MISSOULA — Beneath Arlee's newly lifted 2016-17 Class C state championship banner Tuesday, Phillip Malatare pestered a player on the opposing St. Ignatius squad. The Warriors' senior phenom, who was so crucial to Arlee's first-ever boys' basketball title, actually untied Colin Linsebigler's sneakers during a pause in the action.
The badgering wasn't in bad nature, though. The boys are cousins and they're close.
"That's Colin — he's my family," Malatare said the day after Arlee improved to 7-0 overall on its title-defense tour.
That family makes up a large portion of Malatare's team, too. Coach Zanen Pitts rattled off seven of Malatare's cousins on his Warriors squad alone (including the team's only other senior and No. 3 scorer, Will Mesteth). Phillip's family on the court has helped the three-time all-state player become one of Montana's best ever.
And his family off the the court has helped him grow in countless intangible ways.
Before Malatare was putting up the the assist totals on the hardwood that power his triple-double — and quadruple-double — performances, he was sharing the house. Malatare had two older sisters, both now in college, but in sixth grade, he became the older brother to several foster siblings. One suits up alongside Malatare before each Arlee basketball game.
"... So I have two boys on the team," Phillip's mom, Becky, said proudly. "... I think Phillip thought it was pretty great. He wasn’t the baby anymore. He had brothers that he didn’t have before."
It wasn't just extended family that found their way into the Malatare home, either. Phillip described his house as a de facto hangout for him and his teammates.
"... (My mom) always knows dinner’s gotta be ready after practice; she's always making sure we’re hydrated and stuff," Phillip said.
It's been that way since Phillip, cousin Alex Moran, and Tyler Tanner first picked up a basketball in Arlee's Little Dribblers program more than a decade ago (a program Becky and John — Phillip's dad — helped start). Both Moran and Tanner were seniors on last year's state championship squad, but the trio's still close. Moran was in the stands Tuesday to watch his cousin, now a senior himself, play against St. Ignatius.
"It's different. ... (Phillip) talks a lot on the floor now; he never really did with (Tyler and me)," Moran said Tuesday. "Tyler and I, we were older; he didn’t feel like he needed to, but he (talks to the team) a lot.
"He’s the leader on this team now."
Just as he grew to be a big brother, Malatare now guides a talented team that's hungry to claim Class C's top spot once again.
It's hard to look past Malatare's eye-popping statistics on maxpreps.com. His 27 points per game, 11 rebounds, seven-plus assists and nearly five steals per game this season draw comparisons to the NBA's Russell Westbrook in the southern tip of the Flathead Indian Reservation.
But Malatare truly isn't a stat-stuffer. The numbers are a byproduct of the senior's game. To prove that point, someone needs only to look at his teammates' performance around him, particularly the other two members of Pitts' self-described "three-headed monster."
Junior Greg Whitesell, is second on the team in scoring with 16.5 points per game and is shooting 40 percent from behind the arc. Mesteth is currently at 15.7 ppg. When opponents collapse on Malatare, he knows he can find his teammates.
"When he drives in, it draws defenses in," Whitesell said of Malatare, whose uncanny body control in the lane would allow for a shot if he opted not to pass. "If we can knock down our shots from outside or even take it in to the rack it makes the whole game a whole lot easier."
In fact, the only stats Malatare may try to pad are those that contribute most to good team play.
Well, that and wins.
"(The team) knows one guy can set records (but) a team can win championships. Phil knows that. People don’t understand just how special he really is," Pitts said of Malatare, who is shooting 72 percent from 3-point range (on just 11 attempts). "He (looks to pass) first. He has no problem making the pass before he makes the shot.
"... There’s no reason Phil couldn’t score 50 a night in all honesty, but there’s nights you might see Phil only get 16.
Or 14 points, like Malatare finished with Tuesday against St. Ignatius. Whitesell led the way that evening with 20; Mesteth had 18 and Lane Johnson added another 15. Arlee had a 39-1 run at one point in the game and the Warriors ultimately won big, 84-39.
It's Malatare's deferring for the good of the team — for his family on the court — that may have the Warriors set up for another state run. He certainly hopes so. He knows how much last year's title meant to his community.
It was a beacon of light in a dark time.
"That two hours of basketball that people got to come and watch these boys play; I think people got to put their troubles behind for just a couple hours and got a little relief to watch these kids," Phillip's dad said of Arlee's magnificent run to Montana immortality.
Several deaths, including deaths by suicide, rocked the small Mission Valley community just weeks before the state tournament. Phillip's family wasn't spared the heartache.
"... It affected my son, so when they won that, it was just at a bad time in a good community, but it was a good time for the boys to win it," John said. "It gave some relief to the community."
Truly, basketball became bigger than a game for the Warriors and for Malatare. It was a way for the player with NAIA offers and Division I aspirations to help give back to his town — to his family.
He hopes to build and sustain those bright feelings.
"You want to be back on that stage, that atmosphere," Malatare said. "...You gotta lead that next team to that game, and they’ll know what it feels like and be ready the year after."
The feelings that make families smile.
Like seeing a pair of cousins on the court briefly act like a couple of kids in the middle of a basketball game.