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Nuggets coach Malone completes journey to NBA title

Head coach Michael Malone of the Denver Nuggets is interviewed after a 94-89 victory against the Miami Heat in Game Five of the 2023 NBA Finals to win the NBA Championship at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. (AFP)

Michael Malone never doubted his determination to reach the pinnacle of the NBA even when his father tried to persuade him to pursue another career.

Malone, 51, who led the Denver Nuggets to their first-ever championship on Monday, clearly recalls being told by his NBA coach father, Brendan, not to follow him into the profession.

“He told me not to get into this business. I should have listened to him. It’s a crazy job,” Malone said in 2018.

On Monday, Malone’s decision to ignore his father’s advice paid off as Denver completed a 4-1 series victory over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

It marked the glorious high point of a lifetime spent in basketball, with his formative years spent closely observing his father’s career.

“I grew up in a gym, with a ball. I was quickly an apprentice, watching him work every day,” Malone said of absorbing his father’s wisdom at close hand.

His first job was at age 24 on a Baltimore high school team. A year later, in 1994, Oakland University hired him.

But those positions were unpaid, so he sold sneakers and washed windows to make ends meet and pondered giving up the coaching dream to join the police, a family tradition.

Malone was eventually hired as an assistant on college staffs at Providence and Manhattan before landing an NBA assistant’s job in 2001 to Jeff Van Gundy in New York.

“Passion, intensity, knowledge emanated from him,” said Van Gundy.

Malone communicates easily and in the same way both with stars like LeBron James (in Cleveland from 2005-2010) and with other players. At Golden State in 2012, he was named the league’s top assistant.

The next year, Malone became an NBA head coach at Sacramento, which ended early in his second season.

In 2015, Malone bounced back to Denver, where the young Nikola Jokic arrived.

“He gave me everything, showed me the way. We have built a strong relationship. It’s more than basketball,” said the Serbian star, whom Malone visited the following summer at his home in Serbia to get to know him better.

Malone cultivated that paternal man-management side on the advice of Gregg Popovich, a five-time NBA champion coach with San Antonio.

“He told me: ‘Always stay true to yourself. You’re feisty and emotional, like me. But my players know I love them,” Malone said.

“After lashing out at them, I kiss them and pat them on the back. You have to make them understand that you love them and that you care about them first as people.'”

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