How Michael Malone, from Foot Locker to Denver to All-Star stage, let self-belief guide his path

by Nick Kosmider 

Monty Williams wants to help explain how Michael Malone got here.

He wants to illustrate how his former lead assistant landed a gig coaching the NBA’s All-Star Game this Sunday. He wants to articulate why he thinks Malone has guided one of the youngest rosters in the league to the upper echelon of the Western Conference. Williams wants to paint a picture of the journey Malone has taken through what can be a thankless profession.

But first, Williams says, you need a quick lesson in the geography of New Orleans.

In 2010, Williams was in his first season as an NBA head coach and Malone had joined his staff after five years as Mike Brown’s assistant in Cleveland, where Malone had crafted a strong bond with the man whose team he’ll coach Sunday, LeBron James. Williams was at home one night that season at about 8 o’clock, watching TV and film at the same time, “just kind of taking a break from locking in,” he said.

The phone rang and Malone was on the other line. The assistant coach had the scouting report ready for the next night’s game.

“Mike was like, ‘Coach, I just want to see if you want me to email this report or bring it by your house,’” Williams recalled. “When he said that, I was like, ‘Bring it by my house?!’

“To get the story, you have to know the proximity of all the places where we worked, where Mike lived and where I lived. Our practice site was at the Alario (Center), which is about 20 minutes south of the city of New Orleans (in Westwego). It’s across the bridge on the West Bank. I lived in the midpoint, basically, by downtown. Mike lived 30 miles on the other side of (Lake Ponchartrain). So Mike had about an hour commute every day already.”

No way Williams was going to let Malone drive to his house. The conversation that followed, as Williams recalled, went something like this:

Williams: “Mike, what are you doing?”

Malone: “Coach, I’m at the office, just getting the report ready for tomorrow.”

Williams: “No, Mike, what are you doing?”

Malone: “Coach, I just want to make sure you’re ready for tomorrow.”

Williams: “Mike, dude, you gotta go home, man. Jocelyn (Malone’s wife) is gonna be mad at me.”

Malone: “Nah, Coach, I’m good.”

Williams: “No, Mike, we’re not doing that. I want you home. That’s it.”

“I put the rule in the next day,” Williams said. “Everybody had to be home when their family had dinner. He probably broke it just because he was a tireless worker, but that summed it up for me with Mike. A lot of guys talk that talk about work, and a lot of guys sit in the office all day and do whatever. Mike was in the office busting his tail.”

When the Nuggets visited Philadelphia last week, where Williams is now an assistant under Brett Brown, Malone chuckled at the memory.

“He called it the Mike Malone Rule,” Denver’s 47-year-old coach said of the mandate his old boss handed down. “He said I had to leave the office.”

The All-Star Weekend festivities are the NBA’s red carpet, a star-studded spectacle replete with flashing bulbs, social-media hashtags and celebrity appearances. And Malone will no doubt be charming in that space, says his former boss at Providence, Pete Gillen, because “as Rudyard Kipling said, ‘He can walk with kings, but he keeps the common touch.’”

But four days in Charlotte will also provide a stark reminder of just how far Malone has climbed from a start in the profession as far removed from this weekend’s bright lights as one could be. Since his first coaching gig as an unpaid NCAA Division II assistant that forced him to work at Foot Locker and wash building windows to make ends meet, there has been one driving force that nearly every coach he worked for — four of whom spoke to The Athletic for this story — identified from the start.

“He had a very strong belief in what he wanted,” said Greg Kampe, the coach who hired a fresh-out-of-college Malone at Oakland University outside of Detroit, back in 1994. “It’s not cocky, not arrogant. It’s just a very strong belief, and that’s why he’s lasted. If you don’t have a strong belief, you’re not going to last.”

Nuggets coach Michael Malone, left, got a little angry with the officiating Wednesday night against the Kings, as assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. gets between him and referee Eric Lewis in the second quarter. Malone subsequently was ejected. (Isaiah J. Downing / USA TODAY Sports)

The Nuggets were blowing out the Suns in Phoenix in late December … until they weren’t.

Denver had coughed up a big lead against an inferior opponent, and each lazy pass or missed box out turned Malone’s face a brighter shade of red. Media seating at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix sits right against the floor, next to the visiting bench, close enough to allow someone occupying that space to almost feel what Malone goes through when he coaches a game.

“The thing I could always see was passion, intensity and knowledge,” said Jeff Van Gundy, who hired Malone to be his assistant with the Knicks back in 2001, Malone’s first job in the NBA.

Finally, with about a minute left that night against the Suns, the Nuggets pulled away enough for Malone to take a breath, though to call it a deep breath would be to ignore the adrenaline still coursing through him. As he paced the sideline, he locked eyes with a couple sitting in courtside seats.

“My dad told me not to go into coaching,” Malone told them with a grin. “I should have listened. This is a crazy job.”

It’s true that Brendan Malone wished something else for his son, a life different from the coaching existence that can wear on men and women and consistently uproot their families. But it was also Brendan who cracked open the door to a vagabond life.

Brendan Malone was an assistant with the Pistons in the early 1990s, when the team held its practices at Oakland University.

“They’d practice at 10 and we’d practice after them at 1,” said Kampe, who has been the coach at Oakland since 1984. “So I got to watch all their practices and I got to become good friends with Mike’s dad.”

One day, as the two men sat in the gym, Kampe told Brendan about an opening he had for an assistant. It was a full-time assistant’s position, a chance to do a little bit of everything. It was good entry-level work — as long as the candidate was willing to do it all for free.

“So Brendan goes, ‘My son wants to get into coaching,’” Kampe recalled. “I said, ‘Well, yeah, hell, have him come in.’ So we brought him out, interviewed him and gave him the job. He was working his butt off and not getting paid what a coach would be paid, but it was typical of how you got into the business in those days.”

Malone worked a full-time assistant’s hours and then humped over to the mall to work his job at Foot Locker. Another side job had him cleaning office windows, basic janitorial work. But there was at least one major perk: Malone’s gig at Oakland came with a key to the gym.

Malone, fresh off his career as a point guard at Loyola University in Maryland, would be in the gym every chance he got, shooting his own jumpers or helping the players work on theirs.

“What was cool about him was he had that deep accent, that East Coast accent,” Kampe said. “You didn’t get that much in Michigan in those days. So when the kids heard him talk it was, ‘What’d you say?’ The kids kind of just gravitated to him because he was different and he was their age. But he was in the gym getting shots up with the kids all the time. I just knew that he had a chance to be a really good coach.”

One other perk: Malone would often open the gym doors on weekends and walk into a pickup game with Barry Sanders, the Detroit Lions running back.

“Best part of the job,” Malone quipped.

Still, at the end of that one season at Oakland, Malone asked himself, “What am I doing?” Kampe didn’t have a paid position available, and Malone knew he couldn’t keep working side jobs. He needed a career. So he decided to follow his grandfather’s path into law enforcement. He wanted to join the Secret Service, and he was told two years as a Michigan State Trooper would be his best path.

Malone had filled out all the paperwork. He had taken his physical. He was on the proverbial doorstep of the police academy when Gillen, having just taken over at Providence for Rick Barnes, called Malone. Brendan may have wanted his son to choose another career path, but his deep coaching connections kept leading in only one direction.

“I knew Brendan from the New York Catholic League, and we worked together at the Five-Star Camp,” said Gillen, now an analyst with CBS Sports. “It was a camp that had Michael Jordan and Moses Malone and Alonzo Mourning, the best players in the world. I got to know Michael at the camp also, later on. Brendan Malone went on to the NBA and Michael came up to the camp and worked as a counselor. He was a young, aggressive coach and I respected his dad a lot. He had a lot of energy and did things the right way, so I was impressed with him.”

Providence offered at least a modest salary — “He got a ham sandwich every week, but we couldn’t give him the cheese,” Gillen joked — but more than that it offered the bug of big-time basketball, and Malone was bitten. During his second season at Providence, a team led by future lottery pick Austin Croshere, Malone helped guide the Friars to the Elite Eight, where they lost in overtime to eventual national champion Arizona.

What Gillen noticed most during that time was how his young assistant could relate to people, how he could engage with star players, walk-ons, coaches, boosters, fans or the team’s bus driver with equal aplomb and authenticity, a trait Van Gundy and Williams also observed during his stops in the NBA.

“What you see is what you get,” Gillen said. “He tells it like it is, doesn’t sugarcoat. And he’s honest. If he says he’s going to be there to work with you at 10 o’clock, he’s going to be there at 10 o’clock. If he says he’ll get you a couple tickets for the game for your sister at the last minute, he’ll do it.”

Malone followed Gillen to Virginia in 1998 before moving on to Manhattan, where he coached for two seasons under Bobby Gonzalez. Finally, in 2001, the NBA came calling. Van Gundy had also become familiar with Brendan Malone through the Five-Star Camp. He was coaching at the camp during the summer ahead of Van Gundy’s senior year of high school, and Brendan ultimately recommended Van Gundy to the Yale coaching staff, where Van Gundy played for a year before transferring to Menlo Park.

“When I went to the Knicks as an assistant, then became the head coach, I had to hire a staff, and I hired Brendan because of his incredible experience and knowledge and intensity,” Van Gundy said. “Then I hired Michael in an entry-level position. He had a good job at Manhattan as an assistant, and he would have easily risen to be a Division I head coach quickly, but I saw some of the same traits in Michael as far as knowledge and intensity and passion that I saw in Brendan.”

Michael Malone joined Van Gundy’s staff a year after his father left it. Van Gundy resigned 19 games into the 2001-02 season, but Malone stayed with the Knicks under Don Chaney and then Lenny Wilkens before joining Cleveland’s staff in 2005.

“I gave him an opportunity and then I ended up leaving four or five months in, so he didn’t learn shit from me,” Van Gundy said. “But I’ve always followed his career because I love Brendan, and Brendan went on to be my brother (Stan Van Gundy’s) assistant in both Orlando and Detroit. So I follow Michael’s success and am really happy for him.”

Malone is a proud native of the Astoria neighborhood in Queens. The significance of beginning his career in that Big East-New York-Madison Square Garden footprint has never been lost on him, even as bigger challenges and the constant grind of a coach’s schedule offer few moments for reflection. But he found one in the hallways of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn earlier this month. The New York kid would soon be representing his family and all the coaches he worked for and all the players who placed their trust in him, and he would be doing it on one of basketball’s biggest stages.

The thought brought gratitude.

“My father’s impact, him being a mentor of mine, it definitely starts there,” he said. “Then you think of guys like Jeff Van Gundy, who brought me into the NBA; Mike Brown, who I coached for for five years in Cleveland; Lenny Wilkens, Mark Jackson, Monty Williams, all the guys I’ve been around. As a young coach you always want to learn and pick up things. At the end of the day, you have to form your own identity and you have to be true to yourself. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Michael Malone led the Nuggets to a 39-18 record heading into the All-Star break and he will be coaching in the All-Star Game on Sunday. (Andy Marlin / USA TODAY Sports)

In order to finish telling you how Michael Malone got here, Monty Williams needs to tell you about the boat.

Before that 2010-11 season in New Orleans began, Williams organized a coaches retreat, a fishing trip on a private bay on the lake. The best choice Williams made, he said, was assigning Malone to his boat.

“One of the best times I’ve ever had in my life outside of being with my family,” Williams said, laughing at the memories. “We had so much fun just goofing around and getting away from coaching. It allowed me to see a different side of the coaches, but especially Mike. Mike is funny, one of the funniest people you’re ever gonna meet. A couple times, man, we had our video guy who was about 250 pounds, 260. He tried to hook a fish and he missed it. His momentum just about knocked Mike and I out of the boat and into the bay. We had such a ball, man.”

It was that side of Malone, the same humor Gillen relished at Providence, that helps form the duality of his coaching nature, an approach that has helped him become deeply connected to the players he coaches. Chris Paul loved to laugh with Malone during their one year together in New Orleans. But he equally appreciated being able to call him late at night as he was watching some other game in the NBA, knowing full well Malone would be watching too.

“Mike’s ability to connect with all levels of players stood out to me,” Williams said. “He and Chris had a really good relationship. I was too busy trying to get Chris to do whatever we had coaches do, and Mike had the ability to put out the fire I started with Chris and get Chris to see what I was trying to tell him was good stuff. He really helped me in that regard. To this day, and I don’t speak to those guys too much, but I think they have a really cool bond, and I think it was formed that season.”

Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly was the assistant general manager in New Orleans during Malone’s one season there. Connelly knew Malone going back to the latter’s college playing days in Baltimore, where Connelly grew up. Later, Malone helped recruit players that Connelly’s brother had coached in high school to Providence, Virginia or Manhattan. So the familiarity was there.

But Connelly gained a greater appreciation for Malone’s approach, scenes he filed away and remembered when it was time for Connelly to hire Brian Shaw’s replacement in Denver in 2015.

“You got to really see how he approaches the daily grind and appreciate how good he is,” Connelly said. “You appreciated how much he grew and how good of a (head) coach he was going to be someday.”

At the heart of that growth is the bonds Malone has created with his players. LeBron James in Cleveland. Chris Paul in New Orleans. DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas in Sacramento. Communication with the guys who play the game, Brendan told his son earlier on, will always be more important than X’s and O’s. The soul behind the diagrammed plays or personnel film is what matters most.

“Ever since I met him going back into my third year, he’s been a real genuine guy who has always kept it 100 percent real no matter what,” said Thomas, who has played for Malone in his two stops as a head coach, in Sacramento and now Denver. “It’s never been personal. He’s always been trying to do what’s best for the organization. That was the biggest reason I signed here (with the Nuggets). I knew at the end of the day, he knows who I am as a player and as a person, and he’s going to give me the opportunity to show to the world what I’m capable of doing.”

Even after his first season in Denver, a 33-win campaign that laid the foundation of the success the Nuggets are enjoying now, Malone still felt like he had room to grow as a communicator. He spent extra time in the offseason with players, made trips to their hometowns. It’s something he has done every offseason since, nurturing the bonds that spawned a winning trajectory. By the end of this season, the Nuggets will have improved their win total for the fourth straight season.

That’s no coincidence to Van Gundy.

“I don’t think it’s a this-year thing. I think it’s a since-he’s-been-there thing,” said Van Gundy, a lead analyst on ESPN’s coverage of the NBA. “He and Tim Connelly and Josh Kroenke have formed a terrific partnership, which you don’t see in many sports franchises. I think that partnership is what helped lead to improvement because they are invested in each other’s success. … When you have disappointments like last year — so close to the playoffs — it usually leads to division. They didn’t divide. They vowed to get better and, instead of blame, continued to improve. That’s hard to resist that temptation, and I give them credit that they did it.”

The continuity has been refreshing for Malone. Denver has already been one of the longest stops of his career, and with a new contract in hand, an All-Star gig on his resume and a young, talented roster in his hands, the stability his father warned would be so hard to achieve in this profession could be at hand.

But there’s no job security Malone could be afforded that will keep him from working like that unpaid assistant from 25 years ago, the one who believed he could work his way to where he wanted to go.

The story Williams told about Malone and the late-night phone call left him with a lasting impression, one that explains why Malone will be on the sideline with so many eyes watching Sunday.

“It told me, ‘This guy is nuts, but he’s nuts in a good way,’” Williams said. “It just showed me his brand of diligence and how prepared he was. You just knew Mike was going to do well as a head coach once he got his shot.”