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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Utah Valley University basketball head coach Mark Madsen poses for a photo at the team's practice facility in Orem on Thursday, May 9, 2019.

OREM — It’s a long way from Los Angeles to Orem, and not just the 650 miles between them. A few months ago, Mark Madsen was an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers. Now he is the head basketball coach at Utah Valley University. Instead of coaching LeBron James and, before that, Kobe Bryant; instead of working for Magic Johnson and the Buss family; instead of coaching in the 21,000-seat Staples Center in front of Denzel, Jack, Ice Cube and national TV audiences; instead of all that, he’ll be coaching the Wolverines at the UCCU Center.

“Basketball is basketball,” says Madsen.

He begins a story about a meeting he had with the legendary Jerry West shortly before the Lakers selected him in the 2000 NBA draft. They were sitting in his office and West pointed down through a window to the court where the Lakers were practicing. “You will find,” he said, “that the NBA game is the same game as high school and college. It’s a little quicker, but it’s the same game.”

Finished with this story, Madsen says, “I didn’t believe him, but then I started playing. It’s true … it’s the same game.”

In a way this is a homecoming for Madsen. He grew up and attended college in the Bay Area, but his father, Duane, was raised in Utah and hails from Utah pioneer stock. Madsen’s parents left California 15 years ago and resettled in a swanky Provo neighborhood, and a few years ago his mother Erlyn set him up with his future wife, a Utahn.

“I couldn’t be more excited about being here,” Madsen says, and he means it. It was in Utah where Madsen launched his coaching career in 2009, the same year he retired from playing in the NBA. He contacted almost every school in the state late that summer about possible coaching positions and interviewed to be an assistant on UVU’s staff, but there were no openings that late in the year, even for a guy sporting two world championship rings.

He wound up as an assistant coach for the D League Utah Flash for a few months instead. He enrolled in the MBA program at Stanford, his alma mater, and since he was in the neighborhood the school invited him to be an assistant coach. A year later he began coaching in the NBA's D League and a year after that he was hired by the Lakers as an assistant, a gig that lasted six years.

He left the Lakers this spring just as the whole thing was collapsing around the franchise — the losing, the morale-crushing midseason attempt to trade half the roster to the Pelicans, and then Magic Johnson’s controversial and abrupt retirement, which came a few days after head coach Luke Walton left the team. It’s the kind of turmoil that follows any team on which LeBron lands. Anyway, the UVU position opened up when Mark Pope was hired by BYU and Madsen won his first head coaching job.

“It’s weird the way life happens,” he says.

Madsen had the foresight and interest to begin preparing for a coaching career as early as high school when he announced to his parents, “I’d like to start studying coaches.” Players can play the game for years and not understand the whys and hows of what they do; Madsen wanted more. He asked for books by and about coaches, among them UCLA’s John Wooden and the Lakers’ Phil Jackson (for whom he would later play), and was a keen observer of coaches during his playing career. “I took notes at different points as a player,” he says. “I wish I had taken more.”

“While he’s playing he’s becoming a student of coaching,” says Duane. “His goal in life the last 10 years was to become a D-I coach.”

" He played hard. He just battled. Everybody loved him. I don’t think anyone could say anything bad about him. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met to this day. We have so much respect for each other. "
Ervin Johnson

Madsen’s notes include an incident that followed a Lakers loss in Houston. The blame for the poor performance was pinned on several of the Laker stars, most notably Shaquille O’Neal and Robert Horry, for partying and socializing the previous night. The locker room was tense. Jackson was upset. So was O’Neal, resenting the finger pointing. The next day, in San Antonio, Jackson told the team, “Everyone here has a strong will. That’s why you’ve been successful. I’ve been asked to do a job by the Lakers. I have to have a strong will too. If not, with your competitiveness, you’ll walk over everyone and no one will call you on it.” Those are, Madsen says, difficult conversations a coach must be willing to have.

“I always thought I’d want to be a coach,” he says. “I read ‘They Call Me Coach’ (by Wooden) in high school and then read it again in college. It inspired me. I wanted to have a positive impact on players.”

Blue-collar game

He was known as “Mad Dog” during his playing days, although that nickname misses the mark widely when he’s off the court. He doesn’t swear, he’s unfailingly polite, mild-tempered and so deeply committed to his faith that he delayed the start of his college basketball career for two years to serve a mission in Spain for his church. (On road trips during his pro career he visited temples in whatever city he happened to be in at the time.)

It’s difficult to reconcile “Mad Dog” with a guy who, whether he’s on the road or at the office, stares longingly at the Nest Cam app on his phone to watch his baby boy sleep in his crib at home (“I can watch him sleep for an hour,” Madsen says. “If he moves his hand or yawns and scratches, I get happy.”).

The nickname persisted, a gift from a fifth-grade PE teacher who was struck by his intensity and aggressiveness on the court. It followed him to San Ramon Valley High, to Stanford, and to the Lakers. He was the ultimate scrapper whose persistence and physicality could get under a rival’s skin, as it did once in practice when a frustrated O’Neal threw him to the floor.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Utah Valley University basketball head coach Mark Madsen poses for a photo at the team's practice facility in Orem on Thursday, May 9, 2019.

“He used to beat me up in practice,” O'Neal once said.

Madsen wasn’t a scorer, yet it is uncanny how successful his teams were. Erlyn calls his basketball career “magical.” Just as Madsen arrived at San Ramon High, so did a strong supporting cast of players, and the team went all the way to the state final. At Stanford, a team that had been to the NCAA Tournament just four times the previous 50-plus years, qualified for the tournament all four years Madsen was on campus, including a trip to the Final Four in 1998. During his first two years in the NBA he won world championships with the Lakers, in 2001 and 2002.

“It’s as if the Lord has sprinkled pixie dust on him,” says Erlyn.

It is a credit to Madsen’s blue-collar game that he was the 29th pick in the 2000 NBA draft. Take a quick look at his college stats and you’ll find nothing that says he was a future NBA player even though he was a first-team All-American and 6-foot-9, 240 pounds. The NBA wrongly looks for, and rewards, scoring averages, not efficiency, rebounding or defense; Madsen averaged a modest 10.9 points per game for four years — 13 during his best season. As a senior, he averaged a career-best 9.3 rebounds, which is good but hardly spectacular.

The Lakers saw something in him anyway. Before the draft, West told Madsen, “Your skill is that you bring an intangible level of intensity to the game. We want you.” Madsen lasted nine years in the NBA. In his best season, he averaged 3.6 points per game.

It took a basketball aficionado to appreciate his contributions. An L.A. newspaper once rated Madsen as the worst player in the NBA. His teammates rushed to his defense; they went out of their way to console him, to tell him, in the words of one, “That’s messed up.” His minutes increased each season, from nine as a rookie to 17 in his third and final season with the Lakers, when he started 22 games.

His job was to rebound and set picks for the team’s scorers, and on the rare occasion when he took a shot he heard about it when he returned to the bench. “Hey, Mark, you took my shot,” one of his teammates would say. The ribbing was always good-natured.

During one practice, Bryant was dribbling down the court in transition and Madsen picked him up, or tried. He stumbled on Bryant’s crossover dribble and almost went to the deck. “Phil blew the whistle,” recalls Madsen. “All I could do was laugh. Kobe laughed. Phil laughed. I felt love from the team.” When the Lakers won the championship in Madsen’s first year, the rookie won over fans by giving a fiery speech — some of it in Spanish — and dancing a goofy dance, which can still be seen on the internet.

It was clear that Madsen’s teammates respected and embraced him. On two occasions, Bryant was asked to do TV commercials in which he was invited to pick one teammate to appear with him; he chose Madsen. Much has been written about Shaq helping him to buy a car and upgrade his wardrobe.

When Madsen joined the Lakers he was driving an old, dented Toyota minivan that had been in the family for 10 years. It was a graduation gift and the unpretentious Madsen was thrilled with it. “I was very happy,” he says. “Dad signed over the title. This is my car now.” He drove it to Lakers practices until one day Shaq walked into the locker room and asked, “Who in the world is driving that white van?!” Madsen confessed to the crime. Shaq replied, “You can’t roll into practice in that car.”

Matt A. Brown, SPTSW
Shaquille O'Neal and Mark Madsen of the Los Angeles Lakers speak during a NBA game against the Miami Heat at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Calif.

He took Madsen car shopping. Shaq offered to pay the down payment, but Madsen refused it. Then he took Madsen to a big and tall store and spent $7,000 on the rookie, telling the salesman, “Get Mark this pair of jeans in three different colors times seven — one for every day of the week.” He also bought him a suit that Madsen wore for years. They still weren’t finished. Shaq, who had just signed a rich contract extension, took Madsen to the mall, where he bought a Rolex for every player on the team.

When Madsen’s rookie contract expired, the Lakers told him to be patient; they wanted to re-sign him. But later, when Madsen heard that Karl Malone had left the Utah Jazz to play one final season with the Lakers in a last-ditch effort to get a ring, he knew he was moving on. The Lakers called and made it official. What else could they do when a future Hall-of-Famer falls into their laps? Madsen spent the next six seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Madsen resumed to the business of blue-collar play with the Timberwolves, and on one occasion, after taking a shot, was greeted at the bench by superstar Kevin Garnett, who told him, “You gotta shoot more.”

"Meant to play basketball"

If you want stories about Madsen, if you really want to get in deep, pay a visit to Duane and Erlyn. Madsen doesn’t offer much when he’s talking about himself. It’s not that he is guarded or trying to protect himself from unflattering stories; quite to the contrary, he seems embarrassed by the myriad flattering good-guy stories that are out there. Who could blame him? Bad guys are embraced by the public; good guys are pilloried. Ask Tim Tebow.

So I visited Duane and Erlyn, pulling up in front of their house in the river bottoms of Provo. I’m not sure when a house crosses the line and becomes a mansion, but I’m pretty sure their home qualifies. I rang the doorbell and expected a chap named Winston to answer the door in a black tux, but, no, it was Duane. He and Erlyn sat down in their light, airy home and were as warm and pleasant as a Sunday afternoon.

The matriarch of the family is a strong-willed and talented violinist who was filled with religious fervor even as a girl growing up in California. She married Duane and planned to have 12 children; she settled for 10 — two basketball teams, five girls, five boys. She ran the household, he earned the money and both were successful.

Duane is the quintessential self-made man. He grew up in Salt Lake City. His parents divorced when he was a young boy and money was tight, so he went to work when he was 13. He worked as a cook in Alaska to pay his way through BYU, where he earned degrees in business and economics. He studied at the Wharton School of Finance and landed a job with Goldman Sachs in private wealth management. He began by driving the streets of expensive neighborhoods in the Bay Area looking for clients. Working at a company where turnover was rampant, he spent his entire career in Goldman’s employ. He might be one of the few fathers of an NBA player who can match his son dollar for dollar.

The family emphasized religion, study, music, academics and family. They considered travel part of their children’s education and once or twice a year they took them on trips abroad, and in return each child was expected to give a report of the countries they visited when they returned home.

They traveled to China, Australia, Israel, Africa, England, South Africa and much of continental Europe. Sometimes they traveled en masse; sometimes in smaller family combinations (Erlyn once took the girls on an opera trip to London, Brussels, Paris, Budapest and Vienna). Even today, the 43-year-old Madsen has broad interests, having recently read a two-volume work on da Vinci, and books on the lives of the presidents and on Roman and Egyptian history.

According to the family plan, Mark was going to play the cello, not basketball. Erlyn was firmly decided. Sports were out. Sports were a distraction from music, debate, scholarship and faith. She also fretted about bawdy locker room talk. When Madsen’s older brother Richard asked to play football, Erlyn refused.

“There are no sports in this family,” she declared.

Then came The Voice.

Once, on a rare frosty day, the 13-year-old Mark and his brothers were “skiing” down a slick neighborhood road in their tennis shoes when he crashed and tore the cartilage in his knee. The doctor said the cartilage must be removed. Even though she had resisted it, Erlyn knew her son hoped to play basketball and she told the doctor this in an effort to save the cartilage.

“It’s not going to grow back,” the doctor replied. “If I don’t take it out now, I’ll just have to operate again.”

Erlyn said she wanted to pray about it. As she tells it, “I heard this voice: ‘It’s going to heal.’ I ran down and woke Mark. I told him, ‘Your knee is going to be all right. I heard a voice as clear as day. And you were meant to play basketball.’”

Madsen began his basketball career, and over the years there were many injuries — to his nose, spine, wrist, shoulder — but the knee held fast. Duane and Erlyn never anticipated where it would lead.

Erlyn hated the games. She had all those kids to manage in the stands, hauling them to the bathroom, giving them snacks, keeping them entertained. “I couldn’t wait for it to be over,” she says. “I couldn’t appreciate those years.” But if she thought high school would bring an end to basketball games, she was wrong. One day she found herself sitting next to a group of men whom she learned were scouts. She asked one of them, “The team is so great; who are you looking at? It must be so-and-so or so-and-so.” They said, “No, it’s Mark Madsen.”

She was dumbfounded. Oh, no, she said, he’s not going to do that. He’s not going to play basketball in college, too. “But then I kept remembering that voice, and I decided, well, I guess he can play in college.” Then she went to the Final Four and the scene repeated itself. She found herself sitting next to scouts again.

“Who are you looking at?” she asked.

“Mark Madsen.”

He’s not going to the NBA, she said. But then she remembered that voice.

And then Madsen was drafted. By the Lakers.

More pixie dust.

"The coolest dude"

Jeff Munneke has worked in the Minnesota Timberwolves front office for 31 years, the last of the club’s original 35 employees still on the job. He has seen great players come and go — Garnett, Latrell Sprewell, Stephon Marbury, Kevin Love — but there is only one autographed jersey on his office wall and it wasn’t worn by any of the aforementioned players. It was worn by Madsen, a career 2.2 scorer who has been retired for 10 years.

Visitors to his office are puzzled by this. Why not Garnett’s jersey up there, they ask? Or Love’s? “Because Mark Madsen was the coolest dude ever to come through here,” Munneke replies. “He’s my favorite player of all time. He was the most sincere. I want to represent that.”

Munneke remembers the first time he met Madsen after he had left the Lakers and signed with the Timberwolves. Madsen had asked around to determine who oversaw the team’s youth basketball program. It was Munneke. Munneke routinely asked the players to participate in the youth program, and for the vast majority of them that meant showing up one day for an hour or so to say hello or maybe hand out awards on the final day of camp. Then Madsen showed up in his office for an introduction and said he’d like to be part of the youth program.

“What day would you like to come,” Munneke asked?

“No, no, I’ll be there every day,” said Madsen.

“Mark, the way it usually works is ...”

“I know the way it works. But if my name is on a camp, I’ll be there every day.”

Says Munneke, “I almost fell out of my chair.”

Tom Olmscheid, Associated Press
Minnesota Timberwolves' Mark Madsen (35) gets off a shot between New York Knicks' Malik Rose, left, and Wilson Chandler, right, during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 22, 2008, in Minneapolis. Madsen made his second appearance in the last 20 games scoring one point as Minnesota won 114-93.

Madsen was all in. He not only was there every day, but he arrived early and stood at the curb as the parents pulled up to drop off their camper, greeting them by name (he remembered all their names after the first day) and offering the parents some glowing report about how their child had done the previous day — "Thanks for bringing Johnny! He had a great day of camp. If you want to come watch him, you’re welcome." During the NBA season, Madsen visited the opposing locker room to collect autographed gear from players — shoes, sweatbands, socks, jerseys — which would be given away at camp. This included Shaq’s jersey and Garnett’s sweatbands.

“Every kid got something,” says Munneke. “We sold out that camp every single year he was there. And Mark was always trying to make it better.”

Madsen tends to view a crowd of people the way others see a theme park; it’s fun — the interactions, the connections and so forth. It is revealing that when Madsen talks about the genesis of his playing career, he says, “It was so social. Being with friends and playing ball. I had so much fun playing. It’s a great game.”

Munneke says he used to laugh watching Madsen during pre-game warmups because Madsen did little warming up; “He would be talking to ushers and statisticians and opposing announcers and security staff and everyone else. He’d never warm up. It probably drove (Coach) Flip (Saunders) nuts. He’d take two shots, maybe. He made time for everybody, talking to them, taking photos, signing autographs. I used to tell people, ‘If you don’t have Mark’s autograph, it’s your fault.’ He is a beloved figure here. Kevin Garnett is the most iconic and popular, but from the standpoint of fan favorite, Mark was beloved by fans, building staff, administrative staff.”

Ervin Johnson, who played in the NBA for 13 years, was left with the same impression of Madsen, his teammate for two seasons on the Timberwolves. They did a USO tour together and struck up a lasting friendship.

“Mark is a good man,” he says. “He has a good heart; he has integrity. He gets along with everybody and always has a smile on his face. He was a fan favorite. He played hard. He just battled. Everybody loved him. I don’t think anyone could say anything bad about him. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met to this day. We have so much respect for each other.”

Erlyn once said of her son, “Mark cannot see the bad in anyone. Everyone is wonderful. If someone ever did something bad, he’d say, ‘But that person is really trying.’” She recalls an incident in high school when a few of his friends were invited to chez Madsen for his birthday party; instead, hundreds showed up, so many that they made a pyramid of empty pop cans afterward as tall as a person when it was finished.

At some point, the doorbell rang and Erlyn opened the door to find a rough-looking group of young men who were obviously inebriated. She left them at the door and ran to Mark. “There’s this terrible group at the door, and they’re drunk,” she said. Mark went to the door and turned to his mom — “Mom, these are my friends,” and then he hugged them all.

She recalls another high school incident following a hard-fought road victory in a rough part of the Bay Area that was followed by racial tensions and cursing as the crowd filed out of the arena. The Madsens stopped at a 7-11 afterward. Mark noticed several opposing players sitting in a parked car with dark tinted windows. Despite warnings from Erlyn, Mark walked across the parking lot and leaned into the car to shake hands with the boys and chat them up. “I was trembling,” says Erlyn.

Everyone is wonderful.

If you ask Madsen about his experiences with several of the NBA’s biggest superstars, don’t expect him to dish the dirt. LeBron James can be criticized for manipulating teams and organizations, colluding with opposing players and playing a role in blowing up the Lakers, but Madsen chooses only to say this: “He’s the first in the weight room. He’s on the court early. In game preps, you need to be totally on point. He knows everything. It’s a beautiful thing when the best player is also studying every game.”

The Lakers might be completely dysfunctional but he chooses to praise the “Laker culture,” saying, “The Buss family (the owners) understand personal relationships. They treat players the way they want to be treated. It’s a family environment. I learned more about loyalty from the Buss family and how to treat people.”

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press
Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen, left, looks on along with assistant coach Jim Eyen during the first half of a preseason basketball game against the Golden State Warriors, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014, in Los Angeles.

He was both a teammate and later a coach to Kobe Bryant. Bryant could be criticized for selfish play and an ugly incident that turned into a serious legal issue, but Madsen says only this: “My first interaction with Kobe occurred when he came to the practice facility in the summer. I said, ‘What’s up Kobe?’ He said, ‘Well, I got up at 5 this morning and made 2,000 jump shots and lifted weights.’ His work ethic was second to none. He was a great teammate. He cares about winning. Which is what you want. He pushed me hard. If you get into a game and miss a pass, he’ll get on you. He’ll let you know. ‘You gotta catch that pass.’ He wasn’t afraid to get after anybody. That was new for me. He pushed me so hard. I had to develop thick skin. After playing with Kobe, I could play with anyone and handle pressure situations.”

Everyone is wonderful.

It was difficult for anyone to miss Madsen’s fundamental goodness. Bryant twice chose Madsen to appear with him in TV commercials that would pay well. One would portray him sitting at a table playing cards. Another would portray him peeling a sticker off a soft-drink cup to see what he won. He politely declined both offers because he thought both were endorsements of gambling.

“His standards are extremely high,” Duane says, in what must pass for understatement. Madsen also refused offers to do TV sit-coms and at least one movie role because they conflicted with his beliefs.

Madsen did have a brush with the law, though. One night he and a date were in a park that, unknown to them, had been closed because of heavy drug use in the area. Suddenly, they were hit by floodlights and rushed by cops. The cops soon recognized Madsen — “It’s Mad Dog!” — but one overzealous officer insisted on citing him for trespassing. Madsen of course was mortified. He felt compelled to confess all this later to Jackson, his coach.

“I have something terrible to tell you,” he began. He told the story. Jackson, the story goes, tried not to laugh as the story unfolded. When Madsen was finished with his confession, Jackson told him, “Mark, you might not believe this, but I’ve heard worse things than this.” Madsen said he didn’t want it to get in the press. Jackson said, “I have your back. I’ll protect you.” A decade later, when Jackson was to be honored by the Positive Coaching Alliance, he asked Madsen to MC the event and present him the award.

“Have you heard of Shaq?"

The Madsens held family home evening sessions when they were raising their children, a practice encouraged by their church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in which they discuss their faith and promote family unity and values. In one of these settings, Duane decided to meet with each child individually to discuss their ambitions, school, interests, challenges — their lives. He asked them to write their plans for the future. He still has Mark’s paper.

He wrote that he wanted to become an Eagle scout, serve a church mission, establish a sizable bank account, finish a 50-mile backpack trip, play high school, college and NBA basketball, have children, watch a basketball game on the front row, become a millionaire and get married in his church’s temple. Oh, and he also wrote that he wanted to see a UFO and live off the land using a bow and arrow.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
New Utah Valley basketball head coach Mark Madsen and his wife Hannah are introduced at the NUVI Basketball Center at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, on Monday, April 15, 2019.

All except the last two came to pass, and then some. In high school he was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, student body president, a basketball All-American, homecoming king, a boys state representative, Eagle Scout, early-morning seminary graduate, straight-A student. He was a popular and engaged student who is reputed to have known the name of everyone in his school.

The most difficult of all his goals proved to be marriage. His life in some ways has paralleled that of another famous athlete, Steve Young, who also married late (38), is an active member of the same church and returned to graduate school late in life even though he was set financially. For Madsen’s part, a busy schedule and frequent travel complicated dating and relationships.

Finally, his mother intervened. She needed a last-minute replacement for a pianist at a musical event she was organizing. A daughter told her about Hannah Harkness, who studied piano performance at BYU. Hannah accepted the invitation and showed up at the Madsen home. When Erlyn opened the door, she gave Hannah a quick once-over and said, “Hello, are you single?” She showed her Mark’s photo and arranged a date. They married in the fall of 2016. He was 39. They have one child.

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“Have you heard of Shaq?” he asked Hannah one day. She said, “I know he’s a good musician.” He explained that while Shaq is a some-time rapper he is primarily known as a basketball player. Thus began her basketball education. “She’s embraced basketball,” says Madsen. “She’s learned to read a box score and love the game.” It’s a tradeoff. She learned basketball from him, he learned music and fine arts from her.

For Madsen, everything has fallen into place, as he planned it. His boyhood ambitions have been realized; he even gets to watch basketball games from the front row, for a living.

“He’s going to be a fantastic coach,” says Ervin Johnson, his friend and former teammate. “The players will enjoy playing for him. There are going to be growing pains, but he’s a guy who’s going to always see the glass as full. If anybody can do it, he can.”