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Michael Malone returns to Sacramento, where he hoped to stay longer

"Excited to see the people that I care about," Nuggets coach Michael Malone

"Excited to see the people that I care about," Nuggets coach Michael Malone.
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"Excited to see the people that I care about," Nuggets coach Michael Malone.

Michael Malone coached the Kings for 106 games.

That time still resonates in Sacramento, from the players still on the team who quickly grew to respect him to staffers who enjoyed interacting with him to fans who loved the New York native’s no-nonsense style.

Malone was cheered in his first game as an opposing head coach Friday when the Kings defeated the Denver Nuggets 116-110 at Sleep Train Arena.

Malone was fired Dec. 14, 2014, with an 11-13 record in his second season, a mark that most league observers saw as overachieving, especially with DeMarcus Cousins out sick for nine of those games.

But why the love for a coach with a 39-67 record (.368) in one-plus seasons with Sacramento? Because after years of dysfunction, the Kings appeared headed toward normalcy.

This season, the Kings have been a punchline nationally again. Decisions have been mocked, and erroneous reports of the head coach about to be fired and the actual firing of an assistant coach were part of the landscape.

That wasn’t the case under Malone.

“Short time here but a lot of good memories,” Malone said. “And the hope was to be here for a lot longer. The decision was made obviously to go in another direction, but excited to be back, excited to see people I care about.”

The way Malone was fired and the aftermath only added to his mystique in Sacramento.

Short time here, but a lot of good memories. And the hope was to be here for a lot longer. The decision was made obviously to go in another direction but excited to be back, excited to see people I care about.

Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone

He was let go while his best player, Cousins, was out with viral meningitis. It was said the decision was about the style of play, not the team’s record.

Players took Malone’s firing hard and fell apart on the court. The Kings went 7-21 under Tyrone Corbin and 11-19 under Karl.

Local and national media ripped the Kings. Coaches and players around the league took shots, too. LeBron James, who worked with Malone in Cleveland, said he didn’t like how Malone was treated.

“When I got fired, the reaction from the local media, the fans, the national media, I wound up looking like John Wooden, a great coach,” Malone said.

Malone is proving he’s not a bad coach in Denver. The Nuggets are 22-33 and 5 1/2 games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and 1 1/2 games behind the Kings.

That’s a feat, considering little was expected of Denver. Malone, however, said Friday was not about proving anything to the Kings.

When I got fired, the reaction from the local media, the fans, the national media, I wound up looking like John Wooden, a great coach.

Malone, on his departure from the Kings

“I don’t have to prove anything – I know I can coach,” Malone said. “Vivek (Ranadive) gave me an opportunity. ... There’s no ill will; there’s no hard feelings.”

Still evident are the feelings many have for Malone. Cousins sent Malone an autographed jersey from the All-Star Game last year with a note of gratitude.

Malone isn’t taking the reception for granted.

“It speaks to the impact you had,” Malone said. “Coaching is all about relationships. Can you form relationships? Can you get guys to buy in and trust you?

“And in a short amount of time, I was able to do that with DeMarcus and Rudy (Gay) and Ben (McLemore) and Quincy (Acy) and all the guys that were here, all the guys I still stay in touch with. When DeMarcus has success, I’m happy. When he made the All-Star team for a second time, I was happy. I root for those guys. I care about them as people and as players.”

And Sacramento still cares about Malone.

Jason Jones: @mr_jasonjones, read more about the team at sacbee.com/kings.

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