Utah Valley University men’s basketball coach Mark Madsen has been called a variety of names: Mad Dog. Elder Madsen. Rookie. Coach Mark. And, most recently, Dad.
Then last year, his former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal added another moniker to the long list: “The purest guy in the NBA.”
It wasn’t a title Madsen asked for — but it revealed the depth of respect that one of sport’s most visible figures had for the affable Latter-day Saint.
When the Church News caught up with Madsen, the second-year UVU coach was preparing the Wolverines for a Wednesday, Nov. 25, game at Stanford University, his alma mater.
For four years, Madsen proudly wore the Stanford jersey, helping lead the Cardinal to several “dances” in the NCAA tournament — including a Final Four berth in 1998.
Now he was counting down the days to UVU’s 2020-2021 season opener at Stanford’s Maples Pavillion. The coach joked that he would have to be directed to the visitor’s locker room.
Alas, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced a cancelation of the game a day before tip-off.
It’s hoped that Utah Valley-Stanford will eventually be rescheduled. The game would surely claim a prominent spot on the lengthy list of defining memories for this missionary-turned-NBA vet-turned-D1 coach.
Along with fellow Latter-day Saint college head basketball coach, BYU’s Mark Pope, Madsen is hoping the 2020-2021 season is replete with memories not defined by an ongoing pandemic. Still, COVID-19 has obviously left its mark on the Wolverines.
Despite his years of coaching at basketball’s highest levels, the 44-year-old admits leading a team during a global health crisis marks unchartered territory.
COVID-19 “has been a big challenge,” he said. “We’ve had four or five quarantines and had seven or eight of our players test positive for COVID over the last four months. We’ve had guys in and out of the lineup and we have had to totally shut down at times. … I actually tested positive, as well.”
Still, the Wolverines have hung in there, relying on Zoom meetings and modified practices as circumstances allowed.
“All these things have totally changed the way that we plan our practices. But it’s been done out of our desire to create a safe environment,” he said.
Mission memories — treasured teammates
Madsen learned lessons in patience and flexibility early in his basketball career.
After developing into a stand-out big man at Danville, California’s San Ramon Valley High School, Madsen answered a mission call to Spain before playing a minute of college ball.
It wasn’t a tough choice.
“I had known I wanted to serve a full-time mission from the time that I was 14 or 15 years old,” he said.
While Spain is primarily a soccer nation, it also boasts a strong basketball tradition. Elder Madsen often found P-day playing opportunities to keep the rust off his game. He remembers once playing a spirited game of one-on-one against a talented local player.
The young missionary was in a suit and tie at the time. No matter.
“I took my shoes off, and we played a game,” he said. “It was an intense game. By the time it was over, I was dripping with sweat.”
Just a few weeks ago, that impromptu Spanish opponent unexpectedly reconnected with Madsen via Instagram.
“I wasn’t in Spain to play basketball, I was there to be a missionary.”
Still, he’s grateful his court skills presented opportunities to share testimonies and the Book of Mormon. “I’m so grateful for those two years in Spain. I loved my time as a missionary — and I loved the Spanish people and their culture.”
With his full-time mission complete, Madsen set aside his name tag and again laced up his basketball sneakers. But he never quit being a missionary. His all-out hustle play justified his “Mad Dog” nickname on the court. But it was his gospel convictions that defined him in the locker rooms and training tables at Stanford and later with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
His unexpected, Castilian-accented Spanish he learned as a young elder was also a curiosity.
“I would often ask teammates about their lives, and their families and their faith — and they would ask me about where I was from, and my family and my faith. … I think it’s important to figure out what your values are, and then stick to them.
“And when you stumble, learn from it and pick yourself up.”
Madsen’s unique friendship with Laker teammate Shaquille O’Neal was highlighted last year when the legendary giant told an interviewer that his returned missionary friend was “the purest NBA guy I’ve ever met.”
Shaq said he went out of his way to prevent anyone from putting Madsen in an uncomfortable situation.
“I was the one who said, ‘Nah. Mark ain’t doin’ that’,” O’Neal said in the widely viewed interview. “Mark is not doing that at all. Stay away from him, don’t invite him out, don’t bring certain people around him. Don’t do any of that, ’Cause he told me, ‘Shaq I don’t do that. I don’t do any of that.’ It was awesome to hear. I had never heard anything like that before.”
For Madsen, Shaq’s interview prompted great memories of his larger-than-life teammate.
“Shaq really took me under his wing,’ he said. “He helped me as a rookie, on and off the court. And he really embraced my family members; he took an interest in every single one.”
One of Madsen’s favorite and, yes, surreal memories from his Laker years is picking up his step-grandmother and visiting Shaq in his palatial Mulholland Heights home.
Anticipating future memories
Shaq was not the only person looking out for Mark Madsen.
Several years ago, his mother, Erlyn Madsen, hired a local pianist named Hannah Harkness to play at a gathering she was hosting at their Utah home.
“My mom started talking to Hannah and, at some point, asked ‘So, are you single?’”
And with that, the matchmaking began. Mark was an assistant coach with the Lakers at the time, but soon he and Hannah were speaking frequently and developing a long-distance friendship.
Mama Madsen’s instincts proved spot on. Mark and Hannah began dating before eventually marrying in the Salt Lake Temple.
Now parents of a son named William, the Madsens belong to the Riverwoods Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont North Stake, where Mark teaches a youth Sunday School class.
Despite the ongoing pandemic challenges, Coach Madsen is thrilled to be entering his second year at the helm of the UVU Wolverines. He appreciates the school’s emerging basketball tradition. And he marvels at the still untapped potential found at Utah’s largest university.
“It’s been a great fit, and I’m grateful for this opportunity,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a fantastic season.”