidhauer, but wrote him off after you read a newspaper story in which he said he wanted to go to BYU because Cougar coach Roger Reid is his hero. Still, this made you curious. You asked an assistant to call and find out just why Reid is his hero. The assistant discovered that Weidhauer admires Reid because he has persevered despite double hip-replacement operations. "What do I have to do to become a hero?" you say. "I could have bought the farm. I mean, a guy was holding my heart in his hands for six hours. Nothing against Roger and what he's been through, but it's tougher to make it without a heart than without a hip."

Ever since your first godchild was killed in a tornado a dozen years ago, you have been fascinated by death. You have read everything on dying by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a noted psychiatrist and prolific author. You sit in on divinity school lectures about the hereafter whenever you get the chance. Every time a state executes someone, you fire off a letter to its governor saying that you oppose capital punishment.

Your own medical misadventure has put you and death on terms even more intimate than before. Your father fell to a heart attack of his own three years ago, and cancer has tried to do in your mother, although she picked the disease up full-court and is holding her own. Your players saw fire spitting out of the engines of their airliner on the way back from a road trip in December and heard flight attendants sobbing as the cabin was prepared for a crash that was ultimately averted.

"Hey, you with the hat," one better-composed stewardess had called out to Dixon. "After we crash, will you help me with the emergency exit?"

Dixon—good kid, game kid—hesitated for just a moment, then said, "If I'm alive, I will."

Afeaki had changed lanes on Thursday night and accidentally cut off the crazy-man, who then tailed him for several blocks. Afeaki pulled over; the crazyman did, too. Afeaki got out of his car and calmly asked if there was a problem. If he hadn't ducked, that .45-caliber bullet might have struck him in the heart. "Two inches," you say, "and he's dead." Still, people wanted to know how you would play Brigham Young, a team whose first-and second-string centers stand, respectively, 7'6" and 6'10", without your backup big man. Under the circumstances, you considered their curiosity oafish. But then you wondered, too. You went back to the hotel—home—where you and your staff commandeered the concierge lounge, studied tapes and devised a way.

You told Watts to take the ball right into the face of the Cougars' thyroidal starting freshman in the pivot, Shawn Bradley. Watts did, outrebounding him 11-10 and scoring 13 points, 3.4 above his average. You went even farther down your bench, and third-string center Larry Cain scored his first basket since December. Then you tapped a walk-on, 6'6" junior forward Sean Mooney, who stepped into the post and gave you four minutes, three fouls and a whole lot of cardiac muscle, "I was Mooney once," you say afterward. "We're like the Little Engine That Could, just chugging uphill. We're the only team in America with a 'DNP—bullet wound' in our box score. The last time I was this happy was when I woke up from surgery alive."

At 24-2—or even at 2-24—if you're Rick Majerus, you're happy to be checked in, because you have glimpsed what it's like to have checked out. But tonight you say to hell with doctor's orders. Tonight, you eat that chocolate on your pillow.



Watts (far left) must watch his weight or take a seat on the bench behind the still-weighty Majerus. Grant (below) is the team's constant.



[See caption above.]



When he isn't airborne, Dixon limps as the result of a freak leg injury suffered last season.



The 5'7" Soto appeals to all who feel small, according to his coach.



Two days after being shot by an irate driver, Afeaki reveled in the championship ritual.