‘Thunder’ doesn’t rumble far from the family tree of GCU’s Ryan Majerle

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SATURDAY ON ASN: Grand Canyon at UMKC, 8 p.m. ET (click logo for local listings)

Wouldn’t you know it? Just as Uncle Dan was warming up, Ryan was out cold.

“I just know that I was at the 1993 NBA Finals Game 5 in Chicago when I was a baby,” Ryan Majerle recalled. “My dad took me (and) I was barely a newborn. And I fell asleep in the fourth quarter when it got nuts.”

Oh, baby.

The Majerles can laugh about it, of course, given 22-odd years of hindsight. Especially as Ryan blossomed into a guard at Grand Canyon University, where Uncle Dan is now Coach Dan.

“I don’t know if he’s necessarily harder on me, he’s always hard on everybody,” Ryan said of his famous uncle, whose Antelopes visit UMKC Saturday in a WAC game on ASN. “He expects a lot from everybody, putting time in; that’s what he needs to (get for) Grand Canyon to be a Top 25 program. I don’t think he’s singled me out. I think he just expects a lot out of everyone, so he definitely is hard on everyone.”

Along West Camelback Road, Year 3 isn’t just about setting the bar — it’s about raising it. GCU is off to its best-ever start as a Division I men’s basketball program, sporting a 16-2 record with victories at San Diego State and at home against New Mexico State. Dan, the former NBA All-Star, took the reins as the department transitioned to Division I in 2013; Ryan, a 6-foot-3 senior out of Rockford, Mich., was one of his earliest recruits, transferring in when Antelope basketball still had something of a new car smell.

“You want to be like a Gonzaga, like a Wichita State,” offered the younger Majerle, who’s averaged 3.7 points per game in 18 appearances off the bench. “It’s exciting to be able to start this up, and I wanted to be a part of the guys that set this culture for the team. And Coach Majerle is on it all the time and he said, ‘Hey, it’s never going change, I expect this from you.’ … it’s definitely exciting, especially seeing all the hard work pay off this year.”

Even on a team of grinders, Ryan draws high marks in the toil department, a bundle of perspiration and inspiration. After all, it runs in the family.

“You can see the type of (engine) he has,” the younger Majerle said of his uncle and coach, who played 14 seasons in the NBA, and more than half of those with the nearby Suns. “He’s an extremely intense individual, the most competitive person I’ve ever met. He coaches the way he plays.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who hates to lose as much as he does.”

GCU head coach Dan Majerle
GCU head coach Dan Majerle

Well, save for one man. Ryan’s dad Steve, like Dan, played prep ball in Traverse City, Mich., back in the day, and, like Dan, played like his scalp was on fire. Steve Majerle’s motor runs so hot that even after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2002, he continued to coach at Rockford (Mich.) High for nearly a decade, winning a state title in 2003. Ryan’s dad even went through a spell coaching both the boys’ and girls’ teams at Rockford for three seasons. If Dan was Thunder, Steve was pure Lightning.

“I see some similarities between them,” Ryan said. “There are definitely some differences. You see little personality traits, little habits they have. I’m getting coached by (Dan) now, and I’ll think, ‘That’s exactly how my dad would’ve reacted toward it.’ That’s the biggest thing that stood out, was his passion and intensity for the game.”

An All-State sharpshooter at Rockford in 2011, Ryan shared that passion. But after playing a semester for Toledo, the wing guard decided to transfer to Division II Grand Valley State, a half hour from home, in order to be closer to his family.

In 2012-13, Ryan wound up leading the Lakers in 3-point makes (45) and 3-point percentage (.459). Meanwhile, Steve’s condition stabilized — and even improved. Ryan’s dad underwent a unique surgical procedure in 2012 that involved electrical pulses being fed directly to his brain.

“They put a stimulator in to shock him,” Ryan recalled. “They were in his brain for like 12 hours and he was awake through the whole thing. It’s crazy to hear him talk about it. He couldn’t sleep before the surgery; he enjoys being able to sleep now.”

A few weeks after that, there was another procedure, one that involved inserting a battery pack that would be connected to those wires in the brain, giving the occasional “push” when needed. Before long, Steve had even gained enough control back to start coaching again.

Down in the desert, Dan was moving from the Suns’ staff to the college ranks for 2013-14. On a trip north, a hypothetical was floated: If Ryan fancied another crack at Division I ball, Uncle Dan would see if he could find a slot for him.

“He was on a recruiting visit with a prospect in Michigan, and he just happened to be staying at our house,” Ryan recalled. “He said, ‘Hey, do you want to play for me at Grand Canyon?’

“It was an opportunity that I definitely wasn’t expecting, but it was cool. One thing I’d always wanted to do was be a Division I player, but family circumstances changed that a little bit.”

Family circumstances had changed it again, for the better. And with a caveat: Ryan was going to have to bust his tail to stick. In Uncle Dan’s world, grind cometh before sentiment.

“Maybe the Majerles are a family that might not be one of the most lovey-dovey, huggy type of people,” Ryan said.

“I know, as a worker, my dad used to think I was like my Uncle Dan. He worked his tail off. I think if I’m anything like him, it’s my work ethic. He has a next gear, man, in the type of intensity that he can bring.”

Above: Ryan Majerle continues the family tradition of hustle on the basketball court, but this season it’s for his Uncle Dan Majerle, head coach at Grand Canyon. (Courtesy Darryl Webb/GCU Athletics)