NBA • Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey says new assistant coach hired on merits, not because of Utah ties.
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When Utah Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin reached out to Alex Jensen about joining his staff, a number of qualities drew him to the D-League Coach of the Year and, likewise, Jensen to Corbin.
That Jensen was a Centerville native and played a starring role on the University of Utah team that advanced to the 1998 NCAA championship game was low on Corbin's list. Presumably, too, was this side benefit to five years playing professionally in Turkey: a unique ability to communicate with Jazz center Enes Kanter.
"I've already sworn at him [in Turkish]," Jensen said, his permanent half-smile twisting into a full one. "Those are the first words you learn."
Before being hired earlier this summer as a Jazz player development assistant, Jensen spent two years as the head coach of the Canton Charge and four years before that on Rick Majerus' staff at Saint Louis University. His arrival completed the shuffle that began when assistant coach Jeff Hornacek left for the top job with the Phoenix Suns. Jensen, 37, will share player development duties with another Ute, second-year staffer Johnnie Bryant. He said he has already worked with about half of the roster, including in Santa Barbara, Calif., and in workouts between Derrick Favors and Karl Malone.
Jensen grew up in Centerville and recalls then-Jazz player Marc Iavaroni coming to his school. He played Junior Jazz basketball and, later, pickup games against Adam Keefe and Bryon Russell.
Still, Jensen said coming home "had nothing to do with" his decision to join the Jazz staff, even though he returned each year to a home he owns in Bountiful.
Now that he's back here full time, "it feels a lot better writing the mortgage check every month," Jensen said.
Hiring Jensen was Corbin's call, but the coach is in Johannesburg, South Africa, this week for a Basketball Without Borders camp and was unavailable to comment. General manager Dennis Lindsey, however, also has a long-standing relationship with Jensen, dating back to two summers the former Ute spent on the Houston Rockets summer league team, when Lindsey worked in Houston's front office. A much-beloved local guy on the bench? Not a priority, said Lindsey.
"I can understand why it would be a story and why it would be a question," he said, "because it's hometown kid done well. But I think Ty first looked at the coaching acumen and the background and how he adds to our staff. It's clearly an ancillary benefit but it's not one that ... was at the top of the list."
The funny thing is, Jensen never really planned to become a coach.
Jensen played through 2007 in Turkey, and intended to continue his career. Asked what led him to give it up for coaching, Jensen said, "Him."
That would be Majerus, the legendary and infamously demanding coach, who returned to coaching with Saint Louis that same year and in the process of completing his staff turned to one of his favorite players.
"There is not a better person to learn the game of basketball from," Jensen said of Majerus, who died last year. "The best thing I could do was tell the players, 'You think he is bad now in his 60s, imagine when he was in his 40s.' "
Jensen almost returned to Utah once before, in 2011 before he took the job with the Charge. He spent several days interviewing with new Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak about an assistant position.
"I thought it made sense to me, too," he said, "but I decided to stay."
Jensen could have made the same decision this summer. He had engaged in preliminary conversations with Mike Brown, who coaches the Charge's parent organization, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he said he had no qualms about returning to the D-League.
But he was drawn to Corbin, praising the coach who is entering his third full year.
"I didn't tell him this, but I remember him," Jensen said. "I watched the player he was. And usually the way you coach reflects how you played."
The endorsement was mirrored in Lindsey's assessment of Jensen, which began when Rockets coaches evaluated the former Mountain West Conference Player of the Year as unselfish, efficient and a good teammate.
Alex Jensen file
O Jazz player development assistant Age • 37. Hometown • Centerville
High school • Viewmont
As a player • A member of the University of Utah's 1,000-point club, Jensen averaged 9.6 points in four seasons (1994-95, 1997-2000) with the Utes. ... Helped Utah to 1998 NCAA champions game. ... Played professionally in CBA, Turkey and Japan before retiring in 2007.
As a coach • Joined Rick Majerus's staff at St. Louis in 2007 before leaving for the D-League in 2011. ... Led Canton Charge for two seasons, including 30 wins last season ... Coached NBA D-League Select Team at NBA Summer League, going 4-1 and reaching the tournament's quarterfinals.