Gregg Popovich played instrumental role in Michael Malone’s coaching journey
Michael Malone wouldn’t be where he is today if not for Gregg Popovich. A chance encounter between the two men nearly nine years ago, highlighted by fine dining in Argentina and plenty of wine, helped set the course for Malone’s journey to Sacramento.
It was the summer of 2005 and Malone was in South America taking part in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program. It was there that Malone first met Popovich, fresh off his third NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs.
“He wasn’t even supposed to be there and he showed up,” Malone said before the Kings took on the Spurs Friday evening. “And I wound up spending a week with him and at the end of the week he said, ‘I don’t know if you know (expletive) about the game, but if you ever need a job, let me know.’”
They didn’t talk much basketball during the week. Instead, they talked about other topics like Russian history, Malone said. They also drank together, lots and lots of Argentine red wine according to Popovich.
“He liked the wine that I bought at dinner and course I paid for the dinner,” Popovich said dryly and comically before yesterday’s game. “He didn’t pay for anything.”
Though they didn’t talk much hoops, Popovich saw something that led him to take a liking in Malone. The 65-year-old coach appreciated Malone’s ability to relate to others, which he knew would translate well for Malone at his next coaching stop.
“He’s a people person,” Popovich said of Malone. “He’s somebody I thought players would really respect. And he had a toughness about him, a fairness, but a toughness where I thought he would persevere in all kinds of situations.
“In an NBA season, there’s lots of ups and downs and you have to be able to roll with all of it,” Popovich added. “I just thought he had that edge in toughness, an obvious sense of the game that he could be successful so that’s why I went to bat for him.”
Not long after returning to the states from his South American excursion, Malone took Popovich up on his offer for assistance. Malone was in need of work after Larry Brown took control of the sidelines for the New York Knicks. Popovich put in a good word for Malone with former assistant Mike Brown, who was just hired as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I would not be in this position if it wasn’t for Coach Popovich,” Malone said. “I didn’t know Mike Brown. I didn’t know (former Cavs GM) Danny Ferry. He got my foot in that door and once Pop recommended me for that job, Mike Brown said it was mine. And obviously, I’ve thanked him numerous times because of that because he’s taken care of my family.”
After five successful seasons in Cleveland, including an NBA Finals appearance against Popovich’s Spurs, Malone found himself looking for work again. It didn’t take long for Popovich to put in a good word for Malone, this time in New Orleans with Monty Williams, who played for Pop in his first season as head coach of the Spurs.
“When he helped me in New Orleans with Monty Williams, he said, ‘Malone. I’m trying to figure this out,’” Malone said with a smile. “‘You’ve never helped me win one damn game in the NBA and I’ve been helping you get jobs.’”
To this day, Malone remains indebted to Popovich and the doors the five-time champion has helped him open in his NBA career. Malone believes Popovich’s willingness to help an aspiring coach says a lot about the character of the future Hall of Famer.
“He didn’t have to do anything for me,” Malone said of Popovich. “I’ve never done anything for that guy, but I think what kind of sets him apart is he wants to see people get ahead and he wants to help people. And that’s the true definition of a quality person is trying to help people get ahead and he helped me out. And I think he was happy with the job that I did in Cleveland and I made him look like he had a pretty decent recommendation.”
All that Argentine wine probably didn’t hurt, either.