Michael Malone is a stickler at heart.
His Denver Nuggets plucked apart the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, inching three games from the franchise’s first title, but Malone was ready to dissect his own players’ performance just as quickly. On Saturday before Game 2, he complained about his team’s pick-and-roll defense, its offensive rebounding and its inconsistency — conveniently overlooking that Denver had led comfortably for essentially the whole game.
“We haven’t done a damn thing,” Malone said to sum it up. And maybe he was on to something. The Heat evened the series Sunday night and snatched home-court advantage with a 111-108 victory.
There are those watching from his Loyola days who would disagree about what the Nuggets have accomplished, though Malone’s pugnacious perfectionism rings a few bells.
Long before he was tweaking coverages in the NBA, he was a precocious (if not physically gifted) point guard for the often hard-luck Greyhounds, telling his coaches as much as his teammates how to run plays that would scratch out just a bit of success.
Malone is famously dedicated to the details, including his first name — once correcting a reporter during a sideline interview that it’s Michael, not Mike. John Boney, a Greyhounds teammate two years ahead of Malone, chuckles at that formality.
“Well, I knew him as Mike,” he said. “But the Michael that we see on TV was the same Mike that I knew. The same intensity. Same fire.”
If you look up Michael Malone’s college stats, the numbers won’t bowl you over. From 1989 to 1993, Malone averaged 3.5 points and 2.6 assists for Loyola. In his senior season, he was pushed into the starting lineup for Tracy Bergan, the star of the team who had withdrawn from school, and slogged through a miserable two-win season.
But from that ugly patch of Loyola history arose one of the NBA’s best coaches, who now at 51 is on the precipice of the biggest achievement of his career. And, although his teammates didn’t know he was destined to arrive one day at basketball’s biggest stage, they understood early that he was going to be stationed on the sidelines. When he came in on a recruiting visit, Boney said, he picked things up quickly. Once he was on the team, while he was neither a fleet-footed athlete nor a knockdown shooter, it was clear he could think the game better than anyone.
“He could just see two or three moves ahead,” Boney said. “When he came in the game, he didn’t make mistakes. Mike would give his input on things we should be doing, and even the coaches understood it should be heard and listened to.”
There were bloodlines at work. Michael is the son of longtime NBA coach Brendan Malone, who at the time was on the bench with the Detroit Pistons, winning championships with Isiah Thomas at the helm. It was clear Michael, who hailed from New York like his father before him, had picked up a few things in his head for the game.
Coach Tom Schneider recruited Malone, who had thoughts on inbound plays, who had suggestions for how to efficiently structure practices, and who drew concepts on the whiteboard from thin air. The coaching staff didn’t exactly take his word as gospel in huddles, but Malone — for as little playing time as he got — was given a little more sway than others on the team.
“Let’s just say if I would’ve shared my thoughts,” Boney said, “I’d be on the baseline running.”
Although Malone didn’t tout his father’s influence or stature in basketball among teammates, there were occasional reminders. Boney remembered seeing Malone chatting with four men at halftime of a 1990 game at Holy Cross. He came back bearing a ream of paper.
The men were all NBA scouts sent by Brendan Malone, who was off at his own job. They had handed Michael 18 pages of notes about his team — including the handful of minutes Michael had played that night.
“It was never boastful, arrogant, he wanted to create his own identity,” Boney said. “Almost the opposite. You kind of had to ask. ‘Who did you talk to at Holy Cross?’ He’d say, ‘Oh, they’re just friends of my dad.’”
Malone took a year after college hoops as an assistant at Friends School down the road while he finished his degree. He had stints with Providence and Virginia before cracking an NBA staff with the Knicks. Malone became known as one of the league’s best defensive minds working his way up the ranks, but he also developed relationships with some of the NBA’s biggest stars, including LeBron James in Cleveland and Steph Curry in Golden State, before getting his first head coaching shot in Sacramento in 2013.
For Boney, the sign that Malone had made it — even before the Nuggets led by Nikola Jokic reached the 2020 Western Conference finals, was when the coach got a contract extension in 2019 after a 54-28 campaign. He’s now made the playoffs in five straight seasons.
“Because of the way he operates, he was able to put himself in a position very early. For me, the moment when I realized that Mike has kind of solidified himself as a head coach. He proved himself.”
The era when Malone played for the Greyhounds is a particularly bright moment in neither Loyola history nor Malone’s personal basketball history. Still, the Nuggets coach stays attached. He’s kept up a relationship with Tavaras Hardy, current head coach of the Greyhounds.
In 2021, Loyola made the Patriot League final with a road win over Army, getting 33 points out of star player Santi Aldama. Malone sent Hardy a text, words of encouragement “that showed me he was watching.” Later that summer, Aldama was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies — and Malone sent Hardy a few scouting thoughts from the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League.
This season, Aldama started 20 games and played in 77, making him Loyola’s best-ever NBA product … as a player, anyhow.
Malone is still the preeminent NBA Greyhound. And Hardy is as excited as anyone that Malone might add a championship ring to his resume, which includes a stint in his program.
Hardy figured enough people are texting Malone at the moment, flooding him with encouragement, so he didn’t need to pile on. But Malone can be confident his alma mater is pulling for him.
“I’m not cocky enough to think whether they win or lose is about whether I texted him,” Hardy laughed. “We know he’s at the top of the food chain in our profession. I’m waiting until they win the whole thing.”