This Guy's Good

Photo: Art Streiber

It takes Mark Madsen 20 minutes to reach the Lakers parking lot after a January 7 game against the Clippers. It's just down the hallway from the team's locker room, so it should be a quick trip--especially for a 6-foot-9 NBA power forward--but too many people keep stopping to say hello.

Madsen spent four hours at practice and three at church before suiting up for the game. But if he's tired, he's hiding it well. He greets each security guard, trainer and press agent with an energetic "whazzup" and a handshake. After a quick interview with a local newspaper, he discusses genealogy with the reporter. He signs a basketball for a Lakers community service rep, remembering her name (Nikki) and the school she attends (USC).

A Cardinal favorite for his intensity and exuberance on and off the court, Madsen, '00, is most of the way through his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers. The 18th Stanford alumnus to be drafted into professional basketball, Madsen is the only person in the world who can claim simultaneous membership in the Stanford Alumni Association, the NBA and the Mormon church.

Being a rookie for the reigning world champs presents unexpected challenges, like composing original rap songs at your teammates' request. It means getting breakfast burritos for the veterans before practice because you're the first one there. It means watching a hotel maid faint because she's seeing your teammate Shaquille O'Neal in person.

It also confers unusual benefits, like an October shopping spree at Rochester Big & Tall with O'Neal, who wanted to teach Madsen how to "roll into Staples Center." The league MVP was not fond of Madsen's only suit, which he bought at JC Penney the summer before his freshman year at Stanford.

O'Neal "began putting all this stuff down on the counter," Madsen recalls. "I remember thinking, 'I don't need all this.' He said, 'Would you relax? I'm getting this for you as a gift.' It almost turned into an argument until I realized Shaq really wanted to do something nice for me. He ended up buying me $2,500 worth of clothes," says Madsen, displaying one of the purchases, a "very L.A." black suit with an extra-long jacket. Size: X-X-X-Large.

"I just taught him where to go," O'Neal explains. "Nobody came along to show me the ropes, and I just wanted to show him the ropes."

The two spend a lot of time together; part of Madsen's job description is to play his trademark dogged defense against O'Neal in practice. They also play free-throw games, like the playground standard H-O-R-S-E, to help the MVP work on his notorious weakness (Madsen's free-throw percentage at press time: 83.3; O'Neal's: 41.2).

And though they might seem an unlikely pair, they've become friends off the court. Madsen speaks enthusiastically about O'Neal, describing how he personally delivered $4,000 worth of gifts for children in inner-city Compton, Calif., before Christmas. "Most of the stuff that he does, he doesn't ever want to talk about," Madsen says.

O'Neal isn't the only Madsen fan on the squad. He and All-Star guard Kobe Bryant may be publicly feuding about who's going to be the focal point of the Lakers' offense, but there's one thing they do agree on: Madsen's a good guy. "I respect the way he plays," Bryant says. "Shaq whines at him sometimes because the Mad Dog tries to beat him up. I love the way he practices. He goes all out. And he has fun doing it, which is even more enjoyable." Starting small forward Rick Fox agrees. "He plays a game of basketball the way it should be played."

And in an era when coach-player scuffles make headlines, Madsen and Lakers head coach Phil Jackson have only good things to say about each other. When he was drafted, Madsen referred to Jackson--who led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles in nine years--as a living coaching legend. Jackson, for his part, is thrilled to have someone with Madsen's tenacity on the team. "He pushes our players in practice every day," Jackson says. "There's nothing dirty about his play, but it's very, very physical, and that's what we need right now."

For Mark Madsen to make it to the NBA , he had to give up basketball.

The fifth of Duane and Erlyn Madsen's 10 children, Madsen grew up in a Mormon family that focused on faith, not sports. His parents didn't expect, let alone encourage, him to pursue a professional basketball career. "We just thought it was a good thing to do in high school," Erlyn Madsen says. Still, they had an inkling of what was to come when Madsen broke one of his father's ribs in a pick-up game. He was 12.

As a high school senior in Danville, Calif., Madsen had offers to play basketball at schools like Arizona and UCLA. But he elected to defer admission to Stanford and go on a Mormon mission to southern Spain, trying to convert others to the faith. He and another missionary met with Spaniards who had asked the church for information, and they stood on street corners talking to passersby who seemed receptive. Madsen also served as a liaison between his fellow missionaries and the mission president.

After two years--and about 10 games of basketball--overseas, Madsen entered Stanford as a 21-year-old, out-of-shape freshman. "I was ready to play, but my body wasn't," he says. "I was 230 [pounds] when I left, and I was 230 when I returned, but it wasn't the same 230."

Despite his lack of conditioning and a back injury, Madsen missed only five games that season. In the NCAA tournament, he averaged 9.4 points per game as Stanford reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1942. "I firmly believe that going on a mission made me a much better basketball player," Madsen says. "From a mental standpoint, I'm a heck of a lot stronger."

He kept getting physically stronger, too. Junior year, Madsen started every game and averaged 29 minutes, 13.1 points and 9 rebounds. By senior year, he was also the team's emotional leader. "He's so unselfish and giving that you can't help but admire him," said Stanford teammate Jarron Collins, '01, at the time. "There's a feeling on this team that we all genuinely take pride in each other's accomplishments, and that comes from Mark."

Madsen appears 12 times in the Cardinal record book, including career field goal percentage (No. 2 with 58.7) and blocked shots (No. 4 with 64). But it was his play during the 1998 Miracle Minute that ensured his place in Cardinal lore. In the third round of the NCAA tournament, Stanford trailed by 6 to Rhode Island with 59 seconds to go. Twenty-six seconds later, point guard Arthur Lee, '99, and Madsen had cut the lead to 1. Lee then slapped the ball out of an opponent's hands and passed it to Madsen, who dunked it--and drew a foul. Madsen raised his fists into the air, roaring, and began an undulating dance. Stanford was on its way to the Final Four.

And Madsen had caught the eye of Phil Jackson.

On June 28, 2000, the Lakers selected Madsen as their first-round draft pick--a distinction he shares with Magic Johnson and James Worthy.

But there are plenty of things that Madsen doesn't share with these former Lakers greats. Worthy was once charged with solicitation of prostitution after he called up an escort service on game day. Johnson has written that he contracted HIV from heterosexual sex, but he doesn't know with whom: "It's a matter of numbers." Then there's Wilt Chamberlain, who claimed in his autobiography that he had slept with 20,000 women. And the Lakers hardly have a monopoly on NBA bad boys. More than a dozen professional basketball players, including Scottie Pippen and Gary Payton, were featured in a 1998 Sports Illustrated story on athletes who fathered children out of wedlock.

It's hard to imagine how Madsen will fit in. The Mormon religion encourages members to abstain from premarital sex, caffeine and alcohol. Madsen has never had a sip of coffee or beer, or uttered a swear word since junior high. "I learned there were better ways to make my point," he says.

Madsen downplays reports of sexual promiscuity in the league. "It's not as many guys as everyone thinks it is," he says. "It's just something that gets so much attention from things like the SI article. And it is an issue, but there are guys out there who totally accept the responsibility for everything they do."

Are there groupies? Sure. "In the NBA there are a lot of distractions of every kind most of the time," Madsen says. "But most of those things you have to look for. They don't just come at you. You have to seek them out."

Madsen has a number of boosters who support his lifestyle choices. "He's an agent's dream," says Los Angeles sports attorney Fred Slaughter. "I'm hoping that he's not adversely affected by people he'll confront in the business who are just the opposite. I don't think he will be, because his home life and education seem to be strong." Lakers sports psychologist George Mumford agrees. "Sometimes people think more of their ability and what they can do than they should." Madsen, on the other hand, "seems to have a very good grasp of who he is and what he can do."

When Madsen was first drafted, his mother worried about how he would fare in the NBA . She doesn't anymore. "A lot of the men are veterans and they respect him for the way he's going," says Erlyn Madsen.

Madsen's teammates tease him about his sexual abstinence, but "it's all in good fun," he says. "The guys on the team are great about telling me things that I would enjoy, like a movie, and things that I might not like as much. We're like a big family, and they look out for me. Mostly on road trips everyone does his own thing at night."

For Madsen, that means retiring to his room with a book by 10:30 p.m. "In the NBA you have a lot of time to read books that you've been meaning to read for years," he says. "Right now I'm working on the Iliad."

Madsen may act as if he has a kick-back job, but it's more that he's become an expert at balancing. This is, after all, the guy who in high school was editor of the school newspaper, student body president, an Eagle Scout and a student at 6 a.m. seminary classes. These days, he spends four to six hours a day at the Lakers practice facility lifting weights, scrimmaging, shooting and doing tai chi--assuming he's not on the road. And basketball isn't even his top priority. "Going on a mission has given me a much broader perspective on where basketball fits," Madsen says. "In the big scheme of life, basketball is a very small part of things." He spends between eight and 15 hours a week at church services and activities, including the home-teaching program he supervises, through which members discuss their faith.

He lives alone in a Westwood apartment. He hasn't really gotten around to decorating it yet, but he has managed to fill two bookcases. One is stocked with binders from Stanford economics classes; another holds works by Dostoyevsky and C.S. Lewis.

On the court, Madsen's no longer a star--or even a starter--but he ticks off several NBA accomplishments. In his first official game, against the Charlotte Hornets in October, he played 17 minutes, scoring six points and grabbing two rebounds. He's added 2 inches to his vertical leap. And he scored his first three-pointer--in his life--in a Lakers uniform.

Coach Jackson says he hoped Madsen would play in more "learning situations"--games in which the Lakers are comfortably ahead--than he has. (At press time, Madsen was averaging 9.1 minutes per game, boosted by O'Neal's late-January foot injury.) "Even though we're winning," Jackson says, "our season has not gone as well or as easily for us as we had hoped. Last year we had bigger leads."

Madsen will have an opportunity to develop over time, Jackson says. "I see in him a player who is potentially going to be a great support player in this game. Whether he's a starter or a base player, he's going to be a very good role player, knowing what to do and knowing what his game is."

For now, Madsen doesn't mind spending most of his time on the bench. "I'm loving every minute of it," he says. "I really feel like I'm one of the luckiest people in the world to be playing for the Lakers." After all, he's doing two of the things he's best at: challenging his teammates with his aggressive, physical play in practice--and capturing the affection of the fans. When he enters the game against the Clippers, the audience of 18,500 starts chanting "Go Mad Dog" and "Go White Boy." Madsen even wooed one crowd into a standing ovation--at an away game.

After the Clippers game, Madsen says goodbye to O'Neal in the parking lot. It looks like an suv showroom, full of brand-new oversized cars with tinted windows and shiny paint jobs. Madsen climbs into his, a 2000 Chevy Tahoe. As he drives out, fans who have waited more than an hour in drizzling rain for a glimpse of a real, live Laker start screaming "Mad Dog!" He honks and waves, which makes them shriek even more. Then he drives away.

A few days later, I ask what he did after the Clippers game. He is reluctant to say, but finally admits that he went to "see a friend." She was sick, and Madsen visited her with his home-teaching partner so they could talk about faith. After four hours of practice, three hours of church and five hours at the game, this is what Madsen chooses to do.

Memo to Erlyn Madsen: Mark's doing just fine.


Kerry Shaw, '99, MA '99, is an assistant editor at FilmFestivals.com.