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Character of the Happy Warrior

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play basketball was at an invitation-only, pre-season game last August in the men’s gym at UCLA, a cavernous relic superseded by Pauley Pavilion nearly four decades ago.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.

 

The next time I saw Madsen play was at an exhibition game at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim against the Phoenix Suns. The Lakers still hadn‘t cut anybody, and Madsen was so far down at the end of the bench that there was no bench left -- he was sitting on the floor. “Mad Dog” was also the underdog, and the fans had already taken him to their hearts. When he checked in with 42 seconds left in the first quarter, the upper deck erupted into loud barking while a cluster of teenagers leaned over the railing shaking signs that read “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

Madsen was called immediately for hacking veteran power forward Rodney Rogers, who was then replaced by rookie Ruben Garces. The first time Garces shot, Madsen swept across from the weak side and swatted the ball into the $500 seats. On offense, Madsen took an inlet pass, backed Garces toward the hoop and spun past him, forcing Garces to foul. Cries of “Mad Dog” erupted from the throng.

Possession after possession, Madsen beat everybody on both teams up and down court with a stiff-legged gallop that recalled Dennis Rodman, the selfless defender and one of the greatest rebounders ever to play the game. (Although off the court you couldn’t find two less similar people, Madsen cites Rodman the player as a model.) When the first team came back in, Madsen stayed on the court with Shaq and Kobe, vacuuming rebounds off the offensive and defensive glass and accumulating four fouls in eight minutes before having to sit.

With a defending championship team like the Lakers, the toughest thing for a rookie is to get meaningful playing time -- not just “garbage” after a game‘s been decided but meaningful minutes when the battle is in doubt. “This year he’s going to be paid to learn, sit, travel and become a good professional,” explained Cleamons, who has a reputation for working well with younger players. “Two or three years down the line, he‘ll be asked to assume a major role.” Coach Phil Jackson noted that by simply playing in the West, Madsen faced a special challenge. “There are probably nine all-stars on the 13 teams in our conference. It’s going to be a harrowing kind of experience.” Jackson a told me that what he and his coaches look for is a player who will “take advantage of opportunities” and “make a positive contribution.” What was the score when a player came in? What was the score when he went out?

In the third quarter of the Sun‘s game, Madsen came back in with the Lakers down 13. He went to the floor in a mad scramble for a loose ball, ripping it away from a pair of Suns and shoving it across the lane to Shaq, who slammed it through the hoop. On the way back down court, Madsen and O’Neal slapped each other five. With four minutes to go in the final quarter, and the Lakers now down by only four, Madsen picked up his sixth and final foul. As he trotted to the bench, he got a standing ovation and yet another chorus of yips, woofs and howls.

It has been a strained and somewhat chaotic season for the champion Lakers, what with both Shaq and Kobe out with injuries at times and publicly squabbling at others. Even Jackson briefly lost his Zen cool and joined the fray, making pointed remarks in the press about the immaturity of his superstars. It didn‘t help that starting point guard Derek Fisher missed the first 62 games with a stress fracture of his foot. For most of the season, the Lakers couldn’t put teams away in the fourth quarter, rarely assembled strings of wins, and were unable to dominate inferior teams, denying players like Madsen as much playing time as they might have expected. Still, Madsen averaged almost nine minutes a game, moving from lowly scrub to, in many late-season contests, the first guy off the bench.

Towards the end the regular season, the Lakers started putting it together. The key was not the overhyped Kobe-Shaq rapprochement, but the return of “Fish,” the only guy fast and strong enough to defend lightning-quick point guards like the Portland Trail Blazer‘s “mighty mouse” Damon Stoudamire or Sacramento’s ball-handling wizard Jason Williams. Fisher‘s vastly improved jump shot from beyond the three-point arc forced opponents to defend further out from the hoop, opening the inside to Bryant’s spinning drives and allowing Shaq to grab passes so close to the basket that nothing short of an anti-tank missile could keep him from scoring.

 

As the Lakers moved deeper into the playoffs, sweeping both the Trail Blazers and the Kings, Jackson shortened his rotation to seasoned veteranos like Rick Fox, Robert Horry, Brian Shaw and Horace Grant, leaving Madsen less and less playing time. But on the eve of the Western Division championship series with the San Antonio Spurs, Madsen knew that he could be called on at any second to go up against either Tim Duncan or David Robinson, the most powerful big-man tandem in the league. All he could do, he said, was to be prepared, physically and mentally, to “do his best” at maximum intensity.

When I was his age I probably would have hated Madsen, not only for his general unhipness and distinct lack of irony, but because I would have distrusted his narrow focus, his rigid discipline, and his puppy-dog eagerness to please. Early in the pre-season at the Laker‘s practice facility in El Segundo, the coaches were running full-court, intrasquad games. Jackson hadn’t started pruning the roster yet, and the competition was intense. Madsen was standing next to Jackson -- who wore Bermuda shorts and Birkenstocks at midcourt -- when one Laker hopeful broke loose on a fast break, slashing to the hoop as another player went airborne to challenge him. Colliding four feet in the air, they crashed to the court, then jumped up and hustled the other way. Unhesitatingly, Madsen sprinted to the wet spot where they‘d hit the floor, mopped it up with a towel and raced back to the coach’s table.

My freshman year at Princeton, spending all my time on New York‘s Lower East Side learning to be a poet while still trying to play basketball, I felt the same way about the star of our team, Bill Bradley, the son of a small-town Missouri bank president who used iron self-discipline and intelligence to build a great career in both the NBA and Washington. But I’m older now, and I can appreciate other virtues. Madsen has beautiful manners, for instance. He‘s incredibly nice to my 11-year-old son, remembering his name when they meet and asking after him when I show up alone. “We sometimes used to call him Senator Madsen,” joked his former Stanford teammate Jarron Collins. “He’d walk into a lecture hall and be on a first-name basis with everybody in the room.”

Madsen was born January 28, 1976 in Walnut Creek, California, the fifth of 10 siblings. He has four brothers and five sisters, most of them big, blond, cheerful, not terribly athletic, mega-achievers. One older brother just graduated from Columbia Medical School as an orthopedic surgeon. A sister, a former Miss Danville, California, could play Chopin‘s etudes in the seventh grade. His brother Paul, who at 15 wears size 17 football cleats, is growing up to be as big as Mark. After extolling the achievements of her children all the way from the Oakland airport to Danville, Madsen’s mother, Erlyn, swore fervently to me, “I believe that every child is equal in wonderfulness.”

Erlyn, or “Mother Madsen” as she occasionally refers to herself, is a force of nature: a certified ham radio operator, an accomplished photographer, a gardener, a seamstress, a classical violinist and an extremely hands-on mom who grew up in Long Beach. Her father, Bill Gould, was the CEO of Southern California Edison; there‘s an auditorium named for him at the University of Utah. Duane Madsen, Mark’s father, grew up poor in south Salt Lake City with a divorced mom. Quiet, polite, smolderingly intense, he put himself through Brigham Young University by working as a cook on geological expeditions in Alaska. Today he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to commute to Goldman Sachs in San Francisco.

The Madsen home is both palatial and plain, a kind of log mansion with calico curtains in the horsy, dun-colored hills east of Danville. There are beehives, a pond and a handsome wooden horse barn. The family‘s six acres bear plentiful witness to Duane and Erlyn’s belief in putting the children to work. One summer Mark and his brothers planted 500 fruit trees. They all worked for years on Erlyn‘s allegorical “Maze of Life,” a series of 11 garden enclosures created from 6-foot-high trellises overgrown with roses and more than 40 kinds of vines -- from a “toddler garden of happiness,” represented by a bramble of pink roses and flowering vines, to the final garden’s silverbells and golden roses “representing the happiness of later years” -- on about half an acre at the side of their house.

The Madsens are devout enough Mormons that most every night at the dinner table they read and discuss passages from the Bible or the Book of Mormon. “Choose you this dayWhom ye will serveAs for me and my houseWe will serve the Lord” reads a sampler on a wall in the guest bathroom, hanging above the towel rack across from a display case full of dolls in Mormon period costumes. Mark has never had a beer, or a cup of coffee; he hasn‘t uttered a swear word since he was in junior high. Bruce Erickson is a former bishop in the Madsen family’s “ward” (as the Mormons call a community of 400 or 500 people), as well as Mark‘s old Boy Scout troop leader. “People always ask me, ’Is Mark for real?‘ I a always tell them, when he was 12 he was the only kid in his Boy Scout troop who wasn’t embarrassed to wear his uniform to school.” “My kids are not what you would call ‘street-wise’ or ‘cutting edge,’” Duane pointed out needlessly one night as the women prepared supper.

 

Until he was about 10, Mark played the cello; then he switched to basketball. By the time he was 12, he was the biggest kid in the school. He was 6-foot-4 in the ninth grade and carried a basketball everywhere. Though Duane is only a church recreation-league player, he loved to take Mark and his big brother Michael outside to play on the full-length textured-surface glass-backboard basketball court he built for them. When he was 12, Mark pump-faked his dad into the air, then jumped into him, breaking two of Duane‘s ribs.

As a senior at Danville’s San Ramon Valley High, Madsen was student-body president, homecoming king, editor of the school paper, and, of course, star of the basketball team. But he was a long way from being California‘s hottest college basketball prospect, an honor going to Paul Pierce, now a Boston Celtics standout. Still, Madsen was second-team all-state, and received recruitment offers from nearly every college basketball program in the West. But as with every other Mormon teen, something else would have to come first -- the mission.

Though optional for females (one of Madsen’s sisters has done it), every young Mormon male is expected to spend two years spreading the gospel, and to pay for it himself. Madsen spent his first two years after high school going door to door in the villages of southern Spain. “In my early teenage years, I wanted to figure out what I believed in, in terms of my level of faith in the L.D.S. church,” Madsen remembered. “It wasn‘t between my parents and I, or me and the Mormon bishop. It was between me and God. I had to have my own faith if I was going to spend two years preaching my convictions.” In order to convert people, he took on learning Spanish the way he takes on everything else -- unconditionally.

Madsen returned from his mission fluent in Spanish and even more determined to play ball. “All he wanted to do was run, shoot and leap,” says Erlyn. “Now, everything was basketball.” He considered going to the University of Utah (but according to his mother was turned off by coach Rick Majerus’ swearing) and to UCLA. But he enrolled at Stanford, where coach Mike Montgomery was resuscitating a basketball program that, until his arrival in ‘89, hadn’t sent a team to the NCAA tournament since 1942. Madsen‘s Stanford teams made it to the NCAA tournament four years in a row, making it to the Final Four his sophomore year before falling to Kentucky 86-85 in overtime. Said Montgomery, “Mark took other teams’ best players and just negated them.”

Madsen finished as one of the Cardinal‘s all-time leaders in shot blocking and rebounds; and he was voted all Pac-10 his junior and senior years, but he averaged just 11 points a game, and the only all-America list he topped was the academic one. “I’ve always been a good player,” Madsen says. “I‘ve never been the best.” He won the Al Master’s award as Stanford‘s outstanding student-athlete. He was also a finalist for the coveted John Wooden Award as well as the Chip Hilton Award, given to a player who has demonstrated personal character on and off the court.

It’s hard enough winning one NBA championship. It‘s harder still building a dynasty like the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-- and Magic Johnson--centered “Showtime” Lakers of the 1980s, or the Michael Jordan--led, Phil Jackson--coached ’90s Chicago Bulls. Hardest of all is dismantling a championship team and assembling a new one without suffering through years in the cellar like the Bulls have endured since Jordan retired. Which is what Jerry West -- the raw-boned country boy from Cabin Creek, West Virginia, who became a 14-time NBA all-star, the highest-scoring player in Laker history, then one of the most successful sports executives of all time, and finally the silhouette on the NBA logo -- accomplished with the current Kobe- and Shaq-led Lakers.

 

Unfortunately, the more successful Jerry West became, the less he seemed to enjoy it. It became impossible for him even to watch the Lakers play, and by last year‘s Portland-L.A. Western Conference finals, he was reduced to driving up and down the 405 between L.A. and Ventura County during games, fielding occasional updates of the action via cell phone. When the season was over, West decided that for his own health and sanity it was time to step down, but not before doing his last draft.

In basketball, the power forward and the point guard are the equivalent of strength up the middle in baseball -- the fulcrum around which the game should flow. A power forward has to run the court, crash the boards, and force his man either to step back and take a lower-percentage shot further away from the basket or away from the baseline and into the middle which is hopefully clogged by even bigger, rangier centers. Only a few power forwards like the broad-backed, 260-pound Karl Malone, who at 38 still epitomizes the position, and Rasheed Wallace, the Portland Trail Blazers’ 6-foot-11 resident alien with the wild eyes and condorlike wingspan, are also expected to score. The Lakers, who already had the most dominant center in the game, and the future Michael Jordan at shooting guard, needed help on the boards.

In the NBA draft, the team with the best season record picks last. As one of the winningest franchises in the history of the NBA, the Lakers rarely get the opportunity to snag the finest athletes out of high school or the college ranks. “Jerry was very high on Mark,” says Mitch Kupchak, the Laker general manager and West‘s heir-apparent. The Lakers saw Madsen as a throwback to hell-for-leather Laker power forward Kurt Rambis -- now one of the team’s two assistant G.M.s (owner Jerry Buss‘ son, Jim, is the other) -- and to Kupchak himself, a tough North Carolina All-American who made the NBA all-rookie team before blowing out his knee. Rambis and Kupchak always made up for what they lacked in physical ability with hustle and desire.

Kupchak acknowledges there’ve been draft choices that precipitated deep disagreement among the Laker brass. The year West decided to draft Vlade Divac, for instance, West‘s deputies tried to keep him away from the phone. (West, it turned out, was correct. Divac evolved into one of the finest passing centers in the NBA, and gave the Lakers several good years before being traded to Charlotte in a move that led to the signing of Kobe Bryant.) When it began to appear that Madsen would still be available by the time the Lakers had a pick, “Jerry was ecstatic.” And no one tried to block West from the phone.

If, with Divac, West anticipated the growing flood of offshore talent into the NBA, might he also have seen the value of not just Madsen’s heart but his tongue as well? Just before the beginning of the season, the Lakers held their annual Media Day, during which some 200 journalists wandered from player to player, sticking microcassette recorders in their faces. Everybody, of course, wanted to interview Shaq, Kobe and Jackson. Most of the rookies just stood around cracking their knuckles, waiting for somebody to come up to them and talk, but Madsen had the Spanish-language media lining up for interviews. Every Spanish-language radio outlet in the basin asked Madsen to record a spot: “Hola, soy Mark Madsen, toda la informacion deportiva . . .”

It‘s 10 o’clock on a chilly autumn school night when Erlyn Madsen takes me by Mark‘s favorite playground basketball court, Central Park in San Ramon Valley’s Bollinger Canyon. Though the neighborhood is predominantly white, the kids running full court under the lights here are all African-American. Oakland, which has produced some of the most gifted NBA ballers, like Seattle‘s premier point guard Gary Payton and the Lakers’ luckless jump-shot artist Isaiah Rider, is less than 30 miles away. It is here, Madsen told me, that “you can really see into somebody‘s heart. Playground situations prepare you for basketball at the highest level.” This was where the big, awkward suburban white kid, a self-described “stiff,” got to measure himself against all comers. “People would drive from miles away to play here.” The mix was not always harmonious. After Madsen’s team had won too many basketball games, a friend received a death threat, and Duane and Erlyn forbade him from playing there again.

 

In NBA circles, as in most walks of American life, people generally try to duck questions about race and class. Peering down at me disapprovingly from his great height, Mitch Kupchak denied there was anything unusual about Madsen staying at the Bel Air home of Peter Bing, a Stanford trustee and a key financial backer of the Music Center, before he found his own apartment. Kupchak cited several NBA standouts raised in comfortable circumstances, including the Orlando Magic‘s perennial all-star Grant Hill, whose mother was a law-school classmate of Hillary Clinton’s. “You don‘t have to grow up in the inner city to be competitive,” he chided me, pointing out that Madsen “was a big-time college recruit,” but the Lakers’ number-one pick last year, guardforward Devean George, came from Augsburg College, a Minnesota Division III school. “That‘s a much bigger transition than Mark will ever go through.”

Others might disagree. Obviously, white players are a tiny minority in the NBA, but whites make up the vast majority of the league’s coaches, officials, owners and ticket holders. African-Americans and Mormons have had an especially rocky history. From the earliest days of the church, black people were portrayed as inferiors, acceptable as members but unfit to become priests. Early this season, power forward Horace Grant, a friendly, unassuming person off the court who keeps a framed picture of his mother in his locker and has read the Bible cover to cover three times over 13 well-traveled NBA seasons, challenged Madsen about the issue. Madsen told Grant that he didn‘t understand the church’s prior policy, but that the June day in 1978 when the Latter-day Saints‘ president, Spencer W. Kimball, announced that he’d received a revelation that black people could henceforth receive ordination, was a proud day for the church. Later, I asked Madsen if Grant had been convinced. “All I know is that we had a really good talk,” he said, “and that he was grateful that we talked about it.”

At 7-foot-1 and 330 pounds, Shaquille O‘Neal towers over the rest of the Laker squad the way Mt. Everest towers over the rest of the Himalayas. His voice is a chthonic whisper that seems to rumble out of the center of the Earth. His skin is a deep -- call it purple -- black, but O’Neal transcends race -- the human race. In his size 22 EEEE shoes, he‘s Superman. A Superman “S” is etched into the headlight glass of his lowered silver Mercedes sedan parked in the runway underneath Staples Center. An “S” is carved into the front door of his 6,500-square-foot house. A Superman insignia and “Man of Steel” are tattooed across his massive left arm. a

From day one Shaq seems to have taken Madsen under his wing. At an early team meeting, Shaq stood up and said he was really glad “Mad Dog” was on the team, because he wanted to have 12 wives just like him. I was talking to Madsen after practice one day when Shaq walked by and rumbled theatrically, “I already put out the word, anybody that fucks with ’Mad Dog‘ fucks with me.” Later, in the locker room, I asked Shaq why he seemed to go out of his way to befriend Madsen. “Because I tried to punk him and he wouldn’t punk,” Shaq thundered. Grinning, Madsen shouted from across the locker room, “You can punk me any time you want, Shaq!” Shaq‘s bodyguard snickered, and I found myself wondering if Madsen had any idea what he’d just said.

Shaq and “Mad Dog” would seem to confirm that opposites attract. Though he signed a three-year, $2.3 million contract, Madsen is extremely careful (his mother says “cheap”) about his money. He lives in a small apartment -- with IKEA furniture he put together himself -- near the Mormon Temple in West Los Angeles. Because Madsen didn‘t want to rely on his family and he had no credit history of his own -- the Mormon faith strongly discourages borrowing -- three Northern California car dealers turned him down for loans; so he arrived in L.A. still driving the used Toyota minivan his mother passed on to him when he went away to Stanford. He soon ran into Shaquille O’Neal‘s generosity.

Fresh from signing his own $90 million contract extension, Shaq bought $25,000 Rolexes for 25 players, coaches and staff, then took Madsen aside. “Mad Dog, Mad Dog,” he grumbled, “you can’t roll into Staples Center in a 1981 minivan.” Shaq introduced Madsen to his auto dealer and made sure he got “a great deal” on a blue Chevy Tahoe. Then he pointedly bought “Mad Dog” some $2,500 worth of clothes from Rochester Big & Tall, including a new, black X-X-X-L suit to replace the one Madsen bought at J.C. Penney before his freshman year at Stanford.

 

Shaq‘s generosity also extends to the locker room. After the Suns exhibition game, the rookie looked miserable, his new Roli strapped a little incongruously over his gray polo shirt. He had a slightly sprained wrist and a black eye from a Rodney Rogers elbow, but mainly he was mad at himself for making so many mistakes. “It’s just one game,” Shaq consoled him quietly. “Forget about it and move on.” Madsen was still disconsolate. “I made mental errors that cost us the game,” he groaned. Shaq tried to kid him out of it, suggesting he ought to do a line of Mark Madsen autograph protective glasses. “You gotta get some purple goggles like Rambis. We‘ll call ’em Mad Dogs -- ‘M.D.s by Fila.’” As he exited the room with his entourage, Shaq shot me a quick glance to make sure I was getting it down. “Shoo,” he said turning back to Madsen, “my game and your attitude . . .”

Madsen‘s attitude has already taken him farther in one direction than anyone might have imagined at the beginning of the season. Miguel Gonzalez, who covers basketball for La Opinion, says the rookie has become one of Latino L.A.’s best-known athletes, and favorite Lakers. “Besides Kobe and Shaq he‘s our go-to guy.” It’s a role Madsen is happy to fill. The day before Cinco de Mayo (and the series with Sacramento), Gonzalez took Madsen -- at “Mad Dog”‘s request -- to Olvera Street to buy a sombrero. “There must have been 3,000 people there! Can you imagine: Madsen, 6-foot-9, in his Laker sweats and a sombrero? People would come up to him, the last guy you’d look at and think could speak their language, and he‘d answer them in fluent Spanish! People were yelling ’Go get ‘em, Mark!’”

As it turned out, Madsen and the Lakers swept the Kings. And with Friday night‘s game, they return to Staples Center two victories deep into the Western Conference finals, having twice stunned the Spurs in San Antonio. Madsen saw limited action in both games, the only rookie on the court. Spelling Shaq in game one, he went up to challenge an Antonio Daniels lay-up with so much velocity that Daniels crumpled to the floor (and was too shook to knock down the resulting free throw). A minute later Madsen leapt high above the rim to block a shot but was called for goaltending. Most impressively, at the offensive end of the court, Kobe -- in the process of scoring 45 points -- actually passed the ball to Madsen, who resisted the rookie urge to force a shot and spun the ball out to Fisher.

In game two, Madsen came in briefly for Shaq and then for Robert Horry, holding Tim Duncan, the Spur’s 7‘ 1“ center with the moves of a shooting guard, to no points, while grabbing a nice defensive rebound and outletting it to start a Lakers run. When he wasn’t in the game, Madsen led the bench cheering squad, slapping everyone five and giving Kobe a bear hug as he came off the court after sinking a last-minute 3-point dagger.

Amazingly enough, the way the Lakers are playing, it looks as if the kid who was always good but never the best is going to get a championship ring his first year in the league. And on Monday, in a fitting coda to his rookie season, Madsen was named to the U.S. team for the Goodwill Games, joining rookie of the year Mike Miller, Wally Szczerbiak and Baron Davis, among others.

At the beginning of the year, I‘d asked him what he’d liked most about being a professional basketball player so far, and he was incredibly enthusiastic. ”In college I‘d never be able to focus so much on basketball. Here, you get to work out four to five hours a day.“ When I asked again on the eve of the playoffs, Madsen didn’t seem quite as certain. He talked about taking a course during the off-season, on philosophy or literature; he said he‘d been reading The Iliad. But he insisted that his enthusiasm for the basketball life hadn’t been quenched at all: ”I really feel like playing for the Lakers and coach Jackson, getting to know guys like Kobe and Shaq, has just been a huge privilege.“

Madsen reached into his cubicle and extracted an anthology of poetry from a mound of sweaty basketball gear, opening it to a poem that William Wordsworth published in 1807 called ”Character of the Happy Warrior.“ Madsen said it had been a gift from Tex Winter, who, after 54 years of coaching, knows a thing or two about motivating players. Madsen told me he‘d memorized it. I asked him if he’d recite his favorite lines for me, and he started to, then stopped, embarrassed to be spouting Wordsworth in the locker room, and handed me the book, pointing to the last lines of the poem.

 

‘Tis, finally, the Man, who, lifted high,

Conspicuous object in a Nation’s eye.

Or left unthought-of in obscurity, --

Who, with a toward or untoward lot,

Prosperous or adverse, to his wish or not --

Plays, in the many games of life, that one

Where what he most doth value must be won:

Whom neither shape or danger can dismay,

Nor thought of tender happiness betray;

Who, not content that former worth stand fast,

Looks forward, persevering to the last,

From well to better, daily self-surpast;

Who, whether praise of him must walk the earth

For ever, and to noble deeds give birth,

Or he must fall, to sleep without his fame,

And leave a dead unprofitable name --

Finds comfort in himself and in his cause;

And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws

His breath in confidence of Heaven‘s applause:

This is the happy Warrior, this is he

That every man in arms should wish to be.


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