SALT LAKE CITY — Standing at 7-feet tall, Los Angeles center Brook Lopez is taller than Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen, who is 6-9, but Lopez still looks up to Madsen in many ways.
Both big men played college basketball at Stanford University. Lopez appreciates Madsen's high-energy, "Mad Dog" mentality for playing the game of basketball. But more than anything, it's the assistant coach's life off the court that impresses Lopez.
Madsen is a mentor and friend. He's devoted to his faith as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He and his wife recently had their first child, who Lopez has taken to calling "Mad Pup."
"He's such a great role model," Lopez said before Tuesday's game at Utah. "You see how he has done so well for himself in the NBA. Then you look beyond that and he has accomplished so much more in life. He has a great balance of things, and everyone I've met has nothing but positive things to say about him."
In between helping Lopez work on his free throw-shooting technique at a pregame shootaround and fist-bumping each player before Tuesday's opening tipoff with the Utah Jazz, Madsen spoke with the Deseret News about his path from NBA player to becoming an assistant coach with the Lakers. He also revealed the role Shaquille O'Neal played in the beginning of his career, the incredible story of how he met his wife and his feelings about the joys of fatherhood.
It's always been Madsen's goal to marry the right person, at the right time and in an LDS temple. After years of searching for the right girl, it finally happened for the returned Mormon missionary in 2016, thanks to some help from his mother, Erlyn Madsen.
"It's a great story," Madsen said with a huge smile.
Madsen's parents were hosting a small musical event in their Provo home in December 2015 when the pianist canceled at the last minute. In the scramble to find a replacement, Madsen's sister recommended her children's longtime piano teacher, Hannah Harkness. It was only a few hours before the program was scheduled to begin and she was in Salt Lake City, but she wanted to help out, Madsen said.
When Harkness knocked on the door, Madsen's mother greeted her and was clearly impressed.
"It's great to meet you — are you single?" She said before taking her by the elbow and marching her to a wall of family photos. "She pointed to me and says 'Hey, how does he look?'" Mark Madsen said. He was 39 at the time.
Harkness wasn't in a serious relationship at the time and was willing to go out with a guy at least once. They exchanged texts that night and spoke by phone for about an hour the next day. Their first date took place a few weeks later. The relationship didn't get serious until the end of the 2016 NBA season, but things progressed quickly after that and they were married that September.
"We got along so great from the start, it really clicked," Madsen said. "Just seeing the way she lived her life, her commitment to personal relationships, her faith and her family, and she was so much fun at the same time. It was a beautiful thing."
Madsen is grateful he waited for the right girl at the right time for a temple marriage. After years of living a bachelor's life, his basketball approach of working, being ready and fostering hope also helped him to take this next important step in life.
"When that time came, I was ready, and she was ready, and it was awesome," Madsen said.
Marriage and parenthood
When they started dating, Harkness, an Orem native who studied piano performance at BYU, didn't even know who NBA great Shaquille O'Neal was.
"She thought he was a great musician, like maybe a hip-hop artist," Madsen said.
Madsen had taken up the cello as a young man and appreciated good music, but he didn't know a lot about the piano. Since dating and getting married, they have come to appreciate their different interests.
"I'm very fortunate. Hannah is incredibly supportive," Madsen said.
The couple lives near the Los Angeles LDS Temple and are active in their LDS ward where Madsen serves as a counselor in the Young Men's presidency.
The Madsens recently became the parents of a son they named William. Coming from a family of 10 children, Madsen had experience changing diapers, although it had been a long time. Even so, they have embraced parenthood.
When William was born, everyone in the Lakers organization gave Madsen tips on how to raise a child. The team's strength coach, Gunnar Peterson, recommended they get a Nest Cam security camera so Madsen could use his phone to look in on his son while on the road. The Madsens bought four.
"After a game sometimes I can’t sleep, so I’ll just sit there and watch my phone and look at our little boy sleep," Madsen said. "I can watch him sleep for an hour. If he moves his hand, I get excited."
With protective headphones safely covering his ears, William attended his first Lakers game at about 3 months old. When members of the team and coaching staff paused to wave to his wife and son, Madsen was touched.
"Neither Hannah or I are from L.A., but we’re building a life there," Madsen said. "We have a good community with our church and congregation, we have a great community with the Lakers family, and we have a great community with the place that where live in the west L.A. area."
Madsen would not be where he is today without Shaq.
After Madsen graduated from Stanford, his parents' graduation gift was a dented, white Toyota Previa minivan. Aside from the dent, which he claims he didn't cause, Madsen was grateful to have some free wheels, as he would not collect an NBA paycheck for another six months.
"I was so happy. I loved it," Madsen said.
When the Lakers rookie reported for practice in October 2000, he drove the dented minivan. O'Neal came in one day and asked, "Who in the world is driving that Previa?"
Madsen raised his hand and said, "That's mine."
According to Madsen, O'Neal told him he "couldn't drive that to the Staples Center," the 7-1, 325-pound all-NBA center wouldn't let him.
O'Neal took Madsen to a car dealership and offered a down payment for a new ride. Then he took Madsen to a big-and-tall store in Beverly Hills, where he spent $7,000 on a new wardrobe for the rookie. When Madsen picked out one pair of pants, O'Neal instructed the attendant to get his young teammate seven pairs, one in each color for every day of the week. He also bought Madsen a suit that he wore for 10 years, until it got a little tight in the waist, he said.
They next went to the Rolex store, where O'Neal bought everyone on the team a new shiny watch.
"Shaq is one of the most generous people out there," Madsen said. "He's a great, generous person."
On the court, Madsen became a better player by going against O'Neal each day in practice. While the Lakers won NBA championships in his first two seasons, Madsen wanted more playing time, especially in the playoffs. An opportunity came in his third year, the 2002-03 season, when the Lakers played Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs. Phil Jackson, then the Lakers' coach, told Madsen he would start the series and guard Timberwolves center Kevin Garnett. Before the first game, O'Neal gave Madsen some advice he has never forgotten.
"I was nervous. Shaq came up to me and said, 'Hey, don’t try to do too much, but don’t try to do too little.' Something as simple as that," Madsen said. "I’ve always remembered that. As an assistant coach, you can’t do too much, but you can’t do too little. You’ve got to find the balance. And at a lot of different times in life, that’s been good, sound advice."
Madsen saw O'Neal about three months ago at a Lakers game. He took that opportunity to thank O'Neal for always being a friend and mentor who freely gave advice and taught him how to play at the NBA level.
"Shaq is someone who makes other people's careers," Madsen said. "He’s always been very supportive."
Path to NBA coaching
When Madsen's playing career ended in 2009, he briefly coached with the Utah Flash before doing something he'd always wanted to do — return to school and earn an advanced degree.
Madsen was in the second year of his MBA program at Stanford when the men's basketball coach, Johnny Dawkins, asked him to consider joining his staff as an assistant coach for the Stanford basketball team and invited him to travel with the team to Spain during the summer, the same country where Madsen served his LDS mission. Madsen had a "blast" on the trip, and Dawkins offered him the job.
"I was evaluating that offer versus going into the business world, and I thought I have a unique skill set in basketball, what better opportunity than to coach at my alma mater?" Madsen said.
After one season, the Lakers called Madsen about becoming the head coach for their minor-league team, the Los Angeles D-Fenders (now the South Bay Lakers of the G League). But during the interview process, then coach Mike D'Antoni also took a liking to Madsen and offered him an assistant coaching position with the Lakers.
Madsen was torn between the two offers until he got a text from D'Antoni that read something like: "Good luck with your decision, but just remember, the shrimp cocktail tastes better with the big boys."
"When I got that text from Mike, it showed me a little about his personality, and I wanted to work with him," Madsen said. "That’s how the pathway went."5 comments on this story
Having already developed a good rapport with the organization as a player, Madsen has felt at home with the Lakers, one of the best sports franchises in the world, he said.
As a member of the LDS Church, he occasionally gets questions about the faith's values and teachings from teammates and coaches. He's happy to answer their questions and then he asks them to share their beliefs.
"Sometimes they are curious about it, and it's just a chance to shed a bit more light on some of the things I believe," Madsen said. "Then I always appreciate hearing what they believe and having an open dialogue."