Early Lessons Form Strong Foundation for LaKale Malone
July 25, 2012
by Mike Koon, Illinois Sports Information Staff
LaKale Malone grew up in middle Tennessee learning the importance of family, fun, fairness and discipline. Perhaps no one person rubbed off on her more than her grandmother, a school bus driver in Murfreesboro. She taught LaKale to treat everyone with respect and fairness and the granddaughter learned that through the years in riding her bus to school each day.
"She didn't have any enemies," Malone said of her grandmother. "It was really hard not to like her. She always had a smile on her face, but she was a huge disciplinarian."
The idea came to light one day when she was late for the bus and her grandmother left her -- the way she would have done any other student on that route who didn't arrive on time.
Malone, who begins her first year as an assistant coach at Illinois this year, had a good foundation in learning the strong values and that rubbed off on the basketball court where her grandmother's lessons and philosophy echoed. She remembers starting to play the game at the age of five, earned a spot on the varsity team as a seventh grader and continued to grow in the game at Riverdale High.
Her influence as a basketball player grew under the tutelage of coach Keith Short, who moved from rival Sparta High School, which had produced players like Tennessee sharpshooter Kelly Jolly, to Riverdale for Malone's final two seasons.
"Coach Short was an influence just by the way he conducted himself every day in practice," Malone remembers. "He was fair, honest and very straightforward. He got the best out of us and was motivational. He taught me that a coach can have a great relationship with players and still demand the best out of the them."
For Malone, who earned a scholarship to play basketball at Indiana in the late 1990s, the hard work revealed itself most on the defensive end.
"As a player, I loved defense," she said. "I know defense is the name of the game. If you commit yourself on defense, your offense will happen. My philosophy as a coach is to let your defense create your offense. Defensively you want to cause chaos for the offensive team and get them out of rhythm. Those are the things that can help you conquer an opponent's mentality. Offensively, you can still have that same attack mindset."
Malone played for Jim Izard at Indiana, earning a Bachelor of Science Degree in accounting and marketing before playing for Sports Reach, an international organization with the goal of reaching the world through athletics. After stops as an assistant at Wagner and Bradley, she helped Connie Yori build Nebraska into a national caliber program as an assistant and Gail Goestenkors recruit four McDonald's All-Americans at Texas in the same capacity.
"Every year has been different," Malone said. "Some places have taught me about player management. Some places have taught me about game management. I feel blessed for the opportunities I have had."
Malone first met now Illinois head coach Matt Bollant along the recruiting trail when Bollant was at Indiana, and admired his character, his willingness to smile through the intense process and his approach to game.
"You're around a lot of people in coaching world, but you remember the great ones that you meet," Malone said. "I'm not the only person in this profession that respects Coach Bollant's demeanor."
So when Bollant approached Malone about filling a spot on the staff as an assistant and recruiting coordinator, it wasn't a tough sell.
"He's one of the best coaches in the game," Malone said of Bollant. "He's a man of high character. He's going to follow the rules, treat the players and staff fairly and isn't afraid to smile and have fun. I asked him about his vision and told him `Whatever your vision, it's going to be my vision.' That's how it should be as a coaching staff."
Before making the final decision, Malone came to campus to meet the players, who ultimately helped close the deal.
"When I met the players, it was an easy decision," she said. "When change happens, it doesn't always feel good initially. When I met our team, they had been around Coach Bollant for a short amount of time, yet had already bought in. They are eager and hungry for success."
With eight scholarships available for the 2013 class, the Illini coaches have set their sights on bringing in a big class to continue to raise the bar.
"We want skill players who are multi-dimensional," Malone said on player evaluation. "The best players in the country are versatile. They have the ability to get to the rim on one or two bounces, shoot the mid-range pull-up, shoot the three and know the little things of the game, which ultimately produce big results. We have to be able to determine their coachabilty, their heart and how they handle adversity. Every single person on this staff is committed to making our players better."
Malone is also getting to know the current players and continues to love what she sees.
"Our players are working the hardest they probably have ever worked in their life," Malone said. "The feedback we're getting from them is `It feels good to work hard'. When that happens, they're building mental toughness. I feel really good about the future of this program with our current players and those to come."
Today, Malone has traded in that school bus for a motorcycle.
"I'm not a Harley owner yet, but I'm thinking along those lines," she said.
What she hasn't traded is her love for family, whom she continues to be close with and her hard-core values. Her first mentor and favorite bus driver passed away two years ago, but Malone now has a model of a school bus on her desk to remind her of her grandmother and to always stay focused. Those principals continue to guide her as a person and coach.