Back in a Flash: Ex-Laker Mark Madsen begins coaching career as a Utah assistant
Boise, Idaho » By his own admission, Utah Flash coach Brad Jones might have done a better job selling Mark Madsen on the reasons not to take a job as his assistant rather than the merits of starting his coaching career in the NBA Development League.
As they talked before the season, Jones made certain Madsen came away with no grand illusions about D-League life. Madsen could expect to drive one of the team vans -- both at home and on the road -- and even help out with laundry duty if necessary.
"I just went through all the bad things I could think about our league," Jones said. " 'We're going to have to get up at 4 a.m. to catch a 7 a.m. flight and go play that night.' So I kept going over that with him. He was unfazed by it and he said, 'No, I really want to do it.' "
So it was that Madsen traded in nine years of Ritz-Carltons, charter flights and $113 per diem for trips to Bismarck, N.D., and Bakersfield, Calif., as a first-year assistant coach in the D-League with the Orem-based Flash.
A member of two Los Angeles Lakers championship teams in 2001 and 2002, Madsen was willing to start climbing the coaching ranks from one of the lowest rungs imaginable, a league in which top players make $25,500 and assistant coaches about the same.
Not surprisingly, though, Madsen's enthusiasm refuses to let him see things that way.
"What better way to start a coaching career than coming in and being with players that are hungry for the next level?" said Madsen, who will turn 34 later this month.
Planning his future
Madsen was set to return to Los Angeles this season, but as a member of the Clippers. After six seasons in Minnesota -- where he once signed a five-year, $12.1 million contract -- Madsen was traded in July along with Craig Smith and Sebastian Telfair.
Even before Madsen's arrival, the Clippers were clogged with big men in Chris Kaman, Marcus Camby and Blake Griffin. A month after the trade, Madsen agreed to a buyout of the final year of his contract and was left to contemplate his future.
He was invited by one Eastern Conference team to come to training camp. A team in Greece also made an offer. At the same time, Madsen considered staying in shape in the hopes of signing with a contender the second half of the season.
But Madsen, who played in just 39 games his last two seasons, also started to consider the possibility that he had played for the final time. He had one offer to coach a high school team in Minnesota as well as another to do radio work.
The Flash, meanwhile, had an assistant's job to fill and had a connection to Madsen's parents, who live in Utah County. Madsen was intrigued by the possibility; Jones' biggest concern was that he'd want to play again midseason.
"All these teams come up here to watch the D-League Showcase," Jones said, "but he's as good a big man as we have." Madsen, though, gave Jones his word that his playing days were done. "I said, 'If I make a commitment, I make a commitment,' " Madsen said.
It has been only three months, but Madsen has assimilated into D-League life -- "Now he's staying in Comfort Inn Suites and eating free breakfast," Jones joked -- and embraced coaching in a way different from many of his counterparts.
"A lot of guys want to come be a coach in this league but aren't committed to the work it takes at being a coach," Jones said. "He is like an unbelievable worker. He comes every day and he has a passion about what he does."
It turns out that Madsen was taking notes throughout his NBA career. Thinking he someday might want to get into coaching, Madsen filled a Microsoft Word file with plays he liked and things he saw from his NBA coaches that both worked and didn't.
When Jones introduced the Flash's last-second plays earlier this season, Madsen referenced the favorite play of Lakers coach Phil Jackson and the similarities between the two. He also has a favorite memory that sums up Jackson's coaching style.
During one of the Lakers' championship runs, Madsen remembers Jackson bringing the team together in the locker room and huddling before taking the court, and taking aim at Shaquille O'Neal.
"He said, 'Shaq, can you get a blocked shot tonight, please? Are you going to get a blocked shot for me?' " Madsen said. "'Shaq said something back to Phil as a joke. He went out there, Shaq had five or six or seven blocks.
"The previous game he had like maybe two. Phil had a unique way of motivating people. It was a fun thing. He was joking with Shaq, Shaq was joking with him, the whole team heard it, and he went out there and produced."
Madsen credits Jackson with giving him the confidence to play in the NBA as a first-round draft pick out of Stanford as well as a mentor as he enters coaching. The two visited in Jackson's office Dec. 1 when the Flash played the Los Angeles D-Fenders.
"He always had that curious way about him," Jackson said. "A guy could throw anything about what was going on in the game immediately at him. He had the ability to focus and to be tuned in."
Among the Flash's players, Madsen brought immediate credibility. His playing days are so recent, in fact, Madsen actually played three times against Flash guard Orien Greene while Greene was with Boston and Indiana.
"He's played in the NBA so he knows what it kind of takes to stay in the league for a while," center Luke Nevill said. "He's a real fundamental guy, he does a lot of fundamentals, just getting kind of back to basics, and that's what's helped him, so that's how he teaches."
Crash course in coaching
Madsen spends his time on the court now in places like the Boys and Girls Club of Ada County, where the Flash practiced earlier this month on a Monday afternoon while in Boise for the annual D-League Showcase.
As practice wrapped up, Madsen worked with Nevill on his post moves and encouraged the Flash to be vocal on defense. At one point, he interrupted to emphasize that big men should keep their bodies parallel or better when showing on the pick-and-roll.
Although he'd long considered a future in coaching, Madsen always expected he'd do so in college basketball. He once told former Timberwolves assistant coach Johnny Davis, "I don't want to deal with people like us."
Instead, Davis shifted Madsen's way of thinking. "The very fact that you've played this long at this level," Madsen remembers Davis saying, "and that you get along well and communicate with your teammates is a reason you should coach at the NBA level."
For now, Madsen is getting a crash course in the D-League. Madsen's strengths come with relating to players and teaching fundamentals, but he is learning about X's and O's as well as scouting from Jones, whose former job was as a Jazz scout.
To that end, Jones has asked Madsen to help prepare and then read the scouting report before every game. He did so at 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 5 in Jones' room at The Grove Hotel before the Flash played Tulsa.
As players crammed in, taking seats on side tables and on Jones' bed, Madsen started. He talked about going under the pick-and-roll in guarding one player, noted that another ran the floor well and talked about not letting one bench scorer get "locked in."
During the game, Madsen offered quiet encouragement -- to Carlos Wheeler to concentrate as he went to the line for a three-point play, to Jordan Brady for his activity on defense, to Bennet Davis for playing a pick-and-roll well.
Madsen's only complaint about D-League life came on the Flash's December trip to Boise, when they stayed at an airport hotel with no nearby restaurants. Rather than venture out in the cold, Madsen ate cookies off a tray in the lobby.
"It feels like my rookie year with the Lakers a little bit," Madsen said. "I was carrying a lot of bags as a rookie."
The D-League has helped several former NBA players return to the league as assistant coaches, including Roy Rogers, Joe Wolf and Robert Pack. As modest as the pay might be, the experience is invaluable, D-League president Dan Reed said.
"Mark is getting the opportunity to do everything associated with being an assistant coach," Reed said, "and that can only help him as he continues to grow in his coaching career."
For his part, Madsen is looking at his season with the Flash as more than just a one-year trial: "I'm just trying to take things one season at a time, but right now I'm really enjoying this opportunity and coaching is always something I've thought that I wanted to do."
"If he does choose to do it, I think he'll be terrific," Jones added. "But just the little time I've worked with him, whatever he chooses to do, he'll be successful at because his energy and people skills and his work ethic."
Best known for dancing on stage to celebrate the Lakers' 2001 championship, Madsen catches regular grief from the Flash's players about the regularly replayed television clip. "I tell them you don't want to see me dance. It's not pretty," Madsen joked. "If we win a [D-League] championship, I'll dance. I dance as little as possible now."