Mike Malone went from already a really good coach to the talk of the NBA following the Denver Nuggets triumph in five games over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals earlier this month. Denver was the best team all year led by arguably the most lethal player in the league in Nikola Jokic. By all measures their crowning moment was most deserved, but still not something Malone wanted as Denver’s epitaph.
“We are not done yet,” Nuggets head coach Malone told parade-goers at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver.
Once upon a time, as far back as two decades, Malone was a precocious coach on Bobby Gonzalez’s staff at Manhattan College. The son of coach Brendan Malone, who raised his family in Queens, Mike had a sort of passion for coaching only matched in intensity by a willingness to do whatever it took to master it.
“The thing that struck me right off the bat about Mike was his special ability with the players,” Gonzalez said. “The players loved him.”
Shortly after getting the job at Manhattan in 1999, Gonzalez courted Malone to be his right hand man after both were colleagues at Providence under Pete Gillen. Initially, Gonzalez had conflicting thoughts of bringing the budding assistant with him because of how much it would subtract from Gillen’s staff.
“At first Coach Gillen was not sure if it would be a good fit,” Gonzalez said of his plan to tab Malone as his head assistant. “We were both young assistants at the time.”
Coming to Manhattan was the latest juncture for Malone in a career that almost never was. After his first season as an assistant at Oakland University, Malone came close to joining the police academy with the idea of becoming a Michigan state trooper. However, he ended up taking an unpaid assistant gig at Providence instead, mostly overseeing the academic progress of the players more than anything basketball related.
“Everyone tells the story of how he took the state trooper exam,” Gonzalez said. “But a lot of things changed for Michael because of Pete.
Working alongside Gonzalez, Malone had his work cut out for him in helping recapture a winning culture at Manhattan. The results took some time, with the Jaspers compiling a 26-30 record across the two seasons Malone was there.
Still, there was something special brewing behind the scenes.
There was the time when Malone had secured a verbal commitment from Delonte West, a skilled guard from Maryland who played eight years in the NBA. Malone had a foothold in recruiting the Washington, D.C., area, which is what led West’s childhood friend Justin Gatling to commit to Manhattan. Gonzalez remembers the pact falling through at the eleventh hour only because St. Joe’s offered West the chance to play in a more publicized conference like the Atlantic 10 to match his NBA ambitions.
“Mike did a great job recruiting,” Gonzalez said.
Luis Flores, the program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,046 career points, overlapped with Malone for one season, yet was ineligible to play after transferring from Rutgers. Flores recalls the relationships Malone had formed with some of Manhattan’s more important players like Dave Holmes and Durelle Brown.
That part stuck with Flores during his recruitment.
“Mike did a great job of making those guys feel comfortable enough to commit to Manhattan,” said Flores, who played 16 career games for the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets. It was “because of work ethic and work habits.”
Instead of bemoaning the potential lonely days of having to sit out, Flores had a sabbatical experience with Malone in hopes of leaving any undesirable habits in the past. According to Flores, the key was to “build trust” with Malone in order to unlock the player he once was at Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan.
What followed was numerous runs around the track at Van Cortlandt Park. Flores found himself having to keep pace with Malone while the gregarious coach would try chatting him up in stride. Malone would try talking about anything, such as that day’s lunch selection, while Flores huffed and puffed.
“I’m running my tail off just to keep up with him,” Flores said.
“I’m looking at him like, ‘I can’t even breathe bro.’”
Flores, the player, emerged as something different too after Malone noticed he was a righty who was unable to go to his right. Their workouts would start at 5:30 am and most of the time seven days a week during the offseason.
“He would be in his office and when he heard the ball bouncing he would come down for us to work,” Flores said. “His presence was central to my development.”
Following the 2000-01 season, Malone left Manhattan to take a coaching associate job with the Knicks at which point Brendan Malone was already a member of the staff. While Malone ascended to an assistant coach in the NBA for the first time, Gonzalez and Flores embarked on a golden age of Manhattan basketball which saw the Jaspers win back to back Metro Atlantic Athletic Championships in 2003 and 2004. The 75-60 upset win over five-seed Florida in the opening round of the 2004 NCAA Tournament remains the last time the Jaspers have won a tournament game.
“He helped me put together the foundation of what was going to be a successful program,” Gonzalez said.
Arguably the biggest praise that can be offered to Malone was his redefinition of his own coaching success but on the NBA level, Gonzalez says. It’s an allusion to the difference in coaching style between college and the NBA, which is more of a “player’s league” in terms of power.
“Coaching is defining what is expected of your team,” said Gordon Chiesa, a former longtime assistant for the Utah Jazz and former head coach at Manhattan. “Mike Malone taught his team the toughness to win playoff games.”
Chiesa believes a lot of Malone’s success can be attributed to learning new lessons each step of the way. That includes taking a good chunk of what he learned at Manhattan to the highest level of basketball competition in the world.
“The same mistake you made 20 years earlier never gets made again,” Chiesa said of what defines a successful coach. “Each layer of a person’s coaching arc helps that leader understand what it takes to win in the present tense.”
Barry “Slice” Rohrssen coached at Manhattan after Malone did, but had known his father Brendan from their time together at the Five-Star Basketball Camp. He can see how the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree for the father and son coaching duo.
“Obviously it’s in his bloodline,” Rohrssen said of Malone’s coaching career. “Having known Mike since he was in high school I could see he was born to coach.”
And the coaches who have played a role in the history of the men’s basketball program at Manhattan College can share in the joy of watching it all unfold.
“Mike is now a world champion who continues to make us proud,” Rohrssen said.