They cannot help but laugh when they watch Michael Malone prowl the Denver Nuggets’ sideline, grinning wryly as he exhorts his players to defend or shouting himself hoarse as he demands justice from officials.
Peel away 30 years, and that sharp-witted, sharp-tongued bulldog is the same guy who used to design plays on the fly during practices at Reitz Arena. Former Loyola Maryland teammates knew Malone’s intense focus and rare basketball IQ long before most of the world caught on. So when they glimpse their old point guard coaching the best players in the world in the NBA Finals, they figure that’s just about right.
“We had a couple of kids of coaches on our team, but his basketball IQ was just through the roof,” recalled John Boney, who played with Malone for two years as a forward on those Loyola teams. “To where you would see some of the coaches on our team asking for Mike’s opinion, even as a freshman.”
Malone worked as a college and NBA assistant for almost 20 years before he became a head coach, first with the Sacramento Kings and then with the Nuggets, starting in 2015. His climb with Denver, building the sport’s most elegant offense around the unique talents of Nikola Jokic, has been nearly as deliberate.
Before any of that, however, he spent five years, from 1989 to 1994, sharpening his basketball mind in North Baltimore. He ran the offense for a Loyola team that found wins hard to come by and carved out time to volunteer as an assistant coach at Friends School.
Malone isn’t often asked about his college days, but he stays in touch with Loyola’s current coach, Tavaras Hardy — “One of the first ones to text me when we were in the Patriot League final,” Hardy noted on Glenn Clark Radio — and replies quickly to old teammates whenever they reach out.
The late Tom Schneider, who had just come to Loyola from Penn, recruited Malone from Worcester Academy, a Massachusetts prep school.
But the teenage point guard was pure New York, a Queens native who had grown up around the game as his father moved from coaching Power Memorial High School (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s alma mater) to a long career in the NBA. Brendan Malone worked with luminaries such as Patrick Ewing and Isaiah Thomas and was known as chief author of the “Jordan Rules,” the Detroit Pistons’ brutal plan for frustrating a young Michael Jordan.
“He was a stereotypical kid out of New York,” said Kevin Anderson, who played three seasons with Malone at Loyola and roomed with him on the road. “Didn’t have a driver’s license because he didn’t have a car, and there was no reason to have it. He had the accent. And the thing where you say he hasn’t changed, he tells it how it is.”
“The intensity that you see on TV now is the same we saw when he was 18 years old walking on the floor at Loyola,” Boney said. “The brashness, the confidence he had … he knew he could go in and not make mistakes.”
He remembered how Malone, nicknamed “Mo” in those days, almost seemed to see the future.
“We’re on the floor, and you could see he was thinking three, four spots ahead, just knowing where the ball was going to go or where each defender was going to be,” Boney said. “We’d be on the bench together, and he would say, ‘This is the play we should run.’ Then, we’d call a timeout, and next thing you know, we’re running that play.”
Sometimes, he’d draw it up on his hand, and teammates would see it become reality a few seconds later.
Mark Sparzak arrived at Loyola when Malone was a sophomore and remembers him as an extension of the coaching staff, a huge help to less astute teammates.
“A lot of us, I put myself in this category, were doers,” Sparzak said. “You told me what to do and then I played, where Mike was more cerebral. He understood strategy more than most of us, that’s for sure.”
They all assumed he would follow in his father’s footsteps (though Malone did consider becoming a Michigan state trooper before Pete Gillen hired him as an assistant at Providence in 1995).
“From a basketball standpoint, he was a typical coach’s son,” Anderson said. “Knew where he needed to be, where you needed to be, where everyone else on the court needed to be. There was just no question that he knew every phase of the game better than every other player on the team, no matter what year they were.”
Brendan Malone spent a lot of his professional life on the road, and Michael did not flaunt his father’s status in the sport. But teammates perceived the senior Malone’s influence. Boney remembered a blowout loss at Holy Cross where four NBA scouts approached Malone after the game and handed him 18 pages of notes on his play, much of it in garbage time.
“The detail that was in those notes,” Boney said, chuckling, “it was incredible — every step that he took on the court. And Mike internalized all of that.”
Off the court, he liked to have fun as much as the rest of them, finding distractions from Loyola’s run of losing seasons (the Greyhounds went 32-81 over Malone’s four years).
“Just a good guy to spend time with,” Sparzak said. “Whether you saw him in the library or you were going out for pizza, whatever the case may be. There was no filter. Anything that was on his mind, he’d tell you in that New York dialect.”
Malone spent most of his career as a reserve behind Loyola’s gifted point guard, Tracy Bergan. But when Bergan left for the 1992-93 season because of academic and personal troubles, Malone started 20 games for a 2-25 team, averaging a team-high 3.7 assists per game.
“It was not the career I would have hoped for, but at the same time looking back, Loyola was a great opportunity and a great school and I met some great people,” he told the university’s alumni magazine in 2013.
Malone graduated from Loyola with a history degree in 1994, a year after he finished playing, and during his last winter in Baltimore, he got a head start on his chosen career by assisting at Friends, where Randy Cooper was the coach.
“I remember when [Cooper] announced he had a former Division I point guard coming to help out, all the guys got excited,” former Friends player Atman Smith said. “Mike came in with so much swag. He had such a level of respect just because, I was young then, but it seemed like the entire time he was coaching with us, he made every single shot he took. He wasn’t one of those coaches that got in your face, yelling, but he demanded respect.”
Smith was a sophomore point guard and son of the great Southern High coach, Meredith Smith, so he was eager for the big-time feel Malone brought to Friends’ relatively low-key program.
“He honestly had us believing that we were better than we were,” he said.
Smith drifted away from basketball after college, but he and his brother, Ali, caught a glimpse of a Nuggets game in a bar a few years back. “We were like, ‘Yo, they just said Mike Malone. That can’t be our coach,’” he recalled, laughing. “And then we Googled it. We had no idea.”
The brothers sent him a letter, along with a book they published on the transformative powers of yoga and meditation, joking that Denver’s talent level couldn’t possibly match that of the 1993-94 Friends squad. Malone happily rekindled the relationship.
“He’s so thoughtful,” Smith said. “I texted him after they won the Western Conference, and I’m sure they were out celebrating, but he texted me back that night. … I think genuine people are going to succeed in life.”
Anderson, who lives in South Bend, Indiana, tries to get together with Malone when the Nuggets are in Chicago or Indianapolis. They talked shortly after Denver defeated the Los Angeles Lakers to advance to the NBA Finals.
“I heard pure joy,” Anderson said, “at having reached that pinnacle in his career.”
Anderson has converted family members and neighbors into Nuggets fans. Every playoff game is another chance to celebrate his former teammate. He laughed when comparing Malone the coach to the point guard of 30 years ago.
“I don’t know if you read lips during the Lakers series,” he said, alluding to one of Malone’s saltier outbursts at officials. “But yeah, it definitely feels like the same guy.”
Sparzak, who lives in Dallas, does not stay in touch as regularly, but Malone responded promptly to his congratulatory note after the Lakers series and has brought Nuggets players over to meet his old Loyola teammate after games against the Mavericks.
“He doesn’t have to respond to me,” Sparzak said. “But he’s an authentic person. I showed my son, and he said, ‘Mike Malone? The coach? He sent you an email?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, we were pals in college.’”
“He’s the type of guy that you love to see in that position,” Anderson said. “Because all he’s done is work hard, be true to himself, and it’s reflected in the way the players interact with him, how much trust they have in him. He’s not much different than when we were teammates together at Loyola, and that’s impressive.”