Seven hours and 400 miles separate Madison Square Garden from Fairmont State University's Joe Retton Arena.
But no matter what the stage is the Falcons' Malik Stith only knows one way to perform: all out. And, he's certainly proved that in his first six games in Fairmont.
Stith is a former North Carolina 4A State Player of the Year who led East Mecklenberg High School to the state championship in 2007-08. He then spent one year in prep school at Bridgton Academy in Maine before being signed by St. John's University where he spent the last three seasons as the backup point guard for the Red Storm seeing action in 81 games.
But on Feb. 8, 2012 hours before St. John's was set to host Cincinnati at the Garden, Stith and the school announced he was leaving the team for personal reasons. He remained in school for the rest of the semester working on his sports management degree and earned a certified coaching certificate in the state of New York.
“The whole situation at St. John's helped me to mature and grow as a person,” said Stith. “I'm still very close with a lot of people there including coach (Steve) Lavin, who was out last year due to a bout with cancer. I still talk with him."
Stith was then searching for a new home to finish his degree and basketball career and found it through his former AAU teammate Ben Asher, who is the head student manager for West Virginia University's men's basketball program.
“Ben Asher and I were AAU teammates in my hometown of Hempstead, N.Y when we were 10 or 11 years old. When he found out I was transferring and didn't want to sit out a year he called me and told me I've got a great situation for you to look into but it's in West Virginia.
“I had a couple of schools contacting me, but when I heard about this opportunity at Fairmont State, I just felt like it's where I wanted to go. I wanted to get out of the big city and go somewhere where I could just focus on basketball and finishing school. So far it's been a great situation and fit for me. I love the school, the coaching staff, my teammates and the classroom environment. It's been great. You're never really sure when you make a move how it's going to work out, but right now I feel very fortunate to be here.”
Stith wasted little time turning heads once he joined the FSU program and quickly earned the starting point guard job. So far he hasn't disappointed. Six games into the season he's averaging 14.3 points and 2.3 rebounds per outing and leads the team in both assists (22) and steals (10).
“He's a veteran player who has great leadership skills,” says Brendan Cooper. “If we get a little out of sorts out there he's the first one to huddle us up and get us re-focused. Offensively he can score when he needs to, but he's such a great passer that he's always looking to get us involved first. Defensively, he's just a great lock-down, on-the-ball defender. Maybe one of the best in the country.”
FSU senior center Isaiah Hill agrees.
“Malik's our general out there on the floor,” says Hill. “He really does a great job of running our team. Sometimes I catch myself watching him because he's so smooth with the ball. Sometimes I'm actually amazed at what he does. He scores when we need him to score, he distributes the ball very well and he's a good defender. He moves his feet very well and he's strong. It's tough to get past him.
“Off the court he's also a good leader for us. He makes sure we're doing what we're supposed to be doing and I know I'm thankful to him for that. He's just a true, classic point guard.”
Despite his talents on the court, Stith remains a humble and hard-working individual. He's always one of the last players to leave the gym after practice putting in an extra 30 minutes or an hour to work on various aspects of his game.
“For a player who played a lot of games in the Big East against some of the best competition in the country, you'd think he might be a little cocky and whatnot, but he's definitely not that way at all,” says senior guard/forward Isaac Thornton. “He's very humble. If we didn't know he played in the Big East already we'd never know that because he doesn't talk about it. He's here to do his part for this team and he does it very well. I think we're very fortunate to have him this year.”
Stith, a Christian and music lover who likes to listen to gospel and slow jams before games, admits he's at his best on the floor in transition and would like to be more consistent with his jumper even though this season he's shooting 56.6 percent from the field, including 40 percent from 3-point range.
The cat-quick 23-year-old youngster has a knack for getting to the rim whenever he wants and has shown an ability in the early going to take over a game for the Falcons when they need him to. In the first half against WVU-Tech with FSU's offense struggling, Stith scored 14 points himself on a 17-2 run to get the Falcons back in the game. Then this past weekend after Bluefield State whittled a 19-point Fairmont lead down to two in the second half, Stith scored eight quick points in a 15-1 FSU spurt which helped the Falcons re-gain control of the game and go on to a victory.
“I'd like to think I have a pretty good understanding of the game,” said Stith. “A little secret is I listen to my teammates and sometimes they'll tell me, 'Liek get to the paint and get us going.' I like to score, but I like to see my teammates score even more so I'm going to pass the basketball when the opportunity is there.”
“In the Bluefield game they came back on us and I sensed that the crowd was dead and we needed to make something happen. I got a transition basket and that right there got me going and my teammates just followed my lead. They're good about doing that.”
And Stith is a good guy to follow.
“He's really been terrific for us,” says first-year coach Jerrod Calhoun. “He's a lead-by-example type of guy both on and off of the court. He always does the right stuff. He reminds me a lot of Darris Nichols that played at West Virginia a few years back and helped get us to the ‘Sweet 16’ our first year there. All of the guys kind of gravitate to him.”
“When he's done with his playing career I believe he's going to make a great coach, which is what he wants to do in the future. He relates well to people. He's an older guy on our team which has a lot of young players and they know he's played in some of the toughest places in the country against some of the best players so they respect him. From a players' standpoint he treats everyone equal. He'll get on guys in practice to make sure they're doing the right things and he and I have a great line of communication between us both on and off of the court. He's just an incredibly hard worker and a guy who loves basketball. He loves playing basketball, watching basketball and talking basketball. He's a guy who one day I wouldn't mind having on my staff because I think he'd do a tremendous job as a coach.”
For now, though, Calhoun loves the fact that Stith's still on the floor playing.
“I can't keep him out there enough,” said Calhoun. “I think he's putting everything he has into his last season to help us go as far as we can as a basketball team.”