Michigan State's Malik Hall copes with anguish of father's dementia amid coronavirus lockdown
Malik Hall is like most athletes these days.
Back home in Montgomery, Illinois, roughly 45 miles west of Chicago, Hall is doing his best to keep things as normal as possible. He spends the mornings doing school work and then works out either around the house or gets time alone in a local gym. After that, the rest of the day is spent more time than even he is comfortable with playing video games.
“I mean, honestly,” Hall said, “I’ve played a lot of Xbox. Probably more than I should.”
He’s doing his best to adapt amid the coronavirus pandemic. Like everyone, he’s been forced to adjust. Routines have changed. Isolation has become the norm.
It was the day Hall and his Michigan State teammates were supposed to leave for the Big Ten tournament that everything began to change. First, the Spartans were told they weren’t heading to Indianapolis after all. The tournament had been canceled.
Roughly two hours later word came down the NCAA Tournament had been called off.
“I was pretty bummed out,” Hall said. “I'm not gonna lie. We were really starting to catch our stride, and it would have been really fun to play and be a part of that team as we were catching our stride. I understand why everything happened and why it went the way it did, but I mean, it just sucks.”
It was a pretty good way to sum things up for the Spartans. They had just won a share of their third straight Big Ten championship after closing the regular season with five victories in a row. The postseason was just about to tip off and Michigan State was playing as well as any team in the country.
There was no telling where the Spartans would go from there and there’s no doubt Hall would have been a big part. He’d fought through all the standard growing pains of a freshman and started eight of the final 11 games, solidifying himself in the rotation by scoring 16 points in a critical win at Maryland.
It was an end few saw coming. You could even say it blindsided some.
One day you’re raising a banner and the next you’re packing your stuff and heading home.
But it’s not the first time Hall has been blindsided.
When Hall was 8 or 9 years old — he struggles to remember the specifics at this point — his father, Lorenzo, was diagnosed with early-onset dementia.
Almost immediately, everything changed for the Hall family. At the time they lived in California and Lorenzo was moved into a facility, leaving Malik with his mother, Julie, and his older sister, Brianna.
“It was definitely hard,” Hall said. “Honestly, I think my brain has kind of blocked most of how I felt at that time. I don't remember a lot of it, probably because I was just young and I didn't really understand what was happening. … It was definitely it was a weird situation when it first happened.
“It all happened so fast.”
Lorenzo Hall had been a college basketball coach and was running a training facility at the time for young basketball players. He was Malik’s first coach. Lorenzo was the one that first recognized Malik’s potential.
But, quickly, basketball was just an afterthought as real life took over. By 2014, the family moved to the Chicago area. Julie Hall’s father had died and she wanted to be closer to her mother.
Ahead of the class
It wasn’t long after people started to notice Malik Hall wasn’t just some average basketball player. He drew the interest of Sunrise Academy in Bel Aire, Kansas. The same school that produced former Michigan State guard Lowrawls "Tum Tum" Nairn brought Hall in and he took off. The recruiting picked up around the same time Malik truly started appreciating what he had lost when his father was diagnosed.
“That’s when I actually knew what was happening,” Hall said.
In 2016, Hall left for Sunrise and soon it was clear he would become a high-level basketball player. By then, the conversations with his dad began to change, too.
“For the most part right at the beginning, when he was first diagnosed, it was just like I could still talk to him about basketball because it was still fresh in his mind,” Hall said. “Now it's been so long since he's been a trainer or coach that he can't really talk specifics.”
That can be tough for Hall. Now a freshman at one of the biggest programs in the country, he couldn’t go to his dad to talk about all the ups and downs. Instead, their conversations are frequent but short.
“I don't really talk to him about it as deeply,” Hall said. “It's more like surface-level stuff.”
Lorenzo watches his son’s games on TV and he was able to join his wife and daughter in East Lansing for the final game of the regular season. He saw Malik hoist the Big Ten trophy and posed for pictures.
It was a bittersweet moment.
These are the memories Hall and his family are making now. He’ll try and cherish them because he understands, as time passes, things become fuzzy. The dad he knew as a small kid has started to fade.
“Honestly, I feel like that part of him that I knew has like disappeared from my mind,” Hall said. “It’s kind of sad to say but I was so young. I was just starting to make the memories and then it was like, as I grew older, I just lost them because I haven't seen that side of who he was when I was younger in such a long time. Sometimes I’m like, I don't even remember really what he looked like back then. He’s changed so much from the disease.”
Some things stand out in what Hall called “a mosh pit of memories.” He remembers being at the gym with his dad and he remembers the family trip to Disneyland when he turned 7. The passing of time, though, has made it tougher.
No pity party
Hall, though, doesn’t feel sorry for himself. Instead, he sees the toll this has taken on his mom and that is difficult for him.
“I can say without a doubt, that's probably the hardest thing to watch,” he said. “I don't really care about how I feel about it or how would I have to deal with it. That was her best friend, her husband, and she is sitting here taking care of them. I think about that all the time, honestly.”
The premature end of the season at least allowed Hall to get to see his dad. Of course, that changed quickly, too.
Hall took his dad out for ice cream the first week after he returned from Michigan State. A day later, things were shut down because of the coronavirus and he hasn’t been able to see his dad since.
“He has a house phone in there, so my mom talks to him every day,” Hall said. “I talk to him at least two or three times a week, just to see how he's feeling.”
Hall said he understands. His dad is considered high risk, so they won’t be taking any chances.
Eventually, things will start to return to normal. Schools will open again and Hall will head back to East Lansing, eager to get moving with his sophomore season with the Spartans.
And he’ll keep calling his dad. They might not be able to break down Malik’s latest performance, but that’s not the focus these days.
“I'm just happy he's safe,” Hall said, “and in a place where they're going to make sure that his health is the No. 1 important thing.”