Empire State of Mind: How NYC Developed Denver Nuggets Head Coach Michael Malone
Basketball came early to Michael Malone. Driving, on the other hand, did not.
As his father Brendan Malone began coaching in the NBA in the mid-1980s right around the time Michael was finishing high school, he still hadn’t gotten behind the wheel.
“I didn't get my license until I was 25 years old,” Michael revealed. “I grew up as one of six kids and being from New York, Queens, and Long Island, I didn't really need a car, and so I wasn't going to get a car.” And yes, that means that Malone used his passport as an ID up until that point. Thankfully, one doesn’t need to pass a test or get certification to begin a lifelong passion for the game of basketball.
As the son of a longtime basketball coach, the 48-year-old head coach of the Denver Nuggets grew to understand and appreciate the game early on in his life, which paved the way for a career spent in and around the game.
“I grew up in a gym, I grew up with a ball,” Malone told Denver Stiffs back in 2016. “My earliest memories are when he was a coach at Power Memorial Academy (the prestigious high school in Manhattan that Lew Alcindor attended).” Brendan Malone also ran a basketball camp in Maine which helped the Malones get to know others in the coaching ranks.
Brendan Malone found plenty of success at Power Memorial Academy, winning two city championships and being named “Coach of the Year” on three occasions in his six seasons with the school. From there, Brendan went to coach in the college ranks as an assistant at Fordham, Yale and Syracuse University, serving under Jim Boeheim for six seasons.
It was during those years that Brendan served as a Syracuse assistant that continued to expose Michael to the game of basketball.
“When he moved into college at Syracuse University with Jim Boeheim, if my father was recruiting in the city, I was along with him in the gym,” Malone said. “I remember seeing Kenny Smith, Mark Jackson, Pearl Washington, all these amazing players, by going to all of his games. I loved it, and it was all I knew, being in the gym and being with my father.”
Shortly after wrapping up his time in Syracuse, Brendan transitioned to coaching in the NBA, as he became an assistant for the New York Knicks in 1986. Denver’s head coach credits those years of watching and following his father for truly understanding the value of a coach.
“I almost compare it to me being an apprentice, and just watching him work every day,” Michael said back in 2016. “One of the best things he's passed along to me is that the best coaches aren't just coaches. The best coaches are teachers. I've really taken that to heart. Anybody can coach, and tell a guy what to do, but can they explain the ‘why’.”
Like father, like son: Two coaching careers develop at different stages
As Brendan Malone developed his coaching career in the NBA throughout the 1990s, Michael entered the coaching game, with assistant roles at the Friends School of Baltimore (1993-94), Oakland University (1994-95), Providence College (1995-98) and ultimately, Manhattan College (1999-2001).
However, Michael’s path to becoming an NBA coach wasn’t as straightforward as it seems. During his year with Oakland University, Malone was a volunteer assistant that spent time working at a local Foot Locker and cleaning office buildings from midnight to 4 a.m.
“After probably four or five months of that, I said to myself: ‘What am I doing? This isn’t what I planned,’” The Astoria, Queens native told The Denver Post in 2015. “I did not want to feel like a ship at sea with no direction.”
With the Malone family having a lot of law enforcement in its background (Michael's grandfather was a police officer in New York, as were some of his uncles and cousins), Michael was persuaded by a friend to apply for the Secret Service. Although he was ultimately not selected, another friend persuaded him to apply to become a state trooper in Michigan. As Malone made his decision and began preparing for the physical and written exam, he received a call from Pete Gillen, then the head coach at Providence.
That was Michael’s first break into the coaching world, and from there his life and career took the next steps.
Malone’s subsequent positions in the college ranks prepared him for the leap to the NBA, which he made in 2001 when he joined the coaching and scouting staff on the Knicks.
“He was just a guy with a lot of energy that was really eager to learn”
Michael began his NBA coaching career as a coaching associate who edited scouting reports, worked with players, the coaching staff and video coordinator. It was essentially a do-it-all position that allowed Malone to learn from some of the best minds in the coaching game and forge some relationships with coaches still around the game to this day.
The Knicks shuffled through four head coaches during Malone’s four years with the team, which can make things difficult as an assistant. However, the two Malones were able to work together for a brief period during this stretch. Other notable coaches including Steve Clifford, Lon Kruger, Herb Williams and Tom Thibodeau joined New York’s coaching staff at one point or another.
“That (working with his father) was really neat, because we had a chance to work together every day, see each other, talk to each other, and even challenge each other,” Michael said. “Don Chaney (the head coach at the time) would laugh and say that sometimes we'd disagree just for sake of disagreeing.”
For Malone and Clifford, working together on the Knicks’ coaching staff was just another opportunity to strengthen their relationship. The two head coaches, Malone of the Nuggets and Clifford of the Orlando Magic, have known each other since childhood.
“First of all, I’ve known Mike since I think he was in sixth grade,” Clifford told Nuggets.com. “I used to work for his dad’s basketball camp up in Maine and a lot of times he would be on my team. So, we’ve known each other for a long time.”
Clifford’s path to the NBA was similar to Malone’s. He too worked his way through assistant positions in the college ranks before joining the Knicks staff, first as an advance scout before transitioning to assistant coach for the 2001-2003 seasons. Those seasons allowed the two longtime friends to catch up and learn from each another, which fostered tremendous respect between the two.
“We worked together with the Knicks and it gave us a good chance to reconnect and he is just a very bright, talented guy, hard worker,” Clifford said. “He obviously has a great basketball background and we’ve been friends for a long time and I’m not surprised at what a great job he’s done there (in Denver).”
Meanwhile, Kruger, the current head basketball coach for the University of Oklahoma, was struck by Malone’s ability to master the strategic side of the game and his ability to communicate with players.
“I really enjoyed the time with the Knicks and time spent with Michael,” Kruger told Nuggets.com. “He is a tireless worker and has an obvious passion for the game. His insights relative to X’s and O’s and the ability to relate that to the players is what makes him special. He has great respect for the game-always doing things the right way and for the right reasons.”
Malone’s background and work ethic also caught the eye of Herb Williams, a former Knicks player that transitioned to coaching after his playing days were over. Williams was with the Knicks coaching staff from 2003-2014 and served as the team’s interim head coach for 44 games over the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons while Malone was on the staff as an assistant.
“He was just a guy with a lot of energy that was really eager to learn,” Williams told Nuggets.com. “He was a hard worker and was enthusiastic.”
Williams had a connection with the Malone family even before joining the Knicks coaching staff in 2003. When Williams was a player for New York from 1996-1999, Brendan Malone was an assistant coach in his second stint with the Knicks. Then, as mentioned earlier, both Malones served as assistant coaches during the 2003-04 season alongside Williams.
“Brendan did a lot of scouting reports for us, while Michael and I were on the court together a lot, working players out,” Williams revealed. Williams would later point out that both he and Michael were able to contribute to the Knicks’ scouting efforts throughout the season.
The former New York Liberty assistant coach went on to recall a summer in which both he and Michael coached the respective Summer League teams for the Knicks. Malone coached the Las Vegas Summer League team, while Williams was in charge of New York’s team in the Boston Summer League.
“He did a fantastic job (coaching the Summer League team),” Williams said. “As far as motivating players, putting things together, understanding and reading the game, he did a really good job.”
When Williams took over as the interim head coach for 43 games during the 2004-05 season, Malone was instrumental in helping the former player transition into the role, as Williams explained himself.
“He (Malone) was on the bench with me (during that time) and was very helpful for me in terms of recognizing situations, seeing what was going on the floor and keeping me informed on different things.”
While the two went their separate ways following that 2004-05 season with Malone transitioning to an assistant role on the Cleveland Cavaliers staff, the experience Malone gained during those years as a Knicks assistant coach helped pave the way for his future in coaching.
Finding his lead voice and defense
Later stops with the Cavaliers, New Orleans Hornets and Golden State Warriors prepared Malone for his first gig as a head coach, which he obtained in the 2013-14 season with the Sacramento Kings. Although he was only given 106 games to lead Sacramento, Malone was more than ready to take over a Nuggets franchise that was going through a transition period.
The rest, as they say, is history. Malone is currently in his fifth season with Denver and has improved the team’s record in each of the past four. Rising through the coaching ranks with a defense-first pedigree, it took Malone several seasons before he had the right ingredients to coach his ideal version of a team.
After the Nuggets finished 10th in defense during their 54-win campaign in 2018-19, Denver now sits at the top of the league on that end of the floor heading into their matchup against the Knicks on Thursday. While Malone’s ultimate goal is to win games by any means, he takes pride in the team’s impressive defense and values their work and effort.
“I learned a long time ago that you have to understand why you win and why you lose,” Malone said following a Nuggets practice last week. “A large part (of our success) is because of our number-one defense. By no means are we satisfied, but the players have bought in (on defense) and committed. We’re in a good place, but the challenge is to not be satisfied or to get complacent because we have so much basketball to be played.”
Players and fans can rest easy knowing that given his path to this moment, there won’t be any satisfaction or complacency from Malone, the New York native that was born into the game.