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Malik Hall - Not forgotten

MSU’s combo forward had to grow up quickly before he arrived in East Lansing.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 29 Northwestern at Michigan State
Malik Hall looks back on a very successful freshman season.
Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Currently the coronavirus is tightening its grip on the planet basically every day and most societies have responded by shutting down large parts of their public life. It is a time when quite a few people urge the world to remind itself of the real important things in life. Of caring for loved ones, of being healthy and having the freedom to roam wherever we might choose. They also note that many of us have apparently forgotten core values and daily appreciation for life in a world that is spinning faster by the day. Longing for morality is understandable yet that current lesson is paid for with a steep price that cannot be accounted for in daily numbers or tolls. Some people never had to learn that lesson to begin with. They already knew what personal suffering is, what memories mean and what a tremendous present every day on this earth is for most of us. They knew how precious health and time spent together are. Just ask Malik Hall and his family.

Malik Hall, originally born on July 25, 2000 in Spokane, Washington, grew up in Aurora, Illinois, and enjoyed carefree early years centered around one thing – basketball. His father Lorenzo used to be a college basketball assistant coach for 15 years until he started his own business. With “First Step Basketball” he took care of young people interested in the game and trained countless kids for seven days a week. Malik and his sister were always in the gym with him and quickly developed their own love for hoops, mirrowing their father‘s passion. Numerous special moments occured along the way. When Malik was four years old his Dad took him on a trip to Fontana, California, to give a player a private workout. As teacher and pupil went through their regimen, the younger Hall picked up a ball and played around on the other side of the court. Moments later a swishing sound went through the almost empty gym. Lorenzo Hall immediately stopped his workout, stormed over to his son and picked him up cheerfully. Malik had just scored his first real basket on a 10 foot hoop – a more than special play for his father.

A special relationship with his father

It‘s just one of many happy early memories Malik has of his Dad. “We worked out a lot, even when I was young,” Malik says in retrospect. “My relationship with him was really close. He was one of my best friends because I spent so much time with him. After every workout we stopped at the same 7-Eleven and got the same chips and a slurpee. It probably wasn‘t good for us but it sure is my favorite memory.” Malik smiles when he utters these words yet there‘s sadness and grief in his voice, too. “If I could go back in time I‘d go back to those days, to 2008,” Malik adds. “I would just talk with him about life again like we did back then.”

Michigan State v Maryland
Hall learned a lot of his basketball fundamentals from his father.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Today, Malik Hall can still talk to his father but it‘s not the same as it was when he was younger. Things have changed. It all started in 2009 when Lorenzo all of a sudden began to act differently. His temper flared up and down almost uncontrollably and he seemed to think in other ways than he had before. At first the youngest Hall didn‘t realize what was happening. “Malik was nine years old when the symptoms appeared for his father,” Malik‘s mother Julie explains. “Everything came fairly quickly then and we realized that something was seriously wrong. It really blindsided us.” It turned out that Lorenzo Hall, an usually healthy, passionate man, had early onset dementia. Soon everything that he had in his life was gone from his memory. The buzzer sounded yet there was no next game anymore. Lorenzo couldn‘t remember what year he and Julie got married, he couldn‘t remember where he worked. It became so tough that he had to move to supportive living community 20 minutes away from the family house. A way he would never be able to travel on his own again.

Through it all Julie Hall stood by her husband‘s side as well as she could. She spent countless hours to fill him in on the things he couldn‘t remember anymore, like what TV channel college basketball was on. Day after day she drove to visit him and supported him through his disease. She had to close the family business, homes were lost and she worked hard to make ends meet. On top of it all, she took on the monumental challenge of not only raising two young kids but also of protecting them from the shocking effects of the dementia. “I always told the kids that it is not their father who is speaking to them at times, it is the disease,” Julie says and remembers times when Lorenzo couldn‘t even have coherent conversations with his kids. For Malik, a young boy struggling for direction, basketball was the safety net, a safety net his mother more than willingly expanded after his Dad had opened it up earlier in his life. Lorenzo is adding what he can – which turns out to be quite significant. “He is not capable of doing normal parenting, he can‘t give advice to his kids on a daily basis,” Julie says with tears in her eyes. “But I tell you, he can give love. And both of my kids know that he loves them.”

Growing up quickly

Even with this unconditional love on his mind, Malik knew he would have to grow up quickly without a man in his household. His mother helped him, showing him “how a man should act”. The staffs at Sunrise Christian Academy or on the MOKAN Elite AAU team did their part of filling the roles of strong male support figures Malik needed. On the vast plains of Kansas Hall developed into a high school hoops star, a player with the potential to play big time college basketball and maybe even more. He possessed a thick lower body, nimble feet and next level athleticism. On top of it he mixed a tough, physical game with advanced basketball smarts and sophisticated fundamentals. A lot of it was driven by memory, Malik never forgot those early years he had with his Dad. “A lot of people only saw a teenage boy playing basketball,” Chris Neff, Malik‘s coach for MOKAN Elite, said. “His father means everything to him in regards to the game. His father trained him all the things that he does today. He pays a lot of respect to his father whenever he takes the floor.” That respect though also raised concerns, many of which a teenager shouldn‘t have in this world. “It was a scary time because I was never really home,” Hall remembered of the days traveling throughout the country as a hopeful basketball prodigee. “What if I don‘t get to say goodbye?”

Michigan State v Northwestern
Hall possesses next level athletisism and showed it quite often.
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Think about that for a second… Malik Hall still persisted and continued his career path, a path his father had laid out for him. Faithful, determined, mature and with a strong heart in his chest, Malik Hall found his role and his future in the sport. A sport that would offer him the opportunity to take the next step in his life. Tom Izzo and his coaches identified him as a potential Michigan State Spartan and soon even put a prestigious label on him – OKG. It stands for “Our Kind Of Guy”, describing physical but even more importantly mental traits that describe the ideal for a true MSU basketball player. “He could play different positions, was versatile and he was athletic,” Tom Izzo remembers of the days watching Hall in high school. “He could handle the ball, he could shoot it and he could be on the block.” After Hall committed to Michigan State, Izzo let people know that he even saw a little bit of legendary Spartan and NBA All Star Draymond Green in his new forward, a player that could operate from everywhere on the floor and mix it up both inside and outside the paint. The lofty praise raised expectations that were quickly answered once Hall arrived in East Lansing, at least briefly.

In an early season road test against the Seton Hall Pirates Malik Hall exploded for 17 points on a perfect seven of seven from the floor. In a tight, hard fought, up and down battle that resembled a second weekend NCAA Tournament brawl, the Spartans prevailed 76-73. It was the freshman who scored the go ahead basket for MSU with just 25 seconds to go. Yet the screams of legendary Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery, who worked the game on television, soon faded and with them the effect of Hall‘s monumental early season effort. For the upcoming months he could not regain the magic he showed that night in New Jersey and had to deal with a lot of the struggles every freshman has to go through. “I had to find my consistency and learn what shots to take and what shots not to take,” Hall says. Foul trouble kept bothering him and being a combo forward he struggled at times to handle the size and brawn the college level had to offer in the paint. But there were always flashes. Like when he hit a smooth fadeaway jumper at the Maui Invitational, a move that usually only pros can make. Or when he soared for a baseline slam called a charge against Western Michigan. Sometimes he made plays that only a few players can make athletically or skill wise. As the year went on these flashes started to come more regularly.

Late season surge bodes well for the future

Paired with a determined effort in practice they earned him a starting spot during the middle of the conference season, a spot he only relinquished for certain matchups and on senior night when Kyle Ahrens got his last start in a Spartans uniform. Hall‘s play helped Michigan State to turn the season around and secure a share of the Big Ten regular season title. His best effort late in the year came in a pivotal road game against the Maryland Terrapins. He finished with 16 points, 6 rebounds and again perfect shooting from the floor. Most notably though his defense got much better at the end of the season and he felt a lot more secure within his role. Even though the season was cut short due to the global corona pandemic, Hall‘s play bodes well for the future. For him and for the team. “Malik has got a high IQ and that‘s going to help him a lot,” fellow big man Xavier Tillman says. “The coaches like a guy who‘s cerebral and knows our offensive and defensive schemes.” Malik also knows that his late season surge could have a huge benefit in the future. “I see this as a chance to solidify my role for years to come,” the forward says. “I want to make the most of it no matter what it takes. Being a starter, I want to do whatever I can to stay in this role.”

Rutgers v Michigan State
Hall being a starter as a sophomore is not stretch at all.
Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

With some of MSU‘s stars like Cassius Winston and maybe even Xavier Tillman leaving next season, there will be large shoes to fill and roles to expand. Malik Hall, who closed the season with averages of 4.7 points per game, 3.7 rebounds and strong shooting percentages across the board, used to be forgotten somewhere in the rotation but not anymore. He will be looked upon to take on his part and continue to emerge as a top contributor. How much he will be able to give remains to be seen. But other things are certain, like the love from his Dad and the connection these two have through the game of basketball. “Luckily he has made it to quite a few games and we still talk a lot about hoops,” Malik says with a smile. “He has retained a lot of his knowledge of the game and I still talk to him about a lot of the stuff like pick and rolls for example. Sometimes it just makes click and his old self is talking to me just like he used to do.”

Some of these thoughts and life lessons have persisted, just like the Hall family has persisted throughout a lot. One emotion never left their side, through sickness or health, through all the ups and downs. Love has always been a driving force behind everything they did and it got them where they are today. It got Malik where he is today, a position in which he is set up for a bright future. A future that will continue to bring a smile to his father‘s face and which will make him repeat the words he already loves to say whenever he can.

“I‘m so proud of Malik,” Lorenzo says with a smile. Deep down inside of him, he will probably never forget that.