Editor's note: The video above is reaction to Michael Malone's dismissal from the Kings on Dec. 15, 2014.
SACRAMENTO -- How often does a NBA head coach get an ovation from opposing crowd? That is exactly what former Sacramento Kings head coach Michael Malone received when he was announced Friday night at Sleep Train Arena.
He’s the one that got away. The coach that had the Kings playing defense, playing together and winning. And then he was gone.
“It’s the first time I’ve been back in a while, since I was fired Dec. 14,” Malone told CSN California. “I remember the date ... it’s a day that will live in infamy."
Shocking. That is the only way to describe Malone’s dismissal. The Kings began the 2014-15 season 9-5. They were rolling and the talk of the league. And then DeMarcus Cousins picked up a mystery illness and the wheels fell off the bus.
The franchise hid the fact that Cousins had picked up viral meningitis for as long as possible, before “flu-like symptoms” no longer made sense. Cousins missed 10-straight games, and without their star, the Kings went just 2-8 over the stretch.
Following game nine of Cousins' illness, Malone was sent packing. At the time, the Kings were 11-13 on the season. They would go just 18-40 the rest of the way under Tyrone Corbin and George Karl as the season complete spun out of control.
“It was a short time here, but a lot of good memories,” Malone said before taking the floor for the first time against his former team. “The hope was to be here for a lot longer. The decision was made, obviously, to go another direction, but (I’m) excited to be back, excited to see people I care about.”
The 44-year-old New Yorker doesn’t mince words. He’s fiery and direct, and has no problem winning over a room. That is an ingredient that has been sorely missed since his exit. The Kings played hard for Malone. He had them ready for every game, but it went well beyond the X’s and O’s.
“Coaching is all about relationships,” Malone said. “Can you form relationships, can you get guys to buy in and trust you, and in a short amount of time? I was able to do that with DeMarcus and Rudy and Ben and Quincy and all the guys that were here, all the guys I still stay in touch with.”
Malone made an impact on all of the Kings players. When he was let go, the void left in the locker room hung in the air like the stench of death. You could feel it the moment you walked into the room. You could see it when they sleepwalked through the Corbin-era with a 7-21 record.
The finger pointing in the aftermath has gone in plenty of directions. Pete D’Alessandro was the one who walked into the room and fired Malone, but he had the backing of many. Whoever made the final call cut the heart out of a basketball team and let it bleed out slowly. It was a brutal scene to watch unfold, and in many ways, the distrust and chaos caused by one event is still evident in the team’s personality.
The players loved Malone, but more than any other, he will forever be connected to Cousins during his time in Sacramento. He is the coach that won over the unpredictable young star that had struggled with others in the past. The connection between the two was obvious from an early stage.
“Honestly, I think Mike helped me get to that next level,” Cousins told CSN California. “The way he held me accountable, the way he ... it was non-stop, always working with me, always talking to me telling me what I need to do better. He considered me his leader, but at the same time, he told me exactly what he needed on a daily basis.”
Malone is a straight shooter. His only agenda was to win and make Cousins into the best player possible. Sadly, that agenda was not shared within the organization. They wanted to win, yes, but they also wanted a “jazz band leader,” not a “Sousa marching band.” In short, Malone’s brand of basketball was effective, but boring. And boring is not the Kings' way.
There are plenty of descriptive words that could be used to describe Malone, but if he is a marching band leader, it’s the most entertaining marching band in the world. He’s a man that can’t hide his emotions, which was evident in Friday’s Nuggets loss to the Kings when he picked up a technical foul in his homecoming game.
Cousins knew that look well. As their relationship grew, it was the big man that often had to calm his coach and not the other way around. Their fire and passion for the game of basketball is undeniable, and in many instances, coach and player became mirror images of each other.
“You could just see the fumes coming out of his ears,” Cousins said as he looked back at his time with Malone. “I would just go to him and say, ‘Coach, what do you need?’. (Malone would say) ‘Cuz, I need this, this and this from the (explicit) team.’ ‘I got you, coach,’ and I would go out there and try and make it happen.
That’s the relationship we built. I knew his every intention was always in the right place. It was about the team. It was always about getting better each day. It was always about the team getting the win. I think that was something that spread throughout the team.”
Despite posting a 39-67 record as the Kings' frontman in his season-plus in Sacramento, there was an outline of a future. A plan in place that only needed more talent to bump up the win total. In many ways, Malone had plenty of lemons and he worked feverously to make the best lemonade possible.
“We were on the right path and we were playing the right type of basketball,” Cousins added. “That’s something I appreciated. I think the type of person Mike is is rare in this league. He genuinely cares about his players. He genuinely cares about basketball in general. His passion is undeniable. It’s hard to find people like that in this league, and once you do, you appreciate them right away.”
Under Malone’s tutelage, Cousins took his game to the next level. Unfortunately, it was the big man’s illness that opened a window for the coach’s dismissal, something Cousins took very hard at the time.
The season before Malone was hired to coach the Kings, Cousins averaged 17.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. He was known mostly as a malcontent, not for his immense talent.
In year one under Malone, Cousins improved those numbers to 22.7 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, putting him in the discussion for an All-Star bid. Before Cousins sat down with the illness in Malone’s second season, he was posting 24 points and 13 rebounds a night and making a strong case for being the best big man in the game.
The coach wasn’t around to see his star pupil get the call for his first All-Star game. He had been sent packing two months earlier. Malone helped build the foundation that we see today in Cousins, and it didn’t go unnoticed.
“I’m so proud,” Malone said. “What meant the world to me was last year, when he made it in New York, I got a package in the mail one day and it was his All-Star jersey with a really nice note thanking me for helping him get there.
“To see the progress that DeMarcus is making and getting the recognition that he deserves ... I’m happy for him because, as we all know, he’s a hell of a talent,” Malone added.
The two exchanged pleasantries after Friday’s game, as did plenty of other Kings players. The 6-foot-11 center towered over his former coach, but they still had the look of teacher and pupil.
“No matter what happens, the guys I coached here, DeMarcus, Isaiah (Thomas), Rudy (Gay), Ben (McLemore), Quincy (Acy), Aaron (Gray), all those guys -- I'll always have a lot of love for those guys,” Malone said. “In my first head coaching job, they were all on my team and they bought in and we were heading in the right direction.”
Firing Malone was avoidable and it started an unraveling of a franchise that is seldom seen. Not even the great George Karl and his 1,165 career victories has been able to win over the room.
Call him a marching band leader. Say that his brand of basketball lacks excitement. But also know that Michael Malone is the one that got away.
The players believed in him and they fought for him. Those qualities are hidden in the advanced statistics, and they can’t be measured.