Four-star forward Zeke Nnaji discusses the latest in his recruitment, including his relationships with Indiana and Iowa. Matthew Bain, Sports writer
LAS VEGAS — Malik Hall knew something was wrong. His mom was crying when she called him. That was never a good sign.
He was in Indianapolis at the time, playing with MOKAN Elite during Nike EYBL’s Session II at the end of April. His parents were supposed to make the short drive over from Chicago to join him here, as they did last year. The Halls relish any opportunity to all be together, as Malik spends most of his year playing high school ball down in Wichita, Kan., at Sunrise Christian.
But they weren’t going to make it to Indianapolis, Hall’s mother said through tears.
His father’s dementia had struck hard. He needed to go to the hospital.
"It’s scary, because I’m never really home," Hall told the Register at last week’s Las Vegas Classic. "During the first two, three sessions, I wasn't really home and I didn't get to see him. So him going to the hospital when I’m not there, it’s scary.
"What if I don’t get to say bye?"
That question circulated through Hall's mind as he continued playing in Indianapolis that weekend. But few people knew.
On the basketball court, Hall is an open book. He's a mismatch nightmare well on his way to a college career. The 6-foot-7 forward is known as one of the country’s most versatile bigs. He’s a consensus four-star, top-100 prospect with the likes of Kansas, Purdue, Oregon, Iowa, Texas and TCU pursuing him full-tilt.
Off the court, he keeps life close to the vest. His father, Lorenzo Hall, was diagnosed with dementia when Malik was 9. With reminders, the elder Hall can still remember life events up until the dementia hit, Malik said. His father spends weekdays in a health facility and comes home for the weekends. But the family always makes sure he’s home when Malik can come back to Chicago.
"Everybody that is not a part of our program or a part of the families of these teams doesn't really know anything other than the teenage boy that stands in front of you playing basketball," said Chris Neff, Hall’s coach with MOKAN Elite. "Sometimes you don't understand what they’re dealing with beyond just hooping. But his father is everything to him in regards to the game. His father was a coach. His father trained him to do all the things that he does.
"He pays a lot of respect to his father every time he takes the floor."
Hall said his father is one of his basketball heroes. He taught Malik the game from a young age. His mother says Malik was in the stands for basketball games as early as 2 weeks old.
"He foresaw greatness that I didn't even see — when I was a baby," Hall said. "He always told me that I could be very special. He always told me to put the work in. He always told me to do so much stuff. I didn't really understand at the time because I’m like 6, 7, 8 — I just want to go ride my bike. And he was just telling me if I worked then, then I would be able to get what I want.
"And he was right."
Memories with his father are important to Hall. He doesn’t know how many more he’ll be able to create.
He remembers one moment, in particular, when his dad saw him make his first basket.
"I was 4 years old when I made my first shot on a 10-foot goal," Hall recalled. "We were in Fontana, California. We were at somebody’s high school and he was working someone out with my uncle. And I was on the other end, just throwing the ball at the rim, trying to get it to go in. I didn't know how to shoot or any of that — I was just trying to get it up there.
"I made my first shot, and I was pretty excited. He was all the way on the other end, cheering. He was in the middle of working somebody out — and he’s cheering for me making my first shot."
When time comes for Hall to announce his college commitment, he said he might wait until winter break this year so he can share the moment with Dad. Or, maybe he will have already made the decision, and he and his parents will just have a relaxing dinner together.
Either way, Hall looks forward to celebrating the next step of his career with the man who taught him everything.
It'll be another memory Hall can cherish.
"He’s one of the reasons I’m here," Hall said. "He’s why I do everything I do."
Matthew Bain covers college football and basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. He also helps out with Iowa and Iowa State football and basketball coverage for HawkCentral and Cyclone Insider. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.