Joe Malone first met John Calipari in the early 1990’s when Calipari was coaching at Massachusetts, but it was the 1996 Final Four that the UMass coach truly impressed Malone.
UMass lost to eventual national champion Kentucky in the Final Four that year when Calipari’s team had a rally thwarted when he was given a technical foul for being outside the coaching box.
“After the game, John’s comments were all about it was his mistake. He apologized to the team and said it would not happen again,” Malone said. “I was so impressed by the way he conducted himself that I wrote him a note telling him how impressed I was. He wrote back and our friendship blossomed from there.”
That friendship evolved to a point where Malone’s son, Sam, is now a freshman walk-on point guard at Kentucky under Calipari. However, this was not an instantaneous decision because of the relationship between Calipari and the Malone family, who live in Scituate, Mass.
Joe Malone laughs as he remembers sending his sons to Calipari’s basketball camp at Memphis after the coach left UMass for the New Jersey Nets and then returned to college coaching at Memphis.
“Sam and his older brother wanted to go to Cal’s camp. Sam was 10 and his brother, Joe, was 12. I thought I would take them down and keep myself busy for four days and let them go to camp,” the father said. “At the last minute, a day or two before camp, I could not make it down due to business. I called Memphis to let them know the boys would not make it to camp and was it OK to cancel.”
To his surprise, Calipari called him and told him to put the boys on a plane, he would have someone meet them and they could stay at his house where he would “keep an eye on them” during their stay.
“My older son said, ‘I think I will pass.’ But not Sam. He said he was going and when his older brother heard that, he decided he would go, too,” Joe Malone said. “Off the two went for four great days at the camp and they returned safe and sound. Every year after that they managed to find a way there to Memphis for camp with or without me and always really enjoyed their stay immensely.
“I remember calling Cal one day to see how Sam was doing when he was about 14. He said, ‘Joe, I am watching him and he is tough as nails.’ Two of his assistants walked over and said pretty much the same thing. That was fun to hear.”
Sam Malone had an injury-riddled prep career. He played for the Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC) in AAU play and was coached by legendary coach Leo Papile, a scout with the Boston Celtics. At one time, Joe Malone was an assistant coach for his son AAU’s team.
“He has had good coaching, but he’s also had a lot of injuries, including three knee surgeries,” his father said. “I won’t even get into all the other stuff. Through it all, he has just gotten more and more tenacious, more and more strong minded. The book Cal wrote, ‘Bounce Back,’ is right up his alley
“When he was a sophomore in high school coming off an ACL injury, he was the point guard on our team that won the Eastern Massachusetts championship and lost in the state finals.”
He got an offer to attend Tilton School, a prep school in New Hampshire, and went there his junior season where he played with Alex Oriahki, the starting center last season on Connecticut’s national championship team. “The coach said he rarely seen a kid who is as tough-minded and physical as he is who in order to win lays it all on the line. He felt like you couldn’t create heart. That’s probably part of the reason he’s had so many injuries. He does not know anything but full speed. He is deeply passionate about basketball and wants to be a coach one day.
“He has very quick hands he uses on defense very well. He sees the floor. He loves to get in the paint and find the open man to dish it, too. He’s more of a distributor than anything else.”
Sam Malone returned to his Massachusetts high school team for his senior season because he suffered a second knee injury at Tilton and his father felt it would be better for him to be back home.
“Tilton was a great experience for him and he got quality time despite his injury,” Malone’s father said.
Sam Malone also caught the eye of former Boston College and NBA player Bill Curley, who runs summer basketball camps.
“He loved coming to games to watch Sam play defense because he said it was such a treat to see a kid play so hard,” Joe Malone said.
However, Sam Malone also had a soft heart. His dad still fondly remembers what he calls his son’s own “Blind Side” story from AAUÃ?Â¿play when his son and one other player were on a team with all African-American players.
“He would go into the inner city because we live on the water. He invited kids to come stay a week or so with us,” Malone’s father said. “One kid lived in a violent neighborhood and stayed a week. Then his dad called and said his son told him my son told him to call me to see if he could stay with us. Rodney became our fifth child. The two were about inseparable. They were very loyal friends. Now Rodney is at a junior college and hopefully will play Division IÃ?Â¿basketball next year.”
Sam Malone, though, will be playing Division IÃ?Â¿basketball at Kentucky this year as part of a team Calipari believes could win a national championship.
“Sam was pleasantly shocked by his offer,” Joe Malone said. “Last year, he called and asked what Sam was doing next year and I told him he had some feelers from schools. He said, ‘If he wants to play for us and be a walk-on, IÃ?Â¿would love to have him.’ I said, ‘Where does he sign up?’ I called Sam to let him know what happened and he was at dinner with his high school teammates,” Joe Malone said. “He could not hold it back. He told his coach who announced to the rest of the team about him being invited. There was quite a buzz around our town, and still is.
“I think the world of Cal and we are so excited about this opportunity for Sam. We are all thrilled, and will be for a long time.”