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The first time I saw Mark Madsen play basketball was at an invitation-only, pre-season game last August in the men’s gym at UCLA, a cavernous relic superseded by Pauley Pavilion nearly four decades ago. Most big cities have an ultimate outdoor court where the local hoop gods reign, and a lot of people believe L.A.‘s best basketball is played on the Venice Beach courts made famous by the movie White Men Can’t Jump. But to me the August-only afternoon games, overseen for the last 16 years by a blond, 40ish TV-movie producer and classic basketball junkie named Adam Mills, are pickup basketball in its highest form.
That day in August, there were NBA rookies like the Lakers‘ Madsen and Slava Medvedenko and the Clippers’ Corey Maggette trying to get a jump on training camp, and seasoned pros like Sam Cassell of the Milwaukee Bucks and former UCLA Bruin and current Toronto Raptor Tracy Murray working their way into shape. There were ex-pros like Kobe Bryant‘s dad, Jelly-Bean, playing for the love of it, and ex-pros like former Clipper fuck-up Benoit Benjamin trying to prove they can still play, and high-flying, spidery-limbed high school ballers hoping to be pegged by the Miami Heat scout lounging by a side door as the next Darius Miles, the Clippers’ teenage phenom.
At 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds, Madsen is smallish by NBA standards, but his game is brutally physical -- thus the nickname, “Mad Dog,” pinned on him by a fifth-grade P.E. teacher who recognized his dive-into-the-stands-for-a-loose-ball approach to life -- and extremely analytical at the same time. At UCLA that day, he always guarded the biggest and strongest player. The first time back on defense, Madsen gauged his opponents‘ range and speed, laying as far off as necessary to keep from being blown by, then moving in relentlessly, efficiently, slapping tenaciously at the ball.
When Madsen was on offense, more experienced players tended to beat him to the block, pushing him important inches or even feet away from the iron. When he got the ball, he didn’t look confident putting up the 15- to 18-foot shot that is the power forward‘s bread and butter. But he attacked the rack with a zealot’s fervor, a tireless rebounder with very good hops whose 36-inch vertical leap puts him among the top 20 percent of NBA players and among the leapingest Lakers. Readying himself to go up for a rebound, he squatted sumolike, his eyes following the shot‘s arc, then used his leg power to go up through people.
The Lakers’ first-round draft choice out of Stanford, Madsen is perhaps the rarest of NBA rookies -- a four-year college grad with a degree in economics, a white guy from the suburbs, one of only three Mormons in the league (Dallas‘ Shawn Bradley and New Jersey’s Keith Van Horn are the other two), and one of the very few NBA players who makes less money than his old man, a vice president in the individual-wealth-management-services department at investment bank Goldman Sachs. In an era when most players accrue more tattoos than defensive stops, Madsen is as clean-cut as they come. When somebody says, “This guy‘s good,” they’re referring not to Madsen‘s jump shot but to his character. “Mark exudes such a wide-eyed, bushy-tailed look at life,” says Laker assistant coach Jim Cleamons. “He’s just a pup, but there‘s no quit in him.”
On the UCLA court, Madsen was visibly pissed when anybody scored on him, but in the hundreds of little confrontations that occur almost continuously all over the court in a hard-fought basketball game, he never backed down and never talked trash. “If someone calls a foul every time they go into the lane, I’ll say, ‘C’mon man, why are you playing that way?‘” he told me later. “I’ve always loved competition. It‘s a very pure thing when you step out on the court. You’re saying, ‘It’s your best, it‘s my best.’ If you come out on top, there‘s no animosity, it’s just a fact. You don‘t look on an opponent as a friend. You look at him as” -- he hesitated a moment, searching for the word -- “an opponent, and I mean completely, in every sense of the word.”
In the narrow space between the baseline at center court and the hanging mats that keep players diving after loose balls from splattering against the gym’s concrete walls, a group of old black guys wearing basketball-camp T-shirts with the sleeves cut off, thin gold chains and kicks that haven‘t lost any of their squeak to hard use, leaned back in folding chairs and woofed at the players. “Who’s covering that dude?” they would hoot when nobody contested a jump shot. They cackled obscenely and slapped each other five when anyone got dunked on. At the end of the afternoon, as Madsen prepared to roll out of the gym, he gave all of them the most total white-guy okey-doke handshake and his biggest, goofiest smile. They ate it up.