The firing of Michael Malone happened more than a year ago now, but the ripple effects are still felt in Sacramento. The move led to a shift in the front office and throughout the locker room, so when Malone returned for the first time Friday night with his Denver Nuggets all eyes were on the man many Kings fans feel should have never been let go in the first place.
But where does that feeling come from? Despite his love in Sacramento, Malone doesn't have much a history as a head coach, nor a particular strong track record of success (he's 61-100 over the last three seasons). He did, however, help build the beloved November 2014 Kings (which at this point some fans I'm sure would be OK with a banner hanging in the rafters for) that surprised the NBA early in that season. But a month of exciting basketball is not why his tenure in Sacramento is considered a success by many. It was the way he got through to DeMarcus Cousins that did it. Unlike Cousins' other coaches, including George Karl who has had a rocky relationship with his star since he arrived, Malone broke through the emotional wall the 6'11" center can put up. So much so that the two of them were finishing each other's sentences at one point.
I asked Malone what he did to connect with Boogie.
"I'm myself. Be true to yourself and I was real. In a weird way, DeMarcus and I are very, very similar - both highly competitive, can be a little emotional at times and as I told him many times, I never wanted to change DeMarcus, I just wanted him to harness all that competitive fire and use it in a positive way," Malone said. "But we hit it off because I think he knew that I was real and I'm not going to BS anybody. And I never coached around him, I think he respected that."
Cousins does seem like the type of person who values a genuine, open and honest relationship - he lives by the slogan "loyalty is love."
Malone's team's live by defense. After the Kings defeated the Nuggets 116-110, Cousins joked that going up against Malone's defensive schemes was "pretty easy," but followed up by saying it was great seeing his former coach.
"It's always good seeing Mike, taught me a lot, I learned a lot from him. He's still somebody I talk to to this day," Cousins said. "Our relationship remains the same."
Aside from the pleasantries, Malone tapped into the thoughts of many this season when it comes to how Cousins is at his best when he is in the paint. The Kings have gone away from relying on the big man down low and have let him roam the perimeter, shooting more from the outside. Friday night, the Kings went back to bully Boogie ball as he gobbled up the paint, getting the Nuggets big men in foul trouble on his way to 37 points and 20 rebounds. It resulted in a loss for Malone, but also a reminder of the player he once had.
"When I was here, I posted Cuz up all the time and they haven't posted him up a lot. Tonight, they went to him in the post all night long and we had no answer for him," Malone said. "When he was with me and I was with him he was doing the same thing, he's a load, he can score with his back to the basket, he's going to draw the foul, he's going to find the open man, he can put the ball on the floor. No knock on him, but I thought he was a great player when I was here and tonight he had a great game and kicked our ass."
It wasn't just a reunion of sorts for Malone and Cousins. Quincy Acy, Ben McLemore and Rudy Gay, who considers Malone to be a big brother, all came up to chat with their former coach. Malone said he felt like it was a wedding reception line.
"I miss those guys, I love all of them," Malone said.
For more on Malone and the current state of the Kings, make sure you check out Sam Amick's latest at USA TODAY.