Coaching flexes muscles of Majerle’s basketball IQ
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU Today Magazine
You first notice the arms that would make Popeye envious.
Unlike many former professional athletes, Dan Majerle has maintained his chiseled physique, shaped by a regimen of several hundred daily pushups plus weightlifting. The rest of Majerle’s body, ravaged by 14 surgeries, makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning, but his arms are still all-stars.
“I’m a fitness freak that way,” he said. “It’s always what I’ve been about, trying to stay as active as possible. I always ate well, too. If I get too fat, I feel bad.”
And the pain? “I wear it as a badge of honor because I’ve been through so much. It’s just part of the price you have to pay.”
Those arms and that attitude are emblematic of the intensity that made “Thunder Dan” one of the fiercest players in the history of the National Basketball Association and is a big part of his coaching style in his third season at Grand Canyon University.
But former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo had another word in mind when he made the pride of Central Michigan University his controversial first-round pick in the 1988 NBA draft. It defines why Colangelo recommended the hiring of Majerle at GCU in 2013.
“Character,” Colangelo said. “Dan Majerle has great character. I think there’s great integrity in him as a person. He’s very committed to whatever he’s involved in — family, his job, he loves coaching, and he has a sincere interest in the players as people, not just as players alone. He’s the real deal. He’s a guy that you want your son to be associated with if he’s a basketball player.”
Majerle joined GCU after a stint as an NBA broadcaster and five seasons as an assistant coach for the Suns. Neither Colangelo nor Majerle himself expected coaching to be his calling when his playing days were over, but one thing led to another.
Coaching, Majerle discovered, “fills a little bit of a gap.”
“I don’t miss playing. I miss competition,” he said. “When you get to be 50 (a milestone he reached in September), you try to move around and realize that you can’t play. So that’s gone. When you play at the NBA level, it’s hard to find something like that again. “That’s why coaching is so good for me. When I quit playing and got into broadcasting — which was good because I stayed around the game and it was fun — there was something missing. Then when I got into coaching that competitiveness comes back because you’re trying to win with a bunch of guys and you’re teaching and are right into the fire of the thing.”
The chance for more achievement is a perfect fit. Majerle’s associate head coach, Todd Lee, pointed out a number of ways that his boss has taken life to the hoop — and keeps making the shot.
“He was drafted and booed by everybody here in Phoenix because they didn’t think he was going to be a good player, and he ends up being a three-time All-Star,” Lee said. “They didn’t think he’d make the Olympic team, and he ends up being the leading scorer and the (USA Basketball) Male Athlete of the Year. He played 14 years in the NBA, and I think the most impressive thing is that he was on 13 playoff teams. That shows that all he cares about is winning.
“He has six restaurants, and they’re all successful. Then he gets done playing basketball and he picks up golf — well, he’s a scratch golfer. I don’t know what he’s not good at because he’s very intelligent and loves to compete. Whatever he does, he’s going to succeed at the highest level. That’s what his mindset is.”
Just as he was when he played, Majerle is proving to be a trendsetter in college basketball as well. In the space of two weeks last spring, three other former NBA stars were hired as college coaches — Chris Mullin at St. John’s University, Avery Johnson at the University of Alabama and Mark Price at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
NBA fans will notice that all three, like Majerle, were considered tireless workers and leaders in their playing days. And that’s a big part of how Majerle coaches his players, but with an important twist. “I’ve always told them, ‘I’m never going to make you or tell you to do something that I didn’t have to do, whether it was a conditioning test or whether it’s a drill or it’s how to guard somebody,’” he said. “You can’t tell me you can’t do it — because I’ve done it. You’ve just got to have the will to do it.”
Soon after arriving at GCU, Majerle realized that even if college players have the will, they don’t have a pro-level basketball education. In every major sport there have been former star players who weren’t effective coaches because they had difficulty teaching things that came so easily to them, and Majerle admits he at first was surprised by the amount of teaching that was necessary.
“Coming from a pro background, you get used to guys knowing a lot and being very talented,” he said. “You tell them to do something, they usually figure out how to do it. The problem I had at the beginning with coaching is that I thought they knew more than they did — and they didn’t know anything.
“You get frustrated and think, ‘Why aren’t they doing this?’ or ‘Why can’t they see this?’ or ‘Why can’t they execute this?’ It’s because they don’t know. You’ve got to start right from Day 1 teaching and building it up and breaking it down and being very patient. But one thing I love about college is that they want to be good, they want to play hard and they’ll do anything for you.”
His memories of going head-to-head with Michael Jordan are a teaching tool as well. He has told his team that his work ethic earned him the right to cover the player considered the greatest ever.
“You can see why he was the player he was by the way he coaches and how much he cares and the attitude and mentality he brings every day,” said senior Ryan Majerle, who transferred to GCU in 2013 to play for his uncle.
And Uncle Dan can turn to Colangelo, a frequent visitor to practice and more of an influence than ever. He picks the brain of his former boss sometimes three times a week. “He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to say, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’ He’s going to say, ‘Here’s what I would do. Think about this, think about that, then make your own decision,’” Majerle said.
Majerle received a four-year contract extension last spring and said he loves coaching at GCU “even more than I thought I would.” The Lopes have finished third and then second in the Western Athletic Conference in his first two seasons, but he expects more — from himself as well as his team. It’s just how he’s built.
“It’s almost consumed what I do, but that’s been everything in my life,” he said. “Moderation is not for me. I’m either all in or all out. If I decide to do something, I’m going to do it all in. That’s how I played, that’s how I coach. That’s how I do anything.”
The Valley has watched its favorite son and favorite Sun grow up over the course of the last 27 years. Now Dan Majerle is a favorite Lope — and he wears that as a badge of honor, too.
● For a look at nine things you might not know about the Suns’ former No. 9, click here.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected]