Posted Mar 9 2012 12:33PM
Jay Jensen has been healthy enough for each of the Portland Trail Blazers games this season. Same as last season, and the season before that and the season before that. Fact is, Jensen is in his 17th season with Portland and is one of his profession's veritable iron men, spending the five seasons before that with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Jensen is the Trail Blazers' trainer, which lays a coat of cruel irony over his longevity. A fellow who has logged more games in the NBA than Robert Parish or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is most widely known for all the games that players in his immediate care cannot log. Notice we didn't say "best known" -- those who know Jensen best don't pigeonhole him like that. They see the work he puts in, the hours he devotes and the frustrations that have helped to line his face since he broke into the league after two years at USC and five as an assistant trainer with the Los Angeles Rams.
There was irony, too, in Jensen's role as the All-Star trainer for the Western Conference squad down in Orlando recently. To some smart-aleck observers, that might have smacked of stocking the West bench with New Orleans Hornets, the East with Bobcats. Again, that's outside-looking in: Jensen's turn came up in the rotation system the NBA uses to choose trainers for the "road" team at All-Star weekend; the host city has its medical staff in place for the "home" team each year.
So it wasn't strictly meritorious -- other than the fact that Jensen is one of the league's longest-serving trainers, is respected by his peers, continues to be valued and employed by his bosses in Blazers management and has a list of satisfied, trusting current and former players as long as Greg Oden's inseam. Or medical chart.
There it is, another wisecrack. Jensen has heard plenty -- and worse. The anger and anxiety that Portland fans have felt through too many years of injuries, setbacks and even premature retirements have been focused at times on Jensen -- whose official title is Director, Medical Services -- as well as head trainer Geoff Clark, strength coach Bob Medina and team physicians Dr. Tom Reis and Dr. Don Roberts. If they thought long enough about it, folks might grumble about team dentist Dr. Greg Goodlin, too.
Legends of pro basketball's hospital ward such as Bill Walton and Sam Bowie happened on other Portand trainers' watches -- there have been only four in the team's 42 seasons -- but all of the big names lately have been on Jensen's.
There's Brandon Roy, the three-time All-Star shooting guard and team leader whose degenerative knees forced him to limp away entirely in December; it was his medically advised best chance to still be walking, period, in middle age and beyond. And Joel Przybilla, the oft-injured big man from Minnesota who played just 66 of 164 games in 2009-10 and 2010-11 before attempting a creaky comeback this winter at age 32.
Marcus Camby, former Blazer Travis Outlaw and others have kept the "No Vacancy" neon burning in Jensen's trainers room. Heck, even Portland coach Nate McMillan hobbled around on a ruptured Achilles tendon a couple years ago. But no one has come close to dominating Jensen's caseload like Oden, the Wilt Chamberlain of injured NBA players.
Forget his jersey number, the 7-foot center ought to have big red crosses on his chest and back for all the time he has spent under the surgeon's knife, laboring through grueling rehab or working through his physical and psychological challenges in consultation with Jensen. After three microfracture surgeries on his gimpy knees -- he underwent the second, severe procedure on his left knee last month, putting it one up on his right -- Oden's pre-empted career is very much in doubt. And some of the pain and suffering that shows up as scars on the big man's balky joints gets plowed inward by Jensen, who by now is way more than a co-worker or a caregiver.
"It's hard. It's hard, no question," Jensen said during a quiet moment in Orlando, his throat seeming to tighten. "Because you care about 'em so much as people. They're out of the basketball side of things and that's what they love to do, they love to play the game. It's really difficult to watch them and deal with them on a regular basis, every day, nights. Forget the practices -- you're at their doctors' appointments with them, you're at their surgeries with them."
He doesn't sit in waiting rooms, though -- he asks to watch and learn from each procedure.
"It's disappointing not because of the franchise so much, but just because it's Greg," he said. "We've been through so much with Greg, he's part of our family. And we want to see him succeed -- forget about Portland, we want to see him succeed.
"I can't think of any NBA player in history who's been through more than this kid. And yet, he's a strong individual. A strong kid. For him to keep going through what he's going through, you wonder, 'How in the world can he do it?' But he's a fighter. I still hope for good things for Greg."
Oden has not lost faith in Jensen, nor have the Blazers. Chad Buchanan, the team's acting general manager, and president Larry Miller still consider Portland's staff to be one of the best in pro sports. That might not satisfy fans who want to place blame, who want something -- anything -- to be done in response to the litany of hard luck. Jensen hears the critics, on those occasions when they shout a little louder than the doubts he's already hearing from within.
"I think all of us -- our doctors who deal with them, the coaches, myself -- we all go through that," he said. " 'Is there something else we could have been doing? Something we should have done but didn't do?' Yeah, of course. That's a normal response.
"But we have done and we'll continue to do everything we can. Egos aside, it's about doing what's best for Greg, Brandon, whomever. If you need to get them to a particular doctor across the country, whatever's needed, you do it. Because you want them to get healthy. It's not something where you think, 'I'm not going to let anyone else do this.' So we listen to what other people go through. Kobe [Bryant, Lakers star] has gone through some [knee] stuff. So we talked to him and talked to the doctor that dealt with him. But yeah, we'll try anything."
Jensen has been healthy, healthy enough to work all those games for Portland. But some aches and pains aren't as visible. Some suffering comes without a limp in the Pacific Northwest.
"It's an up and down thing," he said. "You get emotional about it, because you care about 'em and you put so much time and effort into 'em. They're just like your kids -- you want them to succeed. And when they don't, it hurts."
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