This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the digital edition.

Doug Ottewill: There’s a certain romance associated with growing up a basketball player in New York City. What are your earliest memories of the game?

Michael Malone: My first basketball memories are basically growing up in the gym at Power Memorial Academy, and my father started out as the CYO coach in Queens at Precious Blood Parish, and then became the coach at Power Memorial, which is obviously famous for Lew Alcindor going there. My father was able to win a couple city championships in the CHSAA. In New York the CHSAA is obviously very famous, they have had great coaches, great players out of there over many, many years, but you know I think of my earliest memories are growing up in a gym at Power Memorial with my brothers and being around my father’s teams. Just kind of always being in a gym, around the game with the basketball. As you mentioned there is kind of a special feeling about New York City basketball. It’s called the “Mecca of Basketball,” and for many, many years the best players came out of New York City. Interestingly enough I think in the last 10, 15 years, that kind of, it’s gone away from that. For whatever reason New York is not producing the same players as it used to. I mean guys like Ed Pinckney, Chris Mullin, guys that I know personally, for whatever reason, but there definitely was a major attraction to New York City basketball, and the fact that my father was coaching in a very famous league, winning city titles, and then when he was a college coach, he was recruiting all these New York City players to Syracuse, and going to the Big East Championship in New York City. So, a very special feel, New York is always. You ask Michael Jordan, “Where was your favorite place to play?” It’s always Madison Square Garden, just because of not only the environment and the atmosphere, but also because the fans in New York have a very high I.Q. We understood the game. So I think I was blessed to obviously be the son of a coach and to learn so much from him, and see him go from high school to college to the NBA, and to obviously be in the basketball hotbed of New York City was definitely an advantage as well.

Growing up your dad was around some legendary programs, coaches and players – Jim Boeheim, Pearl Washington, Derrick Coleman, Ronnie Seikley. As a kid, did you have any favorites? Any major influences?

As you mentioned, my father went to college, worked for Boeheim at Syracuse to become the Rhode Island head coach before going into the NBA with Hubie Brown many years ago, (those were some of) my favorite memories and moments with my father, and I think probably one of the reasons that I’m one of six kids, with my father and I very close, is that when I was young, and he’d go recruiting, I’d hop in the car with him, so I’d literally go to see Mark Jackson play, Pearl Washington, Kenny Smith, Chris Mullin, Billy Donovan, I mean the best players. These guys were legends. And you know Pearl Washington was my favorite to be very honest because of his ability, his entertaining style of basketball, and I wore No. 31 in high school because of Pearl Washington, because that’s how much I loved his game. And now I mean, he was a bad boy. For me, he was the best high school player I ever saw. He played at a boys and girls high school in Brooklyn, and there’s just stories upon stories about Pearl as a high school player, and he was a great college player, never made it in the NBA, but he was a player that I really kind of looked up to and admired a lot.

Obviously my father was able to help Boeheim out and bring a lot of great players up there, guys like Pearl, Louis Orr – a lot of players. But Pearl was just a legend. His ball-handling ability and he was somebody that, I never did, but tried to emulate because of how talented he was

Every kid wants to play. But when did you know you wanted to coach?

My dream was always to be an NBA player, and then you know there’s a point in all our lives when those dreams, and reality strikes. I got a Division I scholarship, played at Loyola College in Baltimore, but, I knew at that point “Listen I’m not an NBA player, and I want to get into coaching.” I have a passion for the game, and if I can’t play it I want to teach it. And because of the apprenticeship I had through my father all those years of watching him, and being around great coaches like Boeheim, like Hubie Brown, and all the other people he was around that I also learned from, I knew I think once I got to college that, “O.K., it’s great I got a Division I scholarship, I’m going to have the best career possible, but once this is done I want to get into coaching.” And then that’s what I did. Obviously started at Oakland University, and then Pete gave me a call that change my life and gave me a job at Providence College, and I mean a great opportunity, coaching in the Big East, I met my wife there. So many blessings have come from that experience.

You’ve talked a lot about your relationship with your dad. What was the most important thing he taught you?

You know it’s really funny, I get that question a lot, because obviously my father, he’s been in the NBA for 30 years now, and coaching for, I don’t know, 60 years now, something like that. For me, He’s always told me “At the end of the day, be true to yourself. Be who you are. Don’t try to be something you’re not.” Not just in regards to coaching, just in life in general. That, and then combined with the fact that his parents came over here from Ireland and worked their tails off to give him, his brothers and his sisters a better life. My parents worked very hard to provide a better life for me and my five siblings. And [they] passed on that work ethic and mindset of ‘your obligation is to do the same thing for your kids.’ And I think that gets lost nowadays. What is a work ethic? What is providing for your family? Not just financially but also bettering your children’s lives, and teaching them right from wrong. So the biggest thing I take from him is be yourself. Be true to yourself. Don’t be something you’re not. And then on top of that, you have an obligation, like your grandparents, like your parents, to work hard and provide a better life for your children. And I have a job that I love, but I also attack it with a great work ethic because I do love it, but I also want to set the right example for my two girls.

Every dad and son – particularly in sports – has a trying moment or two. Do you recall the most trying moment you guys had? Conversely, what’s your best memory?

Many. You know it’s funny. I only played for my father once, and it was at a camp that he used to run. And I tell people it was the worst week of my life. And I was a decent player, but going through it and looking back on it, I look back on it and I say ‘thank you.’ Because I know now everything he was doing was only trying to make me better. And not be satisfied and to push me to be the best that I could be. Going through it I’m saying “Man get off my back.” I could have had a triple double, but he’s going to tell me about the four turnovers I had. I try to have that same balance with my girls. Be hard, push them, but also give them that encouragement and love and that passion that my father gave me. But there were many moments. I remember there was a game in high school, and I won’t get into why I was suspended, but it was the end of the game, and my father wasn’t able to see me play a lot, he’s coaching, he’s in the NBA, so he got to very few games. But two times he came to see me. One time in high school I’m suspended for a game, and [my father] is at the game he says, “Listen. I’m going to watch you go through your warm-ups, I want you to get sweating. I want you to work on your one-dribble pull-up right. I want you to work on your one-dribble pull-up left. I want to work on your finishes, right hand, left hand, around the basket.” It might have been the best pre-game warm-up I ever had. I wasn’t playing, but he wanted to see “O.K., what can you do?” And then when I went to prep school, I was at Worcester Academy, we played against MCI, who was the most talented team in New England prep school, and Sam Cassell was on the team. My father’s at the game – I think it might have been the only game he saw me play in prep school – and me and Sam Cassell get into a fight, and one of Sam’s teammates takes a swing at me from behind. And the next thing I look up and my father’s on the court. So I knew my father had my back, but he was very hard, but in a good way because I knew he wanted my best interests. But we definitely had some run-ins. But I love him, and appreciate everything he did.

He was also a big part of those Detroit Piston Bad Boys teams. And if my math is correct, you were 18, 19, 20 years old at the time. Did you like those teams? Did any of your coaching style come from his experience there?

The Bad Boys. That brings back so many good memories. My father’s first two years in Detroit they won back-to-back championships. When you think of the Bad Boys you think of toughness, nothing easy – Michael Jordan going to the basket and getting fouled and put on his ass. That whole mindset. The NBA has kind of gone away from that. You couldn’t even play like that now with all the rules. But being in the late ’80s, early ’90s was a very, very physical, hard-fought battle. And I think the Bad Boys, their rivalry with the Celtics, and then their rivalry with the Bulls. Beating the Lakers, beating Portland in back-to-back championships, being at the games, and if you remember, you have your Pistons logo but now all of the sudden they have the skull and crossbones, and the Bad Boys taking on that Raider mentality. And I drank the Kool-Aid, I was all the way in. And being around guys like Isaiah Thomas and Vinnie Johnson and Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman and John Salley, it was just great. Being in the locker room, being at practices, that definitely…My mindset is, if we could be a team that defends and has that kind of toughness and that mentality of nothing easy, we’re going to make you work for everything, we’re going to make you feel us for 48 minutes – hey I think that’s great basketball.

Outside of your dad, which coach along the way taught you the most?

I have been blessed; even go back, my high school coach Bobby Farrell is a legend in New Jersey high school coaches. I grew up under Bobby Farrell because as a junior I thought I had all the answers. We had a rocky relationship because I was a young punk. And then my senior year, I grew up, and we clicked, and I remain close with him. Our prep school coaches I mentioned before, Tom Blackburn is a legend. He was just old school, tough, hard-nosed, and I related to that. And because of what my father was, I thrived under a coach like that, who was just demanding and on top of me. Pete Gillen, great coach at Providence College in Virginia who I worked with. And then in the NBA, the guy that brought me in was Jeff Van Gundy, even though I didn’t work for him long, he had a profound impact. The detail, the work ethic, the organization. Then I think Mike Brown, the five years that I worked with Mike Brown in Cleveland were five unbelievable years. During that five-year span, we were the only team to get out of the first round every year, coaching LeBron James, but more importantly Mike Brown allowed me to coach, he gave me a voice, and I’ve tried to pay that forward to my coaches here in Denver. A lot of your coaches are coached “give them a voice,” and that way the grow and they get better, because it definitely had a huge impact on me in my career. So I’ve had so many great coaches as a young player in high school and college as well as coaches I’ve been with in college and the NBA.

Who has been your favorite player to coach?

I’ve really prided myself on the amount of good relationships I’ve had 15 years in the NBA as a head coach, as an assistant. Some guys that jump out like Chris Paul and I remain very close and the Clippers. I was only with him for a year but we just kind of clicked and hit it off because I think we shared the same passion for the game. DeMarcus Cousins is a guy that I coached in Sacramento. A lot of people tried to say, “no one can reach him, he’s uncoachable.” Me and DeMarcus are very close, we stay in touch. I even go back to Cleveland with LeBron for five years. Got close with him, [Zydrunas] Ilgauskas, and I go way back to New York, guys like Charlie Ward, guys like Allan Houston, Antonio McDyess. Again when you’re in the league for 15 years and you’re around so many different teams, you create bonds with so many players that you’re with, so I just named a few, but I’ve been blessed to really have great relationships with a lot of players and a lot of people that I still stay in touch with which I think is even better.

Who’s been one of the most trying, but also one who taught you a lot about coaching and how to handle players?

Probably the first reaction would be a guy like DeMarcus Cousins. I tried to go into Sacramento with a clean slate [with DeMarcus Cousins], because you hear this, you hear that. But what I found out was, as a coach, that didn’t happen on my watch. I’m going to give everyone an opportunity to show me who they are. And it wouldn’t have been fair to DeMarcus just to hold all that against him. But DeMarcus is a challenge just because he’s so competitive. What I realized is as a coach you can’t coach everybody the same way. This is not a democracy. You can’t coach everybody the same way and my job is to find out what makes guys click and how to get to that guy and bring out the best in him. What helped me with DeMarcus was I had to be true to myself per my father’s advice and DeMarcus and I were very similar, even though he’s a big, African American from the deep south and I’m a skinny white kid from New York City, inside of us we’re both competitive, we’re emotional, and we both hate to lose. And we found a way, and I think he respected the fact that I never tried to coach around him, I coached him, I held him accountable, and he saw how badly I wanted to win and I think we shared a lot of the same traits. But there was definitely challenges throughout the times but those challenges made me a better coach and those challenges made him a better player and a better teammate and a better leader. And I think we both benefitted from those challenges.

Any great LeBron stories? You got to spend a lot of time around him.

Everybody talks about what a great player LeBron James is, and what a freak athlete he was, especially when he was younger. And in a way I thought that they did him a disservice because no one really realized how hard he worked in his game. And it was ‘oh he’s just naturally talented’ You know what? He is naturally talented but I think that people didn’t realize for many years how hard LeBron worked. We always say when your best player is your hardest worker, you have a chance to be a very good team. And LeBron was the hardest worker. And he set the tone every single game. So if you have LeBron James coming in early, staying late, if you’re some other guy, you can’t come in and give maximum effort every day because here’s the best player in the NBA who’s doing it. One thing about him, he had an uncanny ability, and you see it on these YouTube videos, where he could pick a ball up right here and throw it into that basket and it’s going to go in. He could pick up a water bottle and throw it to that trash can and it was going to go in. Uncanny ability to make the most unbelievable trick shot plays happen, and it was just so easy for him. He was a freak athlete, but he’s also a freak in so many other areas. LeBron is always clipping his nails. That first year, in timeouts he was always clipping his nails. Again, I grew up with my father – old school, eye contact – and so at first it was really pissing me off. So I called him on it – “Hey LeBron, what did we just say? What are we doing for pick-and-roll coverage?” And without even missing a beat, [he’d say], “We’re blitzing with the five, showing with the four, one and three are going to switch.” And he had everything. So after that I realized that his I.Q. is off the charts. He’s always paying attention, and he was locked in. I always got a kick out of that. I think, again, his work ethic was something that no one ever gave him credit for, and he had a very high I.Q. He was more than just an athlete and I love the fact that early on when we had him in late-game situations, they would double team him, he would make the right play and then the other guy would miss the shot, and the media was getting all over LeBron ‘You got to take that shot.’ And I remember one game he was really emotional because we lost and the media was getting on him and we kept telling him, ‘You’re making the right play.’ And that’s what I loved about LeBron, unlike other great players. LeBron always wanted to make the right play. And what separates great players in my mind from very good players is the ability to make those around you better. Go to the Finals last year, who he had out there, and he’s almost willing his team to win. With Mathew Dellavedova, with [Timofey] Mozgov, with Tristan Thompson – no Kyrie [Irving], no Kevin Love, and that’s the true greatness of LeBron James is that he makes everyone around him that much better, and really believe that they’re that much better. And I think that’s the best part about his game.

What do you like about this Nuggets team? What intrigued you most about the job?

I love the fact that we are a work team. I told them first meeting, our culture has to be a work culture, it has to be a culture of trust, and it has to be a culture where there is selflessness, where it’s not about you, it’s about us. But I love how hard we’ve worked, and I’ve had to get on them a few times but I think that speaks to the veteran leadership we have with Jameer Nelson, and Randy Foye, and Mike Miller. But just the DNA of our team – these guys are willing to work and that excites me. Because if you’re willing to work and create good habits every day, you’re going to see progress. We’re early in preseason, only played two games but love how hard they’re working right now and how together we are.

Now that you’ve been here and come to know the organization a little, what’s been a pleasant surprise about Denver?

Me and my family, we live down in Highland Ranch, so we’re south a little bit. For probably the first month-and a half when I got the job I was staying at the four seasons downtown quite a bit. You know what I love about it? Denver is like a European city, very active, everybody is walking, biking, running, just a very lively feel to it, there’s a vibe to the city. And then probably my favorite thing is when I go home, and I can sit out on the back deck and see the sun set over the Rocky Mountains. I’m not used to that and it’s just the natural beauty of Denver and the entire state of Colorado. My wife, my girls, myself, I love it. I woke up this morning, we’d been gone for ten days, I look out and now I see snow in the mountains. It’s pretty neat, just the natural beauty. And this is a sports town. Sacramento, it was a one-horse town, we were the only show there. Here, we got Peyton and the Broncos, you got the Rockies, you got the Avalanche, so it’s a great sports city, and I think I’m excited to be in a big city with the vibe of a great sports fans that are just waiting for the Nuggets to get back to the playoffs and be a team that they can be proud of.

How is Emmanuel Mudiay “wise beyond his years?” What have you observed about him that any coach would love?

It’s funny I think everyone on our team works hard, sometimes I think that guys think they are working harder than they are, and so Emmanuel is young. And there’s a lot coming at him–mentally, as well as physically. I’ve gotten on him a few times where it’s, “hey you have to work hard. You have to work harder more consistently. You’re going to get better. But this league is not going to take it easy on you. No one is going to feel sorry for you because you’re a rookie.” I talked to him about Steph Curry, talked to him about Chris Paul, talked to him about LeBron James, and how hard they worked every day – during practice, before practice, after practice, in the weight room. For none of those guys has it happened over night. It’s not going to happen just boom, he’s got it. But I think the more examples that I can give him of great players that I have been around, seen first-hand how hard they’ve worked and shared that with him, and have Chris Paul share words of wisdom with him when we’re in L.A., that’s only going to help him and benefit him in the long run. Emmanuel is working hard right now but I think he has another gear that he can get to work even harder and when he gets there, then I think you see the development even speeds up that much quicker.

The great thing about Chris is that’s the kind of guy Chris is. He’s one of those guys who will pay-it-forward a little bit. But Chris and I spoke over the summer and we talked about Emmanuel. We talked about him after we played [in the preseason] and all the things that he was excited about and [Chris says], “Hey this kid’s got a chance to be a heck-of-a player.” He goes, “We spoke. I gave him some things.” We had talked about that but I also think it speaks about the kind of guy that Chris Paul is, trying to help a guy like Emmanuel. He doesn’t owe Emmanuel anything. We’re in the Western Conference with them. I think Chris is just that kind of player where he’s just going to try to help when he can. And I think that fact that Chris and I have the relationship that we do probably helped a little bit as well.