Mike Jensen has captured Big 5 history and much more for more than 30 years.
By Cayden Steele
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Jensen entered the Palestra doors and walked straight to the court not long before the Philadelphia Big 5 awards commenced on a Monday night earlier this month.
Jensen spoke with former and current Big 5 basketball coaches and other prominent figures during a meet-and-greet portion of the night. Former Villanova head coach Jay Wright and La Salle’s Fran Dunphy both smiled warmly at Jensen during a short conversation.
Each Big 5 coach Jensen interacted with, including Penn’s Steve Donahue and St. Joseph’s assistant coach Justin Scott, was glad to see him.
Jensen’s knowledge of the Philadelphia hoops scene is vast and largely unparalleled. Over the course of 33 years with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jensen has become a trustworthy basketball reporter and columnist.
“You can capture it by capturing the details of it. That’s what I enjoy completely. I enjoy writing things in a notebook, circling the interesting parts, only looking at those circles and trying to turn that into a story,” Jensen said when describing his writing process. “Then, if you know you’ve got the material in your notebook, that frees you to write an interesting story. If there is nothing in your notebook, I am lost. It’s all about the reporting and then you can have some fun with the writing portion of it.”
Jensen’s undergrad experience at Vanderbilt did not match his original plan of attending law school. After becoming bored of political science classes, Jensen joined the Vanderbilt Hustler to cover rugby.
Jensen’s first experience covering a rugby game was memorable.
When the game ended, Jensen went over to interview Vanderbilt’s head coach Joe Franklin. During the interview, the players rolled out a keg and handed Jensen and Franklin some beers to drink.
That never happened again, but Jensen discovered his passion for covering sports.
He covered some great football players and coaches in the Southeastern Conference while at Vanderbilt, including Georgia running back Herschel Walker and Alabama head coach Bear Bryant. Jensen watched Auburn power forward Charles Barkley, Georgia small forward Dominique Wilkins, and Kentucky center Sam Bowie take the court for SEC basketball.
After graduating from college, Jensen worked at The New York Times from 1984-1987 as a sports clerk and then at the San Diego Union as a high school sports reporter from 1987-1988.
In 1988, he took a position at the Inquirer to cover high school sports in Delaware County.
“I still keep score the same way I did covering high school games when nobody was handing me score sheets,” Jensen said. “That’s the way I do (it), score right down the middle of the page. Who scored the basket? Little notes to myself. Cause really, I do it both to pay attention to what is going on in front of me, so I don’t start to drift mentally. Then also, I don’t have to try to figure out that was an 8-2 run or something like that. I can have the context when something interesting actually happens.”
Jensen covered Penn, Villanova, and Temple for a combined 25 seasons.
Everything came full circle for him when La Salle hired former Penn and Temple head coach Fran Dunphy on April 5. Since February, Jensen covered Villanova on a daily basis and returned from the NCAA Final Four when La Salle was conducting its coaching search.
Dunphy never told Jensen about his future plans regarding La Salle’s coaching position, and the program did not share information with Jensen either. So Jensen had to seek out information from outside sources and sometimes contacted 30 people a day to find out little details.
Jensen broke the story for the Inquirer because of his unique understanding of how to work with sources.
“You can’t bother everyone every day,” he said. “So like last Friday, I hadn’t bothered somebody for, like, the whole process. Then, I hit them up and said, ‘I haven’t bothered you through this whole process.’ This was not a person who worked at La Salle, but he knew some of the things going on and I said, ‘What can you tell me?’”
There is an attitude and skillset Jensen possesses that makes him successful at his job.
“He is a great human being, first of all. He is able to form relationships with people, whether they are his co-workers or his sources or anything like that,” Jensen’s Inquirer colleague Mike Sielski said. “He is a gem of a person. It starts there. He is as plugged in as anyone’s ever been to the Philadelphia basketball scene, particularly the college and high school levels. By having that reservoir of information and sources, he is able to write really well-informed columns and features and news stories. He is a five-tool player.”
Jensen’s down-to-earth nature is refreshing.
Sielski received Jensen’s advice on his story about Villanova men’s basketball assistant coach Dwayne Anderson, and Jensen told him to cut a part of the story out because it did not fit. Sielski agreed with Jensen, and the piece came out stronger because of Jensen’s recommendations, Sielski said.
Jensen received guidance from his colleagues when he first entered the business. Editor Bob Wright of the San Diego Union gave him a word of advice that stuck with him.
“Do the best you can in the time you got,” Wright told Jensen.
Jensen thought those words were important because journalism is, of course, a deadline business. He learned valuable lessons from other colleagues, including ESPN senior writer Wright Thompson and retired Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Bob Ford.
Jensen has, in turn, passed down the lessons he once was taught.
While heading to his daughter’s wedding in Wisconsin, Jensen received a text message from Philadelphia Inquirer intern and Temple student Bella DiAmore asking for help. Jensen took five minutes of his time to call her from the airport.
“One time I called him for a story idea and he was like, ‘Yeah, just give me five minutes,” DiAmore said. “I called him; he was in Wisconsin for his daughter. She was getting married, but he still went out of his way to take my call. That was one of those memories I had with him where he was just one of those guys that would go out of his way to help someone with anything to help them succeed.”
Jensen helped another Temple student and Philadelphia Inquirer intern, Sam Cohn, who covers Temple athletics with DiAmore. He worked with Jensen during the Temple football coaching search in November. They narrowed the two candidates down to Fran Brown and Stan Drayton. Cohn heard from a source that Brown did not receive the job, and they concluded Drayton was probably going to be hired unless some other candidate joined the mix.
Cohn and Jensen worked together and called almost every hotel in Philadelphia to see if Temple’s new head coach Stan Drayton was staying there. They divided the hotels in alphabetical order and split up the work.
“That was the moment where I was in that week-long span of covering a coaching hire like that so closely with Mike,” Cohn said. It was really cool because I got the backside of how the sausage is made, almost of his process and how he goes about things.”
Jensen’s creative writing style and knowledge of Philadelphia’s basketball climate sparked an idea. He created a year-long series of stories about the Philadelphia hoops scene. In 2017, he wrote two or three stories per week about different college programs and AAU programs, among other topics.
Jensen and a camera man flew across the Atlantic Ocean to pursue one of these stories.
Jensen arrived in Iceland to cover former La Salle point guard Tyrone Garland, who is known for his “Southwest Philly Floater,” a game-winning shot against Ole Miss in 2013’s NCAA Tournament.
Jensen’s 34-year anniversary at the Philadelphia Inquirer is coming up, and he is opened-minded about the next stories he will cover.
“I wouldn’t have ever guessed the things that I covered, so I never try to say I want to do this,” Jensen said. “I just never did. The truth is I want to find interesting stories and they never run out. The world of Philadelphia sports and basketball, you never run out, so it’s as simple as that.”