Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan referred to him as his “right-hand man.”
General manager Kevin Pritchard called him the “greatest man in show business.”
And Blazers such as Greg Oden, Travis Outlaw and Jerryd Bayless hold him in the highest of regards.
Which talented, big-name, Rip City superstar is the recipient of such lofty praise?
Owner Paul Allen? President Larry Miller? All-Star guard Brandon Roy?
To all of the above: No.
It is Jay Jensen, head athletic trainer for the Blazers.
During a surreal season in which injuries have rivaled victories and setbacks have sometimes trumped progress, Jensen has been at the center of the storm.
“It breaks your heart,” Jensen said.
And he has witnessed all the heartbreak.
When Oden fractured his left patella and crashed hard against the Rose Garden floor in pain, Jensen was there. When center Joel Przybilla followed up Oden’s pain with more of his own, Jensen was there. And when everyone from Outlaw and Bayless to Roy, Steve Blake and LaMarcus Aldridge have added their names to a list that has seen the Blazers rack up 242 games missed due to injury, Jensen has been there.
McMillan said Jensen is irreplaceable. Spot on with his observations. Heartfelt and caring in his approach. But also tough and unbending as steel when he has to make a call.
“He and I talk more than anybody,” McMillan said. “Because he’s letting me know where the players are. How they feel. Who can go, who can’t. Our travel plans — he arranges all of that.”
Moreover, Jensen blurs the lines between trainer and best friend. His attention to detail and intricate medical and psychological observations are uncanny, McMillan said. But what makes Jensen special is that he goes the extra mile. Where most trainers would wait in the hallway while a player is being cut open on the operating table, Jensen insists on being in the room and watching the procedure up close.
McMillan referred to the Blazers’ injuries this season as “freak accidents.” And it is Jensen who has provided Portland’s coach with an open window into the hearts and minds of his players as he waits for reinforcements to arrive.
“It’s almost like a doctor-patient (relationship),” said McMillan, who has balanced a ruptured Achilles tendon with coaching duties. “He loves (them). These are his guys. And it’s like your kids. We all our his kids. And he wants us to be healthy. He does everything possibly known to try and keep us healthy.”
Jensen has served 20 seasons in the NBA and is in his 16th year with the Blazers.
In contrast, McMillan is in the middle of his fifth season with Portland.
Jensen has applied tape, stopped bleeding wounds and propped up bruised egos while P.J. Carlesimo, Mike Dunleavy, Maurice Cheeks, Pritchard and McMillan have all coached the black and red. And Jensen said it has taken time to build an open, honest relationship with McMillan — one that has evolved into something special and lasting.
“To be quite honest with you, although I work for the Trail Blazers, I work for the coach, too,” Jensen said. “And I kind of carry out whatever it is that he wants to have done. I make Nate aware of everything that’s happened that he needs to be aware of, in order to make him a better coach and make him successful.”
The diverse list of Jensen’s duties include flight, practice and meeting times, as well as varying schedules for shootarounds and rest.
“We talk everyday,” Jensen said. “And I give Nate an unbiased opinion. If he asks me for it, I’ll tell him what I think.”
Aided by assistant athletic trainer Geoff Clark, Jensen has guided eight different players back to the active roster this season: Roy, Blake, Aldridge, Bayless, Nicolas Batum, Jeff Pendergraph, Rudy Fernandez and Patty Mills. Oden and Przybilla are out for the year, while Outlaw is expected to return after the All-Star break.
“I probably talk to Jay 15 times a day,” Pritchard said. “And he’s a phenomenal communicator, because he has to (be). … But that’s not what makes Jay special. All that’s good stuff. But what makes Jay special is, in his core, in his heart, he truly cares for everybody.”
While injuries and inactivity have long been part of Jensen’s world, he acknowledged that this season has been unlike any other he has ever seen.
There has been an emotional toll, as well as a psychological one. And while the support of his family and the Blazers has never wavered, the unshakable Jensen has ridden front seat in an unyielding rollercoaster since training camp.
“Nobody understands what those guys go through,” Jensen said. “Even though you’re around them everyday, you don’t understand the pressures they’re put under.”
Nowhere is Jensen’s tight, familial relationship with the Blazers clearer than in his bond with Oden.
Oden will have lost two full seasons to injury once 2009-10 draws to a close. And Jensen has been on the scene the entire time.
“Jay is a great guy,” Oden said. “He has a lot on his plate, but he handles it well. And he makes sure all of us are all taken care of.”
However, the always on-call lifestyle at the core of Jensen’s job transfers from the professional to the personal.
While an embarrassed Oden manned up and apologized Jan. 26 for private, nude pictures of himself that were posted on the Internet, Jensen stood in the shadows, pacing back and forth and watching from afar. And as soon as Oden’s media session at the Blazers’ practice facility in Tualatin, Ore., drew to a close, it was Jensen who Oden walked straight toward.
“We all mistakes. They’re not perfect, and we’re not perfect,” Jensen said. “And there’s only one perfect man to my knowledge that’s ever been on the face of this earth.”
He added: “(That) doesn’t affect one little bit how I feel about Greg Oden. He’s welcome in my house with my family anytime he wants. And I love the kid.”