Monday, January 12, 2009

An appreciation: Mark "Mad Dog" Madsen

As I write this, the Minnesota Timberwolves are on a five-game winning streak, the longest in the NBA. Granted, they’ve had and extraordinarily weak schedule lately, and the wins have been against sub-par teams like Memphis, Oklahoma City and Chicago, but it’s still nice to be the best of the worst. It’s been fun watching the fellas get a little bit of validation, but I suspect the balloon will start deflating when Miami hits the Target Center on Tuesday.

I’m a thick-and-thin type of sports fan. I love my teams when they’re winning, but I almost love them more when they’re losing. There’s something endearing about a squad that’s pretty much doomed from the get-go, but still goes out every night and does its damnedest to stay above water. Maybe it’s the humanizing effect – we’re taught to revere professional athletes as god-men who make unfathomable amounts of money for doing something most of us would give our eyeteeth to do just once, so it does us good to take a peek at their feet of clay.

Following a team like the Timberwolves shows us that even these guys probably have a lot of nights when they dread showing up for work. Playing to a half-empty arena populated by silent, disinterested fans likely makes the guys feel underappreciated, undervalued and stuck in a dead-end job. I know I feel like I’m wasting the best years of my life with each hour I spend in my cubicle, but at least I’ve got many years ahead of me to adapt and make career changes. With the average NBA career lasting just under four years, how disheartening must it be to know you’re burning through at least one of them on a team bound for nowhere? I know it’s tough to feel too sorry for the rich and famous, but it sucks for anyone to feel lost and adrift within his chosen occupation.

That’s why I like Mark Madsen. A role player even in his college days at Stanford, Mad Dog was drafted into the NBA as basically a spare big man on a 2000 Lakers team overstuffed with talent. Over the course of his nine-year pro career, nobody has ever expected much more from Madsen than a handful of rebounds and maybe a blocked shot every few games. That’s not to say he’s never contributed – he played decent minutes off the bench for two Lakers championship teams and the 2003-04 Wolves squad that knocked on the door of the NBA finals – but it’s safe to say that Mad Dog’s impact on the league has been negligible. Now, at what is presumably the tail end of his career, he is firmly entrenched on Kevin McHale’s bench, barely an afterthought on a team full of them.

But none of that seems to get the Mad Dog down. Season after season, he’s the first guy off the bench to high-five his teammates during breaks in play. He’s the guy who stands up and hollers at the officials when the Wolves have been done wrong. He’s the dude waving his arms, pumping his fists and generally generating more energy than the mascot and cheerleaders combined. He hardly ever sees the court these days – he’s gotten into exactly two games in the past month, including nearly seven minutes of action in last week’s 42-point rout of the Thunder – but that doesn’t diminish his demonstrative enthusiasm one bit.

Madsen is what sportswriters frequently call a “fan favorite,” which is generally shorthand for “borderline inept player who generates a lot of ironic cheering.” The crowd loves it when Mad Dog gets into the game. The stands go wild whenever he grabs a rebound or scores a basket, and even wilder should he brick a layup or go flailing to the hardwood. He ensures that Brian Cardinal is, for the first time in his career, not the whitest guy on the roster, and the fans' support is laced with more than a trace amount of mockery.

That’s not a pleasant role to find oneself in, as I can attest from personal experience. The summer after seventh grade, I attended my first sleep-away basketball camp at Bethel University, a small Bible college in Saint Paul. I was a pretty ridiculous kid at that time: tall, pale, skinny as hell and sporting an inexplicable hairstyle best described as an ultra-mullet. I lived for basketball, but my unorthodox appearance, unsophisticated background (I was one of the few kids not from the Twin Cities metro area) and uncoordinated lurching around the court made me an instant object of fun for the other campers. By the end of the week, they’d taken to chanting my name rhythmically every time I entered a room. Under other circumstances, I’d have felt good about being the best-known kid in camp, but as it was I prayed feverishly every night for an injury that would send me home early.

And that’s another piece of the Mad Dog appeal: he’s an everyman amongst supermen. It’s often said that Ron Jeremy’s long and fruitful career in porn is due to his off-putting appearance. Guys watching at home can’t really connect with most of the chiseled hardbodies of the porn world, but they view the scuzzy little fat guy as a surrogate, an ugly low-life who can effortlessly bag an endless array of exotic skanks. Likewise, most Timberwolves fans know they’d never be able to execute a perfect low-post drop step like Al Jefferson or throw down a breakaway dunk like Rodney Carney, but they could picture themselves doing Madsen work like grabbing a rebound in garbage time or burning off a couple of fouls to protect the starters.

Mad Dog’s the kind of guy who keeps the dream in reach, and he does it with an optimistic verve that’s undeniably infectious. It’s always a pleasure to see someone take joy in his work, especially if that work is less than joyful. He’s the living embodiment of the NBA’s best slogan of the past decade, “I Love This Game.” Mark Madsen clearly does, and when you watch him bouncing around the bench, it’s hard not to feel the same.

- Ira Brooker

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