Denver coach Mike Malone’s telephone is ringing off the proverbial hook these days, nearly a year after Sacramento fired him and five months after the Nuggets hired him as their new coach.
It didn’t ring much at all as 2014 turned to 2015 – two weeks after the Kings told him to go away and paid him to do so – until Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders called.
The two knew each other as all coaches in the NBA fraternity do, but not well. Saunders called, inviting him to join the Wolves on a couple of West Coast trips so Malone could be back around the game and give his opinions about Saunders’ team.
“It meant the world,” said Malone, the son of longtime NBA coach Brendan Malone but a man who called himself, like Saunders, a self-made coach. “It wasn’t like we went back years. Two weeks after I get fired and Flip Saunders is extending an invitation to me to spend time with him and his staff. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Saunders told Malone he called because he had been fired three times – in Minnesota, Detroit and Washington, from every NBA coaching job he ever had – and told him something about the experiences.
“You hear from everybody a day or two after you’ve been fired and two weeks later, no one is calling you,” Malone said. “Life goes on after you’re fired. I don't want a pity party, I don't want people calling me every day anyway. But Flip called…”
That’s why Malone said he’s grieved these last five days since Saunders died on Sunday at age because of complications from his cancer treatment, even though Malone didn’t know him well for all that long.
That’s why Malone and Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly were bound for Minnesota after Friday night’s game against the Wolves so they could join other executives and coaches from around the league at a private memorial service on Saturday that will celebrate Saunders’ life.
Connelly is a longtime friend of Saunders; the two men worked together for the Wizards in Washington.
Malone will stop in Minnesota on his way to the Nuggets’ game Sunday in Oklahoma City.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” Malone said.
Longtime friend Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers’ coach, will do so, too. He and Clippers assistant Sam Cassell, who played for Saunders with the Wolves a decade ago, are scheduled to fly to the memorial service along with Los Angeles Lakers assistant and former Wolves player Mark Madsen and Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, among others, on Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s private jet.
Malone said he had a pin made a few weeks back intended to remember Saunders fighting the good fight against Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When Saunders died Sunday, Malone said he talked with Carlisle, president of the NBA coaches association, and the two decided all 30 league coaches should wear the pin this season in Saunders’ memory.
“He's just a normal guy,” Malone said, speaking in the present tense. “He’s a guy with over 1,000 wins as a coach, 600 in the NBA. Just a down-to-earth, no-ego, upbeat, positive guy. I think the reason he reached out to me, he saw something in me that he saw in himself: a guy who worked for everything he got, worked his way up, college, CBA to the NBA, who had success at every stop. That's maybe why he took to me a little bit. I mean, to see everybody speaking about Flip, it’s not just people saying the right things, it's heartfelt and it's sincere.”
Malone said he’ll always cherish the time he spent with Saunders and the Wolves’ coaching staff last winter. He said he’ll remember the conversations talking about “hoops and life,” and an evening spent in Saunders’ suite watching a MMA fight.
“Flip is a smart man,” Malone said. “He has been around a lot of situations…I feel blessed to have gotten to know him the way I did before he passed.”