NEW YORK — Before he could coach the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals, Mike Malone had to hide behind trees.
The spying in disguise was a necessary part of his duties at Providence College, where Malone, a graduate assistant at the time, was tasked with ensuring players went to class.
“We called Mike Malone a Friar, the real Friar,” says Jamel Thomas, a star guard for the Providence Friars from 1995 to 1999. “Because he’d hide behind trees to make sure we’d go to class and s—.
“He was literally behind trees with his hoodie on.”
The ‘Friar’ nickname meaning, beyond the obvious connection to Providence, was likely rooted in the ‘Robin Hood’ character, Friar Tuck, who lived in Sherwood Forest. Malone had too much of a spicy vocabulary to be confused with a servant of religion. And while his spying came from a place of support, it might’ve been met by players with more resistance — or perhaps animosity — if it weren’t for their New York City connection.
“It’s just the way he talked and interacted with us,” Thomas says. “He wasn’t that much older than us. But it was like a big brother. He didn’t speak like, ‘Yeah I’m from New York, too.’ That was more [Providence assistant coach Bobby Gonzalez]. But he understood where we were coming from. So that’s why he was hands-on with us. He understood the environment.”
Malone, like Thomas, God Shammgod and other important players on that Providence squad, is a New Yorker. Born, bred and furnished. His father, the legendary NBA assistant Brendan Malone, attended Rice High School in Harlem. Brendan also coached Power Memorial in Manhattan — the former home to Lew Alcindor and Chris Mullin — which transitioned to two NBA titles as a member of Chuck Daly’s staff with the Detroit Bad Boys.
“The passion, the intensity, the ability to not only know something but be able to teach it in a manner that is understandable, I think Brendan Malone had that,” says Jeff Van Gundy, who had both Michael and Brendan on his Knicks staff, “and I think Michael has that, as well.”
Mike Malone was raised in Astoria and followed basketball to Seton Hall Prep in West Orange, N.J., where he lived briefly with the family of another NBA assistant coach, Richie Adubato. It was all an ideal environment for soaking up basketball and spawning coaching trees. Hubie Brown was the head coach of the Knicks. Adubato and Brendan Malone were his assistants, although at different times.
They all had sons around the same age. Their neighbor in West Orange, Joe Dooley, became the head coach at East Carolina. And everybody recognized Mike’s unique drive and ambition.
“Whatever he was thinking about, he was going to do it,” says Brendan Brown, Hubie’s son and former Knicks scout. “There was a plan to it and a lot of intensity behind it.”
That doesn’t mean Malone was always about business. Scott Adubato, the son of Richie and a few years older than Malone, recalls a hilarious story about driving the future Nuggets coach to senior prom.
Adubato was home from college and started driving a limousine for extra cash, with Malone among the customers. Prom night turned into some overindulgence from Malone, and some puking in the limo.
One problem: the company was connected to local mobsters.
“It was like Mike, you know whose family owns this?” Adubato, who later became an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies, says. “And you can imagine, his face just turned white. He’s in high school. I said, ‘You know who you got to answer to?’”
Malone cleaned it up and left for prep school in Massachusetts, then Loyola University in Maryland. Basketball always seemed at the forefront — whether as a player or coach — but Malone nearly changed course by committing to a police academy to become a Michigan State Trooper.
The Providence opportunity, which was offered by head coach Pete Gillen, brought Malone back to basketball. It was unpaid and required improvisation to monitor class attendance.
“Some of them being New York City kids — they walked in one door and walked out the other door,” Gillen, a native Brooklynite, says. “Mike learned his lesson once. He walked in one door, then he ran to the other side of the building.
“And Mike is like, ‘I got you. You do it again, you’re going to run laps, you’re going to get up in the morning.’ So he was street smart. He had people skills.”
The players accepted it as necessary help from Malone, and the Friars advanced to the Elite 8 in 1997 — the program’s best finish of the last 35 years.
“Yeah we’re from the inner city but we’re from the era where we respect people who are willing to help us out. That was our golden rule,” Thomas, the half-brother of former NBAer Sebastian Telfair, says. “We might take advantage of it every now and again, but we respect that the person is there to help. He wasn’t getting anything out of it. I didn’t even think he was getting paid at that time. I think he was just getting his Masters or whatever. And he was on my back. He was on my back hard. Making sure I was doing the right thing. He was speaking to my parents, giving them monthly reports. Letting them know how I was doing academically. It wasn’t even basketball, it was just academically.”
The personality served Malone well in the NBA, where he coached several all-time greats as an assistant — LeBron James, Steph Curry, Patrick Ewing, Chris Paul — and moved up the ladder over 22 years and six organizations. His press conferences for the Nuggets have brought New York flair and attitude, with motivational sound bytes that have turned Malone into the spokesperson for a team that is otherwise unassuming in front of a microphone — especially its star, Nikola Jokic.
“Mike has a lot of attributes from his father. The toughness component,” Brendan Brown says. “I would say his wit comes from his mother, and why he’s good in the press conferences. It’s a mix of his mother’s wittiness and his father’s toughness.”
Now Malone is four wins from the ultimate prize, trying to become the first NBA coach from NYC to win a title since Larry Brown. It’s a long way from hiding behind trees as the Friar on campus.
“He didn’t do a lot of coaching back then. But he always had this energy. Maybe because he was young and was trying to get on top,” Thomas says. “But could I have predicted this? Hell nah, I couldn’t have predicted that he was going to be arguably the best coach in the NBA right now.
“What you could predict that Mike was going to do with players is they were going to be good men.”