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Denver Nuggets remember Rick Majerus as friend, mentor

Longtime college coach had big influence on George Karl, Andre Miller

Nuggets point guard Andre Miller spent five seasons with Rick Majerus at the University of Utah.
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

Their travel itineraries brought them together. Their love of the game did the rest.

Nuggets coach George Karl remembers first getting to know Rick Majerus while working at the Pete Newell Big Man camp at Stanford University in 1986. They made an instant connection and their friendship blossomed over the next 25 years.

“We kind of ran into each other at the airport and rented a car together and hung out for about three days eating a lot and drinking a lot of beer,” Karl said after Nuggets practice Sunday.

“There’s a lot of Rick Majerus in how I coach, there’s a lot of Rick Majerus in how I act as a person. There’s a lot of Rick Majerus as a friend that I’ll never forget.”

Karl spoke with a heavy heart. After being hospitalized for several months, Majerus died of heart failure Saturday night in Los Angeles. In 25 years as a college coach, Majerus compiled a 517-216 record and enjoyed 24 winning seasons.

“The guy is a great coach,” Karl said. “It’s still too short of a period of time to have my thoughts in a good place.

“The sadness of it is I had probably dreamt about what happened last night about 30 times in my life because I knew he wasn’t in good health. Now it’s here. Now we’ve got to deal with it and somehow figure out how to celebrate a special person.”

During his 25 NBA seasons, Karl often invited Majerus, 64, to training camp and practices, and they became as close as brothers over the years, swapping basketball strategies that converged at times and conflicted at others.

“He built teams into championship teams,” Karl said. “He never had the best players. He never had the most talented kids. He and I have many philosophical differences in how to play the game, but the result in producing a team and producing winning were very much alike.”

Nuggets point guard Andre Miller spent five years with Majerus at the University of Utah. After redshirting his first season, Miller never missed a game and helped the Utes reach the 1998 NCAA title game.

“I enjoyed my time with him,” Miller said. “He probably was the most influential coach as far as teaching me how to play basketball at the college level and the pro level.”

Utah was the first school to offer Miller a scholarship out of high school. Majerus promised the opportunity to grow as a both a person and a player.

“He was just upfront and blunt,” Miller said. “I needed structure and my education. He brought all those things to the table. I got my degree and all the basketball stuff took care of itself.”

Miller said he spoke to Majerus last summer just before re-signing with the Nuggets in July. He will remember his former coach as a great teacher and mentor.

“I’m a little bit biased because I was around him for five years, but I feel he’s probably one of the more underrated teachers of the game,” Miller said. “He brought everything to the table and he did a lot for a lot of people.”