It would have been easy for Sam Malone to give up last season.
However, Malone, a sophomore walk-on at Kentucky, didn't think twice about quitting tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee for the second time in his career. After four ACL surgeries — two on each knee — the most recent one made him even more determined to return to the coiurt.
“Having four knee surgeries is something I take pride in, because a lot of people wouldn't be playing right now,” he said. “It's rare, but something I take pride in.”
Malone, who was injured in December in a game against Chattanooga, knew what it would take to get back on the court and embraced the recovery process.
“It was disappointing, but I've been through it before,” he said. “There's a point after the first surgery that you're kind of scared to get back into it, because you don't know what's going to happen, but I know I will be all right — no fear.”
Malone said the difference between the first ACL injury and the latest one was his mental approach behind the scenes.
“I knew what to expect with the rehab,” he said. “I knew my teammates could (continue) without me, and I wasn't worried about that. My role didn't change. I was still there to root on my team and be the best teammate I could be.”
Now that he's back, Malone isn't concerned about any possible injuries in the future.
“I shrug it off, and I'm not worried about it,” he said. “Probably the first time I did it, I was worried that it could happen again, but whatever happens happens, and I put my body in the best position to be healthy.”
Through each rehabilitation process — all four of them — Malone said he has gotten tougher and stronger.
“(Toughness) is something that I've always had, but with each knee surgery, there comes a little bit more toughness,” he said.
While rehabilitating his knee, Malone started taking up healthy habits and working on his game.
“I started taking care of my body,” he said. “I'm keeping my body in better shape. That's something you can do while you're rehabbing, so it's something that I've worked on. I'm eating better and exercising more. I'm a better player than I was last year. My body is in great shape.”
Although he missed out on participating on practicing and playing, Malone didn’t miss out in the Final Four experience, and he soaked it all in.
“I really loved being at the Final Four, and not being able to play, you could see everything that's going on all around you,” he said. “It was a great experience. It was very similar to what it would have been if I was playing. It was a dream come true, We had a great group of guys, and it was great to be a part of that team. It was an indescribable experience. It's something I'll never forget.”
Malone said last year's team, which won Kentucky's first national championship since 1998, was a special team, and he hopes to enjoy more experiences similar to what that squad accomplished.
“We had a neat collection of players, and we were a great team,” he said. “Was it once in a lifetime? Hopefully not once in my lifetime.”
As with last year's squad, Malone said the Wildcats will be talented along the front line.
“I think we'll be great, but we've got a lot of work to go,” he said. “We're very long on the front line with Kyle (Wiltjer), Alex (Poythress), Willie (Cauley-Stein) and Nerlens (Noel), they're really long. I think we'll be very good defensively.”
As one of the team's returning players, Malone has taken on more of a leadership role and has become acquainted with Noel.
“I will definitely help them out with whatever questions they have and whatever they need,” he said. “During the summer. I tried to describe to Nerlens what it would be like, but it's so hard to describe this place unless you're really here. We hung out a lot this summer. He's definitely (worth) the hype. He's oozing with potential and he has a lot of work to go to develop that potential, but he's willing to do it.”
Malone said Noel's “timing, shot-blocking, athleticism and his flat-top” make him a special player.
“I like his flat-top,” Malone said with a smile, adding that he doesn't plan on changing his hairstyle. “I don't think that will work on me.”
As for his own contributions, Malone wants to help the team become better, especially behind the scenes, a role that he embraces as a walk-on.
“I can contribute when the time is given to me,” he said. “My teammates helped me get (into some games last year) after getting a big lead. Whenever (they) need me to step into a drill, I'm ready to roll. Pretty much whatever the coach asks me, I'm comfortable with that role, very comfortable with that role.
“I started off not doing much in practice, and then as the season went on, I did more and more. That's the main thing, contributing in practice. That's the main thing I'm worried about. I'm not worried about the games.”
Malone said the Wildcats are capable of successfully defending the title.
“If we are the best that we can be, we can do it again.” he said. “We're not worried about being as good as last year's team. We're just worried about reaching our potential. If we reach our potential, good things will happen. There is pressure, but we're together as a team, so the pressure that comes in from the outside is not going to break us.”
Malone added that it's too early to tell if this year's team has the same chemistry as last year's unit.
“We don't really know yet. We've only been together for a couple of weeks,” he said. “We're all good friends and we'll be an unselfish team once again.”
Malone knows he's in a unique situation and likes being part of the Kentucky program.
“I'm blessed and I don't take it for granted, but it is hard work,” he said. “It's hard to describe. There's a lot of pressure on you and a lot of hard work that goes into it. It's all in the back of my head. Someone else would like to be here, (and that) pushes me to play harder and to keep working at it.”
He also likes playing for coach John Calipari.
“It is special,” he said. “He's a great person, he really knows the game and knows how to get the best out of his players.”
Now that he's healthy and close to “100 percent,” Malone wouldn't mind making a return trip to the Final Four, only this time in uniform.
“Hopefully (we'll) do it a few more times,” he said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times