Michael Malone called to coaching, and quick to accept
BY CHRISTOPHER DEMPSEY, DENVER POST
For two young girls still learning how the world turns, the morning of Dec. 15, 2014, seemed like the end of it.
Through tears, they tried to comprehend what their father, Michael Malone, had just told them. He had been fired from his job as head coach of the Sacramento Kings. With less than two years in town, it had seemed like the Malone family was just settling in.
But, yes, this was happening. And it was still a school day. Because, in fact, the world does keep turning.
“It’s tough,” Malone said. “People don’t see that side.”
Malone is sitting on a couch in an auxiliary room at the Pepsi Center, the last stop on an hours-long whirlwind media cram session. He has met with every medium, from Internet to television to print, as he explained who he is and why this, his newest stop as head coach of the Nuggets, is hopefully his last.
“I’m just an average guy,” he says. “I drive a pickup truck, I like to have fun, I work hard. I’m all about being the best husband and father I can be.”
That’s the short version.
Had one phone call not been made way back in 1995, Malone wouldn’t have been on that Pepsi Center couch. He wouldn’t have been in Sacramento before that. Or with Golden State and New Orleans before that. It can be said with Robin Hood-like accuracy that former college coach Pete Gillen changed the course of Malone’s life. Or, maybe more to the point, breathed real life into the direction Malone hoped his life would lead.
Otherwise, he may have followed a number of his family members into law enforcement.
“I had a buddy who was in the Secret Service who said, ‘Hey, listen, apply to the Secret Service and see how it goes,’ ” Malone said. “I have a lot of law enforcement experience in the family — grandfather was a cop, uncles and cousins were cops back in New York. So, I said I always had interest in that.”
Malone’s schedule right out of college is what nearly pushed him away from coaching. He was a volunteer assistant at Oakland University in Michigan. At the same time, he was working at a local Foot Locker. At the same time, he was cleaning office buildings from midnight to 4 a.m.
He was living at his parents’ house.
“After probably four or five months of that, I said to myself: ‘What am I doing? This isn’t what I planned,’ ” Malone said. “I did not want to feel like a ship at sea with no direction.”
So he filled out the Secret Service application and turned it in. He was not chosen. A friend, however, had a near fool-proof Plan B.
“My contact said, ‘Listen, become a state trooper in Michigan for two years. You get those two years of law enforcement experience, you’ll be able to get in no problem.’ So I was going to go through the physical, the written exam. I had made my decision.”
And then, the phone call.
Gillen was a friend of the Malone family. Then the coach at Providence, he was close with Malone’s father, Brendan. Phone calls from Gillen to the elder Malone were a common occurrence. That’s why this particular call didn’t come attached with any instant feelings that a huge break was on the horizon.
And yet it was.
A year earlier, in 1994, after he graduated from Loyola University in Baltimore, Michael Malone sent about 75 letters to Division I coaches hoping to get a gig. None had one available. Some wrote back — including Gillen, who promised to be in touch if he ever did have an opening.
This was the call.
“I thought the call was for me,” Brendan said. “But it was for Michael. (Gillen) was going to offer him a job as an assistant at Providence College.”
The grin must have stayed on Michael Malone’s face for days.
“Like Yogi Berra says,” Malone said, “You come to a fork in the road, pick it up.”
“I went to Providence College, met my wife there and just worked my way up from there,” he said. “It’s funny how life works.”
“Home was a gym”
For as long as he can remember, Malone has adored the gym. Tagging along with his father, a coaching lifer who worked on every level, including with the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons, basketball was life.
“I grew up in a gym. I was always around the game at an early age,” Malone said. “So it’s like everything, you’re a product of your environment. So, for me home was a gym, home was a basketball. Being able to see my father coach and work his way up … seeing that I related to that, I identified with that. I had that passion.”
Knowing the sometimes cruel nature of the sport, his father tried to dissuade him for going the same route.
“I steered him away from coaching because it’s a very insecure profession,” said Brendan, who enters his 29th year of coaching as part of Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons coaching staff this fall. “I’ve been lucky, I’ve survived. But a lot of good coaches weren’t as fortunate as I.”
But you can’t help what you love.
Michael had eyes for basketball. But of most importance to his dad, Michael had a passion for the sport. He was a good midmajor basketball player, but he knew coaching was his future.
“When I stopped playing I still wanted to be around it,” Malone said. “The game was that important to me.”
And that, eventually, has led to this.
“He’s a totally dedicated and passionate coach,” Brendan said. “His team will be super prepared. He’s intelligent, he’s hardworking, he knows the game, he knows how to communicate in a concise, intelligent way and he’s prepared.”
Coach, GM go way back
When the Nuggets’ search for a head coach got off the ground in May, the easiest decision general manager Tim Connelly made was to pick up the phone and call an old friend.
The Connelly-Malone relationship spans the better part of two decades. On the night Malone was formally introduced to the Denver media, Connelly and his new head coach shared a lighthearted moment.
“We joked that it’s pretty amazing that we’re working together in this capacity,” Connelly said.
Even when they didn’t know each other, they were close. Loyola University “is just a few blocks from where I grew up,” Connelly said. The NBA brought them closer. They worked together in New Orleans.
“I know Mike,” Connelly said. “I know how good he is. I know what he’s like as a person.”
“You meet so many people in this business and you relate to different people,” Malone said. “Timmy and I have always related to each other and had a good relationship. What really helped was when we spent time (together) in New Orleans.
“The first time he called me (about the Nuggets job) I told him, ‘The No. 1 most exciting thing about your job in Denver as the head coach is Tim Connelly.’ Because I knew him, and I know him. It’s neat to work with a guy that you know and have history with. That is a good thing.”