In a Lakers season measured mostly by the number of tedious losses, while players sulked over losing their starting jobs and Kobe Bryant reamed out teammates for being softer than the cushiest of toilet tissue, one ray of sunshine has pierced the gloom.
That shining light is Mark Madsen, who is well on his way toward being known as much, much more than the “Mad Dog” who played few but intense minutes on some outstanding Lakers teams and earned legions of fans for his absurdly goofy dance gyrations during their championship celebrations in 2001 and 2002.
“I’m flattered that people say hello to me. I’m flattered that people remember me at all,” he said, smiling.
After spending last season as the Lakers’ player development coach under Mike D’Antoni, Madsen was promoted to an assistant job by new Coach Byron Scott. Madsen scouts eight other teams — the same task as fellow assistants Jim Eyen and Paul Pressey — as well as working with the Lakers’ big men and being a liaison between the analytics and coaching staffs. All of those are vital roles.
But Madsen’s most important job might be one he took on naturally, if unofficially: he has become an island of optimism and cheer to a team that sorely needs both. The mere mention of Madsen’s name can make Scott smile, a rare occasion these days.
Madsen has had the same impact on players, who respected him for who he was on the floor and now hold him in high regard as a coach.
“A team like us, obviously, we’ve been struggling,” said power forward Ed Davis, who has worked more with Madsen than any other coach.
“You come into work and you have positive people, it makes the day go by a little easier. If you come in and everyone is negative you wake up like, ‘Man, I don’t even want to go to work today. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be around those negative people.’ You enjoy being around him. He’s one of those guys who brings everyone up.”
Scott inherited Madsen but didn’t have to keep him. Scott could have installed his own guys. But in talking to Madsen, Scott saw several qualities he wanted to have around.
“He has such an unbelievable passion for the game, and that’s how he was as a player,” Scott said last week. “I remembered him as a player — hard-nosed, tough, played just as hard as anybody, with a bunch of energy, and I thought he would bring that same thing to a coaching staff as well. That’s exactly what he’s done.
“He’s very diligent in what he does when he’s scouting a team. Very matter-of-fact about certain things. But every day he brings a very positive attitude and positive energy to the staff and to the players. That’s what I love about him.”
Madsen’s upbeat attitude isn’t an act. But it’s pretty nearly miraculous, given the Lakers’ motley roster and inconsistent commitment to playing defense.
“We all have our down days. I have my down days, too,” he said after a practice last week. “And I try to put an optimistic view on things and move forward.”
To do that, he thinks of the mantra adopted by San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich, taken from a quote by journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis about watching a stonecutter hammer away at a rock 100 times without a crack showing. “Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before,” Riis said.
The Spurs commemorated that perseverance on their 2014 championship rings with a “Pounding the rock” symbol. “On my hard days I try to remind myself, keep chipping away every single day. There will be a breakthrough at some point. I don’t know when,” Madsen said.
Madsen made his own breakthrough by paying his dues. After his nine-year NBA career, he spent a season as an assistant coach with the Utah Flash of the NBA’s Development League.
“You were asked to take on a lot of different roles. Equipment manager. Travel guy. Drive the van. Watch video on players we might draft or might sign as a free agent. You do everything,” said Madsen, who also filled in as a practice player once. “That was a great experience.”
He returned to his alma mater, Stanford, to get his MBA and be an assistant to Coach Johnny Dawkins during the 2012-13 season. He was hired to coach the Defenders, the Lakers’ D-League team, but instead became the Lakers’ development coach.
His resume gave him automatic credibility. He enhanced it with his attitude. “He’s a very positive guy. Good to talk to. Good mentor. He played with the best so he knows his stuff, and he’s so vocal,” center Jordan Hill said.
Though Madsen now must wear jackets and slacks and carry a clipboard during games, the geek still lives within him. So does the temptation to bust out those dance moves again.
“Listen, if we are on that podium in June, if they want me to dance I’ll dance. If they want me to spin around, I’ll spin around. I’ll be ready to go,” he said.
Um, there’s a difference between optimistic and delusional.
“I didn’t necessarily say this June. The month of June, and I’m not ruling anything out. In the month of June at some point, I’ll be ready,” he said.
Until then, he will cheerfully chip away, knowing the next hammer stroke could be the one that makes the difference.