He’s the kind of coach who can be friends with you, but he knows his basketball really well and has a high basketball IQ. He knows what every player needs and he’s helped me a lot this year. —Enes Kanter
SALT LAKE CITY — Dennis Lindsey remembers, even if Alex Jensen doesn’t recall the first time the two met.
It was clear back in 2001 after Jensen had graduated from the University of Utah and had a brief “cup of coffee” with the Houston Rockets, playing with the Rockets in the old Rocky Mountain Revue in Utah.
Jensen didn’t last long with the Rockets before taking his game to Europe, where he played, mostly in Turkey, for seven years. However, he made an impression on the current Jazz general manager, who had started as a video coordinator for the Rockets five years earlier and was working in player development at the time.
“We had a lot of respect for how he played and how efficient he was and how unselfish he was,’’ Lindsey says. “We always thought he had a chance, but we released him. That’s when we first met, but I’m sure Alex barely remembers.’’
After playing overseas, Jensen got back into coaching when his former college coach, Rick Majerus, invited him to join his staff at Saint Louis. Jensen coached there for four years before moving to the NBA D-League, where he coached the Canton Charge for two years, earning coach of the year honors in his second season.
Jensen returned to his home state last August as a player development coach for the Jazz and has been working primarily with Utah's big men all season. While it’s been a trying year for everyone involved with the Jazz, for Jensen it has been a valuable experience getting to know the NBA and working with young players.
“I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve definitely learned a lot,’’ he says.
Lindsey had something to do with Jensen joining the Jazz, although he says it was coach Tyrone Corbin’s decision to bring him in.
“I’m sure everybody thought it was a local tie — not that it would hurt him — but this job we hire on merit,’’ Lindsey said. “Ty had him in for an interview and he fit the culture really well. He’s humble, loyal, very smart and he’s a good communicator. You take things from different coaches, like Coach Majerus, but I think Alex is very comfortable in his own skin.’’
Corbin has been more than pleased with Jensen’s contribution to the Jazz this season.
“He has a great relationship with the big guys and he’s got a complete understanding of what it takes for a big guy to get better in this league,’’ Corbin said. “He communicates with these guys very well. He gets on the floor and bangs with them at times and they understand from him banging with them on the floor that he knows what he’s talking about. He’s gained the respect of the players.’’
That’s evident when you talk to the Jazz big men. Rookie Rudy Gobert gushes about “Coach Alex” in his broken English, and Enes Kanter has a special bond because of their connection to Turkey.
“He’s the kind of coach who can be friends with you, but he knows his basketball really well and has a high basketball IQ,’’ Kanter says. “He knows what every player needs and he’s helped me a lot this year.’’
For much of his adult life, Jensen was heavily involved in college basketball and March Madness — as a player with the University of Utah for four years and as an assistant coach at Saint Louis for four years.
When he played at Utah in the late 1990s, Jensen was Rick Majerus’ favorite player. Although he may never have come right out and admitted it, Majerus always talked about “Al” with special fondness and never had a bad word to say about his three-year starter, who was the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year in 1999-2000.
The two seemed an odd match, Majerus a foul-mouthed son of a union leader from the Midwest and Jensen, a mild-mannered LDS returned missionary from Centerville. A lot of folks were surprised when Jensen went on to spend four years as an assistant to Majerus.
“It was funny — we had different backgrounds, but that’s why we got along so well,’’ says Jensen. “Once we got on the court, we were very similar as far as not wanting to lose and doing things right.’’
Jensen never has a sour word to say about Majerus and he’s aware the former Ute coach had his detractors.
“Whether you liked him or not, the thing I learned was that no matter what, for 20 hours a week, he was there for every second. He walked into practice and he was focused and into it. He might have been grumpy, but he never had a bad day as far as coaching went.’’
So when Jensen decided to grab an opportunity to become a head coach in the NBA D-League and leave Saint Louis, it was tough to tell his longtime mentor.
“It was a hard phone call to make,’’ Jensen recalls. “It was right before the season started, so he wasn’t too happy about the timing. But he was supportive. One thing you realize in the coaching profession is the timing is never right.’’
Jensen coached in Canton for two years and was named the coach of the year for the 2012-13 season. Then he had another decision to make — keep doing what he was doing or move back to his old stomping grounds for a job with the Utah Jazz.
“I thought because of the profession I chose, the likelihood of me coming back to Salt Lake was slim, but after the season Coach Corbin called me,’’ Jensen recalls. “I was coming out anyway because I had two cousins getting married. I enjoyed what I was doing before, but I guess this was the next progression.’’
The easygoing Jensen is the first to tell you he’s not an ambitious, climb-the-ladder type of person. But’s he’s been a wanted man in recent years.
“I’ve been lucky,’’ he says. “Coach Majerus asked me to coach with him. I had no plans on leaving Saint Louis and got a call from Wes Wilcox who was in Cleveland. I was enjoying Ohio when I got the call from Coach Corbin.’’
Jensen had 109 games of head coaching experience in the D-League, but has had to get used to his new spot just behind the Jazz bench.
“If nothing else, it makes you a better assistant because you understand the movement a chair or two over is a big difference,’’ he said.
So what does the future hold for Jensen? Does he want to return to college coaching and perhaps be a head coach someday? Or would he rather stick with the pros and work his way up through the ranks as an assistant?
“I get asked that quite a bit and I feel like I should have some sort of aspiration, but I really don’t,’’ he says. “The enjoyable thing, whether it’s at a university or the pros, is to be on a staff that is like-minded and that’s what I enjoy here, especially the coaching staff. It’s a much different game. You never want to lose, but it has been good.’’
Lindsey won’t come out and say Jensen can be a head coach in the league some day, but he is very high on his coaching ability.
“He has the kind of demeanor that he could be a future assistant coach on the bench,’’ Lindsey said. “He has the background and expertise that players will respect.’’
Lindsey points out that the D-League is an even better league for coaches than it is for players and that it has helped Jensen.
“At some point of the season, you’re going to have the worst team in the league or the best team, because the players come and go so quick,’’ he said. “You have to adjust quickly to the different talents and personalities on the fly and that’s a very important part of a coach’s training ground’’
It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibilities that Jensen could end up coaching an NBA team some day, even the Utah Jazz.
Look around the NBA at coaches like Miami’s Erik Spoelstra or Indiana’s Frank Vogel, who both started as video coordinators and had no real head coaching experience before working their way up to their current jobs. Or Memphis’ Dave Joerger, who won some championships in the D-League like Jensen did before becoming an NBA head coach.
Perhaps that will be Jensen’s eventual destiny.
It wouldn’t surprise Lindsey, who says of Jensen, “I think he has a bright future in the league.’’