Jerry Zgoda's NBA Insider: Majerus a friend indeed

  • Updated: December 8, 2012 - 7:39 PM

Wolves assistant coach Bill Bayno recalls support and friendship he received from a former rival in a time of need.

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Rick Majerus reacts during the first half of an NCAA men's college basketball tournament third-round game against Michigan State.

Photo: Tony Dejak, Associated Press

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They say you only discover your true friends in your greatest time of need.

In that darkest time, Timberwolves assistant coach Bill Bayno found one where he least expected it -- in an acclaimed rival named Rick Majerus.

The two were competitors, opposing head coaches in the Mountain West Conference who didn't speak to each other for months after they battled for a recruit out of Los Angeles' Compton Community College named Kevin Bradley.

Majerus signed Bradley in April 2000 to play at Utah, where against the odds he had built a modest program into a Final Four contender. Nine months later, UNLV fired Bayno after the NCAA investigated his recruitment of prep star Lamar Odom and after five seasons of partying there led Bayno two years later to admit he was an alcoholic.

Majerus called two days after Bayno was fired, rekindling a friendship that supported him when Bayno was out of basketball for a season and when he took obscure coaching jobs in the American and Continental basketball associations before he finally came to terms with his alcoholism.

"He reached out to me when very few people did, and that's when you know who your true friends are," said Bayno, who coached under Larry Brown at Kansas and John Calipari at Massachusetts before UNLV made him Division I's youngest head coach at age 32 in 1995. "For him to do that, to see a guy who's down ... I had my problems at UNLV, was trying to work my way back and I couldn't get a whole lot of people who were willing to help me.

"At the time, we weren't even good friends. That's what makes him so special. Very few people would do that."

A week ago, Bayno received the call he had expected, the one informing him that his former rival and good friend died at age 64 after being hospitalized in California since last summer.

When Bayno needed it most, Majerus was there: He took Bayno on trips that introduced him to Don Nelson, Del Harris and George Karl, steps that helped get Bayno into the NBA and back on track in his chosen profession.

"He certainly went out of his way to help me when there really was no reason to, when there was no relationship there," Bayno said. "I just think that's his nature. He was pretty much Jesuit educated, a highly intelligent guy and he really cared about people. I never, ever forget that. I was blown away at the time he did it.

"When you see a guy like that, he just wants to make you be a better person."

They forged a friendship from their shared love of basketball with long conversations that ended with plays and schemes diagrammed on napkins, a coach's habit that gave title to Majerus' biography "My Life on a Napkin."

They also found common ground in their addictions: Bayno with alcohol, Majerus with a lifelong struggle with overeating that led to chronic health problems that contributed to his death.

"We had some honest, really heart-to-heart talks about that," Bayno said. "Food's a drug, just like alcohol's a drug. He opened up to me, I opened up to him and I think we helped each other there, too."

Bayno talked by phone with his friend for the last time last summer.

"It's just sad, man," he said. "Just sad and 64 years old, too. He was one of the good guys in coaching, he really was."

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