Tino Malnati’s imprint can still be felt at New Trier

tinophotoJust mention the name Tino Malnati around the New Trier basketball team and everyone’s face lights up.

Maybe it was his role as team captain or because he led the Trevians to a 17-10 record as a senior point guard. Maybe it was the experience he gained from being a coach’s son or his ability to take younger players under his wing. But whatever the reason, the imprint he left on the program is deep.

“Tino’s a kid who made the right decisions on the court but also made the right decisions off the court,” said New Trier coach Scott Fricke.  “And when a team sees one of our better players doing that, we’re going to have better chemistry and better decision making all across the board.”

Malnati, a walk-on at Northwestern this year, was an All-Central Suburban League selection as a senior and averaged 9.4 points, 3.7 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game at New Trier. And the Malnati family legacy runs deep. His father Rick played at New Trier and later coached the team from 1999-2008. His sister Gaby currently plays on the girls’ varsity team. And his grandfather opened the first Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in 1971.

And while he has not played this season for Northwestern, he is adjusting to his new role on the bench and making the most of the opportunity.

“It’s a weird process but it’s also fun,” Malnati said. “You love when the guys are on the sideline cheering you on like last year as a captain. Now doing that for these guys, it’s fun trying to help any way you can.”

A few of those guys cheering him on from the bench last season were Dylan Horvitz and Joe Akason, now team captains for New Trier in their senior year.

“He would always be the first one in and the last one out,” said Horvitz, who will be taking over some of the point guard duty in Malnati’s absence. “He’d ask me to work out, shoot extra and I think that’s something that we can use, putting in extra work.”

Talk to any member of this year’s team about what he was like as a player and he will tell you the same thing.

“He’s probably the smartest player I’ve ever played with,” said Horvitz.

“The highest basketball IQ player I ever played with in my life,” said senior Aaron Peltz.

“Hopefully I can be like Tino this year,” said junior Andrew Kirkpatrick.

It comes as no surprise that Malnati is an economics major at Northwestern.

In person he is a gentle, soft-spoken guy. His youthful face and bright smile have an air of innocence. But don’t let that fool you. He has a quiet intensity. According to his New Trier teammates, he treated practices like games, always wanting to win. And when game time came, he got himself in a zone, sitting quietly, alone even when the room was full.

“Tino wasn’t a big vocal guy, but he was a leader by example and when he said something, it was important,” Fricke said.

His words did carry weight but most of the time it happened off to the side before or after practice. He’d pull players aside saying things like, “Keep up the good work,” “I know you’re not playing a lot but you’re still a really important part of this team,” and “I really appreciate all the hard work you’re doing.”

“That really meant a lot that he cared enough about me and I know he did the same to other people on the team,” Akason said. “He just cared about us.”

While New Trier gets its first taste of competition Monday night at home against Lincoln Park, Malnati will be 800 miles away at the Barclay Center cheering on his new teammates as they face the Texas Longhorns in the Legends Classic.

But just mention New Trier around Malnati and his face lights up.

“[Former players] would text saying, ‘You guys will never have these days back.’ And I didn’t realize what that really meant,” he said. “But now I understand.”

He smiles again, that boyish smile, before heading back to practice. And as he joins the layup line with the rest of the team, his smile fades and that quiet intensity pushes its way to the surface.