NEW YORK — Moments after Wednesday’s game between the Utah Jazz and Washington Wizards, Andre Miller and Alex Jensen got a rare chance to catch up with each other.
Two old teammates. Thousands of miles and a couple of decades away from where their life stories merged in Salt Lake City. Smiles warm enough to melt a polar vortex. Friendship as strong as ever. So many stories to relive. So little time before one had to hop on the team bus and the other had to head home for the night.
During their brief chat after the Wizards’ win, it’s possible they discussed Miller’s recent trade from Denver to Washington; maybe Jensen’s first year in the NBA on the Jazz's staff; and probably families, friends and old teammates.
More likely than not, the former University of Utah basketball players’ conversation outside of Washington’s locker room at Verizon Center eventually gravitated toward one topic. One man. One larger-than-life personality and basketball guru that influenced their lives forever.
That just naturally happens when these members of the Utes’ 1998 NCAA Finals squad meet up.
“We don’t usually talk about the Kentucky game or the (tournament) runs or anything like that,” Jensen said. “It usually comes back to Coach Majerus, because he’s the figure he was.”
Demanding, but caring. Punishing, but brilliant. Intense, but insightful. Crass, but hilarious. Obsessed, but successful. Meticulous, but grandiose.
Gone, but unforgettable.
“Every conversation was Rick Majerus after a while,” Miller said, echoing Jensen. “We had good times there (at Utah). Nine times out of 10 (since), it was Rick Majerus stories.”
A lot of laughs
Jensen played for Majerus from 1994-2000, with a two-year LDS mission to England mixed in. Years later, after a playing career overseas, he worked as an assistant on the late coach’s staff at St. Louis from 2007-11. The Centerville native smiled when asked if there’s a favorite story he and Miller recount about the man who elevated Utah to an elite status.
Jensen, who jokingly claimed his Miller and Majerus tales aren’t suited for publication, thought for a second and started reminiscing.
His response was surprising.
“Dre’s laugh,” Jensen said.
Turns out, Miller wasn’t just amazing at helping teammates like Jensen, Keith Van Horn and Michael Doleac score with his court vision and precise passing. He also excelled at giving his peers, particularly Jensen, a case of the giggles.
Imagine for a second Majerus coaching, blood rushing to his head, fire in his eyes, basketball brilliance bouncing around his brain as he explained X's and O's to young men during a heated game, film session or practice.
Now try to picture laughter escaping from Miller, the quiet, stoic, laser-focused floor general who wasn’t known for showing emotions. Of any kind. Especially not in college.
“I remember in a timeout — I can’t really say what it was — something happened. It was funny,” Jensen recalled. “(Andre) started laughing. He made me laugh on the bench and then we got in trouble because Coach looked over and we were laughing.”
It wasn’t an isolated incident.
“We’d be sitting there and Coach Majerus would say something. We would be serious, but Dre would be one of the first ones to laugh,” Jensen said. “Dre was the guy that when he laughed I couldn’t help myself.”
That’s about when Jensen would incur the wrath of the sweater-sporting savant even though it wasn’t his fault that Miller’s quiet cackling was contagious. Yes, even Jensen, so beloved by Majerus, could end up in his coach’s doghouse, and not just for laughing.
“That was the thing about Majerus — everybody had their turn of having a bad day with him being on you,” Jensen said, pondering about whether or not his coach intentionally did that as a “genius” way of team bonding. “But it brought everybody around closer together.”
A wide smile emerged on Miller’s face as he went back to those times when he was wearing the crimson and white.
“We laughed a lot,” he said.
A time of growth
The relationship between Jensen and Miller — and ensuing laughter/tongue-lashings — began in 1994.
Jensen was a freshman at the U. that fall, having just wrapped up a successful prep career at Viewmont High School where he was named Utah’s Mr. Basketball.
Miller moved to Salt Lake City from Los Angeles that same year to enroll at the university. However, the 18-year-old, who earned a 3.2 GPA at Verbum Dei High in Los Angeles, was deemed ineligible to play by the NCAA as a Prop 48 student because he’d missed one too many answers on the SAT test.
Though Miller couldn’t receive a scholarship, participate in practice and had his collegiate career put on hold, all infuriating to Majerus, he certainly didn’t stop playing basketball. Even with his new friend from Utah.
“I used to go pick him up and we’d go play in the East Millcreek League,” Jensen said. “He couldn’t come around practice. He’d come around games. I think it was good for him.”
“We played wherever. It was a lot of fun,” Miller said of his Salt Lake days. “It was the best time of my life.”
It wasn’t all basketball, either.
Jensen said a rafting trip down the Snake River by Jackson Hole, Wyo., was one of the most fun times. They also rode horses together.
“He’s from L.A. and had never done that. He loved it. He loved riding horses," Jensen said. "In fact, he got bucked off once before the draft. We went water skiing. All that stuff was new to him. It was funny to see him because he loved it.”
Still at it
Two things stood out about Miller to Jensen back in the mid-1990s: 1. “He didn’t talk much then;” and 2. “He loves playing.”
Even so, Jensen said nobody, Majerus included, would have guessed that the reserved Miller, whose game speaks louder than his words, would not only make it to the NBA but make it for so long at such a high level.
“Everybody saw a quiet kid from L.A. I don’t think anybody knew,” Jensen said. “Even when we played with him, you knew how good he was, and you felt he was underrated, (but) you still didn’t know how that would translate into professionally.”
Fifteen years later, Miller ranks ninth on the NBA’s all-time assists list with 8,077, including a league-leading 882 in 2001-02. He’s scored 15,699 points while playing for one-fifth of the league, including Cleveland, the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver, Philadelphia, Portland, Denver Part II and Washington.
“You could put forth a good argument for the Hall of Fame,” Jensen said in a convincing tone.
"And," he added, "for one of the most underrated players ever.”
Miller turns 38 on March 19, but he isn’t done yet, which is impressive and comical to Jensen, who's at the beginning of his NBA coaching career.
“It’s funny because I feel how I feel and then you see him play. We’re the same age and he’s still productive. It is weird,” Jensen said. “But it’s kind of fun to watch him play because of the person, the player he was. Because of him a lot of us had better careers in basketball. It is fun to see him.”
Added Jensen: “He’s one of the few guys when he’s 50 he’ll be playing somewhere.”
Maybe in the NBA?
“That’s not going to happen. I could, but it’s not going to happen,” Miller said. “I can play like two or three more years. We’ll see what happens.”
If anybody this side of John Stockton and Karl Malone can stretch his career out, it’s Miller. The 6-2 guard, drafted eighth overall by the Cavaliers in 1999, began his NBA stint by playing in 632 straight games. That Ironman streak was only snapped because he got suspended after pushing Blake Griffin.
Change of scenery
Jensen marvels at how many games Miller has played since 1999 (1,163, to be exact) without missing a contest because of an injury.
“He takes care of his body in the right way, and he’s never been a dunker so it does help,” Jensen said, adding that “luck” also plays a factor. “He’s one of the guys who will play basketball year round because he loves it.”
Miller had another long streak of 239 consecutive games played going when he received the first career DNP-CD (Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision) with Denver on Jan. 1. That was also the game in which he yelled at Nuggets rookie coach Brian Shaw, leading to a suspension, becoming exiled from the team and ultimately being traded to the Wiz last month.
The change has been good for Miller, who's since admitted, "I kind of lost my cool and was a little bit unprofessional and stepped out of character." Now he's stepping into a role with an improving team that's headed for the playoffs.
“I’ve just got to get used to the environment, get comfortable with the players, the team, the language and everything will work out,” he said. “So far it’s been a great adjustment.”
Quietly and effectively, Miller dished out six assists in Washington’s 104-91 win over the Jazz. His production wasn't flashy like the outings of new teammates John Wall, Trevor Ariza and Bradley Beal, but that’s the beauty of his game. Miller is methodical, sneaky, savvy. While flying under the highlight radar, the unnoticed point guard made a half-dozen timely passes that directly led to 12 points and scored a bucket for two more points in the Wizards' 13-point victory.
The 32-29 Wiz, by the way, are now 7-1 since this wily veteran joined the squad. Jensen made sure to point that fact out before Miller helped beat his team. The Jazz staffer also referred to how the Nuggets were 10-5 in games in which Miller played at least 20 minutes this season.
“I’ll tell you what, a lot of teams could use a veteran point guard that can come off the bench,” Jensen said. “I think he’s still underrated today.”
Washington coach Randy Wittman believes Miller will have a positive influence on the 23-year-old Wall and younger Wizards as the team makes its playoff run.
“He’s been great. When you bring guys like that in, they teach a lot,” Wittman said. “Young kids (see) how they handle themselves, how they practice, how they project themselves on and off the floor. He gives us stability with that second unit, has great control of himself and the team and has that understanding already. He’s all ready picked things up fairly quickly and has understanding of what the guys he’s playing (with do) and what he needs to do. So that’s been good.”
That’s not surprising or new news to Jensen. While he was part of the Cavaliers organization, as the Canton Charge’s head coach, the 2013 D-League Coach of the Year asked members of the Cleveland staff and even former NBA standout Žydrūnas Ilgauskas, about his friend who’d started his NBA career in that franchise. One of the first things they told Jensen about Miller was simply, “He’s the best.”
“And,” Jensen added, “he truly he is, meaning on the court and off the court, he’s good.”
All good ones now
Miller doesn’t share as many anecdotal stories of his time with Jensen (or Majerus, for that matter), but he’s a huge fan of the man who shares Jazz player development duties with another ex-Ute, Johnnie Bryant. While laughing, Miller said it “makes me feel old” that they’re both in the NBA in various capacities all these years later.
“It’s always good to see Alex. He’s doing a great job,” Miller said. “I think he’s going to be a head coach one day.”
Another smile emerged as he recalled his career on the hill, a career, by the way, that included his famous Elite Eight triple-double against Arizona in 1998 as well as him leaving as the school's all-time leader in steals and No. 2 in assists the following spring.
“Being around the guys and practicing and Coach Majerus stories, traveling and, of course, the national championship game, there are so many things I could point to,” he said. “But all of them (were) good memories.”
So, guys, any more good Majerus stories? Bad Majerus stories?
“They’re all good now, right?” Jensen said, cracking a grin.
Only if they’re told again and again.
Especially by old friends.
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