Big Dan on Campus: Majerle’s Heart is for Phoenix, and now GCU
By Bob Romantic
GCU Today Magazine
It was only a preseason conditioning test, and it wasn’t designed for one of the bigger basketball players on the team to excel.
But for Dan Majerle – then a 6-foot-6, 230-pound post player at Central Michigan University – it didn’t matter.
During a one-mile run at the school’s track, as the story goes, one of Majerle’s teammates broke away from the pack of runners.
“It was a guy who had run cross country in high school who was much smaller and had a body conducive to running longer distances,” said Chip Pisano, a teammate of Majerle’s at Central Michigan. “There were four of us running together, and all of a sudden Dan takes off and starts running after him. Dan ended up running a 4:35 mile. For somebody that big, in the mid-’80s, that’s a really good time. Our milers on the track team were running 4:20.
“We just looked at each other and said, ‘How is he doing this?’ But that tells you how competitive Dan is. He never wants to lose at anything.”
As Majerle remembers the event of some 30 years ago, his time was even better – a 4:26. Regardless, it exemplifies the determination and work ethic that never wavered throughout his professional career.
Not when he became the second-leading scorer in Central Michigan history.
Not when he attended the U.S. Olympic tryouts, where they didn’t even know how to pronounce his name initially (for the record, it’s “Mar-lee”), and earned a bronze medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Not when he was booed by Phoenix Suns fans who had never heard of him after he was drafted with the 14th overall selection in the first round of the 1988 NBA draft.
Not during a 14-year NBA career in which he was a three-time All-Star, a two-time member of the All-Defensive Team and an inductee into the Suns’ Ring of Honor.
Not as an assistant coach with the Suns.
And not now, as he becomes a head basketball coach for the first time, at Grand Canyon University.
“I’ve been successful at everything I’ve done so far. Everything I put my mind to, I go 100 percent,” Majerle said during a break in his second week on the job. “I have no doubt that I can be a good coach and I will be a good coach.”
Icon in the community
It’s that type of attitude that defined Majerle’s career, endearing him to the coaches he played for, the players he shared the court with, and the fans who came to watch him play.
His rugged “Thunder Dan” style of play early in his career won over even casual basketball fans; he was an integral part of the Charles Barkley-led Suns team that captured Phoenix’s heart as it made its way to the 1993 NBA Finals; and the Majerle’s Sports Grill in downtown Phoenix became so popular that there are now four in the metro area (with a fifth planned in Flagstaff).
His good looks don’t hurt, making him a favorite of female fans everywhere. But, more than that, Majerle’s massive popularity is a result of a humility and regular-guy persona that come across in his dealings with people.
“He’s always willing to give back and he treats people as equals,” Pisano said. “He’s the type of guy who will talk to anybody. That’s just the way he is and how he grew up. If you sat down and had lunch with him, he’s just a normal guy. … That is why I think he continues to be such a loved figure in this town.”
To Pisano’s point, consider this: Of all the athletes who have called Phoenix home over the last 25 years, who is the most iconic in the community?
Steve Nash, Randy Johnson and Barkley certainly accomplished great things in their careers, but none was entrenched in Phoenix.
Kurt Warner did wonderful things in the community and on the field, but he played here for just five years.
Shane Doan? Hockey just doesn’t resonate with the masses.
Luis Gonzalez has to be on the short list because of his game-winning hit in the 2001 World Series, good-guy image and love affair with the community (although it must be pointed out that his restaurant venture was short-lived).
And the late Pat Tillman certainly qualifies for the sacrifices he made.
But Majerle belongs in the conversation as someone who has been front and center as an enormously popular player, coach and businessman in metro Phoenix for 25 years. Although he played for two other teams professionally, this was always his home.
“He’s iconic. He’s a legend in this community,” said Jerry Colangelo, the former owner of the Suns and Diamondbacks who now serves as a special assistant to GCU President/CEO Brian Mueller in the University’s transition to NCAA Division I athletics. “He established himself as one of most popular players ever to wear a Suns uniform. You get the whole package with Dan Majerle.”
A.J. Sulka, a longtime friend who runs Majerle’s restaurants, said he is admittedly biased on this topic, “but the thing that always separated Dan from those guys, for me, was Dan was so accessible and involved in the community.”
“I’ve never seen him turn down one autograph or picture,” Sulka added. “I’ve seen a lot of celebrities or athletes come into the restaurant and a lot of them don’t want to be bothered. But Dan is unique. He’s got that personality that is sincere and genuine.
“But all this iconic stuff, that’s just the cherry on top. The benefit of hiring Dan is all the other stuff, the hard work, the loyalty. He’s all Grand Canyon now. And once he’s in, he’s in.”
Diving in with the ’Lopes
In the end, no matter how well-known or well-liked Majerle is, he will be judged on his ability as a basketball coach.
To that end, he hit the ground running in his first few weeks on the job as he began interviews for his coaching staff, talked to current players, started the recruiting process of new players and made the rounds with seemingly every media outlet.
“Since he’s been here, I’ve been very impressed by his work ethic and attention to detail and the way he has thrown himself into this environment,” said Keith Baker, GCU’s director of athletics. “He’s been very intent on doing things the right way and working with our compliance people.”
The work ethic, Majerle said, is a testament to his parents and the way he was raised.
His father, Frank, was a single-chair barber who awoke at 5 a.m. every day and worked until 6 or 7 at night standing and cutting hair. His mom, Sallie, was a part-time secretary and full-time chauffeur for three boys who played football, basketball, baseball and hockey.
“I remember following my dad around everywhere. He’d play softball or in a YMCA basketball league, and me and my brothers would be batboys or watch him play and always be around some kind of activities,” Majerle said.
Sallie wasn’t an athlete, but Majerle said “she used to do bounce passes to me in the kitchen.”
Which means they were allowed to throw the ball in the house?
“Oh yeah, she knew better. She had three boys,” Majerle said. “We didn’t have a lot of money or anything, but they did everything they could to manage three boys and make sure we had whatever they could give us. … I saw them working as hard as they can to make it work for us and I grew up not knowing any different. That’s how you’re supposed to get it done.”
Majerle is confident that work ethic and competitive drive and the success he had in the NBA will translate to success as GCU enters into Division I athletics beginning in 2013-14.
“You look around the nation today, there are a lot of mid-majors that are great colleges,” Majerle said. “I think this is a university that can be a Gonzaga or a Butler or a team like that. That’s why I’m stepping in and why I think we can do it. … It may take a little time, but we’ll take some steps in the right direction and we’ll get there.”
Judging by how fast Majerle ran that mile, GCU may get there sooner than you think.
Contact Bob Romantic at 639.7611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.