Video: Malnati era begins at Fenwick

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New Fenwick boys basketball coach Rick Malnati will coach his first game for the Friars at 6 p.m. Wednesday against West Suburban Gold favorite Morton in the opening game of the Lyons Thanksgiving tournament.

Malnati gave Pioneer Press access to his first preseason practice Nov. 11. Before players arrived for the first day of tryouts, Malnati was already in the gym.

New Fenwick boys basketball coach Rick Malnati values introductions.

Before holding his first team meeting at Fenwick’s first preseason practice Nov. 11, the 54-year-old former New Trier coach interrupted a stretching routine to introduce himself to two new players he did not see over the summer.

Malnati walked over to junior Joe Buzinski and shook his hand. Buzinski is wearing a gray Quincy University basketball T-shirt and was listed on the roster for last year’s sophomore team. He did not attend basketball workouts over the summer, preferring to focus on football, where he served as a reserve wide receiver for the eventual Catholic League White champions. Buzinski and the Friars played against St. Rita Saturday in the Catholic League final.


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“I wanted to see what I got (for tryouts),” Buzinski said. “I wanted to see how good I can be.”

After meeting Buzinski, Malnati walked a few steps to freshman Jamal Nixon, who is wearing a black basketball T-shirt. Malnati has actually met Nixon before, but doesn’t remember that moments before he addresses his new team for the first time at preseason practice. Malnati watched the 6-foot-3 Nixon at a fall league at Young and invited him to try out with the varsity instead of the freshmen team after seeing Nixon play.

Nixon lives in Plainfield and is the only freshman practicing with the varsity on the first day of preseason practice as restricted by the IHSA. Malnati holds two practice sessions, first from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and then from noon to 2 p.m., on Nov. 11, a day off for the rest of the school in observance for Veteran’s Day.

“There was good intensity. Everybody was involved and everybody was hard working,” Nixon said after his first practice as a Friar.

Buzinski and Nixon are two of 15 hopeful Fenwick players to attend Malnati’s first official practice as the Friars’ coach. More football players are expected to attend preseason practice after their season ends, but Malnati is not willing to make any predictions on how many football players will find spots on the basketball team. Only one football player, senior cornerback Keshaun Smith, was a regular contributor on last year’s varsity basketball team.

Surrounded by state championship banners for swimming and water polo, Malnati conducted his first formal Fenwick practice under the glare of only one banner devoted to Fenwick boys basketball. The retired No. 50 banner honors former Fenwick and Duke star Corey Maggette, who has played 14 NBA seasons before getting released by the Spurs Oct. 15.

There are no future NBA players currently in Malnati’s gym, but the veteran coach was hired April 22 to bring success to Fenwick. He has replaced John Quinn, who was fired after 28 seasons in March. Quinn was Maggette’s high school coach.

Malnati wanted to return to the high school sidelines after coaching New Trier, his alma mater, from 1996-2008. At Loyola, Malnati gained experience from head coach Porter Moser, who was a former assistant coach to the late Rick Majerus at Saint Louis.

“I got a chance to learn,” Malnati said. “College was 24/7 basketball. There were a lot of opportunities to learn different things. There were a lot of things you can take away from Loyola and what I learned from Porter.”

Fenwick’s best basketball player, Northwestern recruit Scott Lindsey, isn’t even able to practice and will miss the beginning of the season after breaking his left leg Aug. 31 in a scrimmage while making an unofficial visit to Vanderbilt. Lindsey broke his growth plate and his fibula and tibia in what was could be considered a pick-up game. He verbally committed to Northwestern Sept. 22 and signed his letter of intent Nov. 13.

“It was pretty bad,” Lindsey said of the injury. “It was unexpected. You never expect something like that.”

Malnati was a special assistant/advisor two years ago and an assistant coach last season under Moser, a former Benet star. Malnati was trying to recruit Lindsey for Loyola a year ago and now Malnati will be able to coach Lindsey for his senior season. Lindsey even attended one of Loyola’s exposure camps for elite prospects. For now, Lindsey watches practices from the sidelines while in crutches.

“We knew when coach Quinn got fired, we knew they would go for a good coach,” Lindsey said. “We knew they would make a big splash. We all like (coach Malnati). He’s very popular.”

In one drill on the first day, a post player fails to play defense up to Malnati’s standards. The coach tells him to take one lap around the court. After the lap is over, it is Lindsey who takes the player aside to give him more instruction, not Malnati or an assistant coach.

Before his first pep talk, Malnati introduces his players to new team manager Dylan Gresik, a sophomore from Riverside. Gresik was the manager for last year’s Freshman team and was recommended by a previous coach. Gresik was a JV golfer for Fenwick during the fall, but works the scoreboard clock for Fenwick’s first practice.

Malnati also brings up another team rule regarding introductions. In the summer, he asked his players to introduce themselves if any strangers entered the gym. He repeats that rule at the first practice and two of his players, seniors Tom Planek and Jeremy Ireland, introduce themselves after practice to a reporter watching from the sidelines.

For a few minutes, athletic director Scott Thies drops by Malnati’s first practice on the way to his office.

“We are very excited,” Thies said. “I think coach Malnati has spent the last few months getting to know our kids and has a great relationship with our students, the athletes and there is great staff support for him.”

Unlike many basketball coaches, Malnati does not use a whistle during practice. He prefers to yell, “Timeout!” when he needs a drill stopped. But Malnati carries a whistle in his pocket, just in case though it always remains in his pocket. He plans on holding four practices in the first two days while players are getting timed in separate one-mile runs as “guideposts” for conditioning. Malnati would like to see his perimeter players run the mile in 5:30 or better and post players at six minutes.

“We can control what kind of shape we are in,” Malnati said. “We can’t control certain skills like height, but we could control conditioning.”

Before practice, the left-handed Malnati writes notes on a sheet of paper on what he would like to cover. The sheet is folded and kept in his front pocket. During practices, he regularly refers to the sheet by pulling it in and out of his pocket during breaks.

His first practice begins with a solo dribbling drill and builds up to drills featuring 1-on-1, 3-on-3 and finally 4-on-4 situations.

Malnati brings plenty of fire and passion to his first practice and yells “Timeout!” regularly for instruction. He shows constant attention to details. Instead of expletives, Malnati uses “frickin,” as in “be super frickin tough” or “get your hands off your frickin legs” when a player shows fatigue.

In one drill, the team is divided up by guards and post players. Malnati, a former guard at Bradley University, handles perimeter players while new assistant coach Staunton Peck works with post players.

And Malnati is ready with a quip in a show of his quick wit and decades of experience as a coach:

• “Sleep at home. Don’t sleep here.”

• To one guard: “You’re 5-7 with heels on.”

• “I’m 72 years old with a new hip and I can move better.”

• And when one player doesn’t show proper defensive stance, Malnati corrects him and then tells him: “Winning is hard.”

Fenwick players should find out how hard in the coming weeks.

Even though he has not coached at New Trier since 2008, Rick Malnati still uses his New Trier briefcase even for his first day of preseason practice Nov. 11 at Fenwick. Malnati, a New Trier West graduate, said he still used the same briefcase during his two years as an assistant coach at Loyola University.

New Fenwick boys basketball coach Rick Malnati supervises drills during his first preseason practice Nov. 11.

Fenwick’s best player, senior guard Scott Lindsey, watched the Friars’ first practice Nov. 11 while in crutches. Lindsey broke his left leg in August and his return is undetermined. Lindsey signed a letter of intent with Northwestern on Nov. 13.

Junior Jon Kagan (left) and senior Charlie Walsh pause in the parking lot of Fenwick before heading into the Oak Park Catholic school for the beginning of boys basketball tryouts Nov. 11.

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