Death of player’s father inspires Bullard boys basketball team
Waking up was never so difficult for Taran Malhi as that morning of July 20 last summer.
“Real tough, knowing what was going to happen.”
Knowing his father was going to die.
The Bullard High basketball player could do but one more thing for his dad, Tony Malhi, who had become so captivated by the Knights’ extraordinarily successful program that he refused to miss a game — even against his doctor’s will — the previous season while stricken with cancer.
But multiple myeloma (a form of blood cancer) was not going to allow the 50-year-old to see his son’s senior season, and that’s what was on Malhi’s mind when he and his family made that final visit to Saint Agnes Medical Center.
His sisters, Navey and Sammy, said their final words. His mother, Jas, said her final words.
And, finally, Malhi: “I held my Dad’s hand, looked him in the eyes and said, ‘I promise we will win the Valley for you.’ Then he closed his eyes and went to sleep.”
Returning to Selland Arena for a shot at a third consecutive Central Section Division I title was not a problem for Bullard.
The Knights arrived Saturday night to play Clovis West with a 26-2 record, having outscored their opposition by an average of 25.8 points a game.
And that’s what was so startling when the Golden Eagles chewed up all of a 16-point deficit to tie Bullard, 48-48, early in the fourth quarter.
Malhi, a starting forward and three-year player, was deeply troubled. And the scoreboard was only part of it: “I’m thinking: If we don’t win this, I couldn’t live with myself because of the last thing I said to my dad.”
Older sister Navey Malhi said: “I had a pit in my stomach.”
That’s when Corey Silverstrom nailed consecutive 3-point shots and the Knights sailed to a 66-53 victory.
“I was happy; it was weight off my shoulders,” Malhi said. “But, honestly, I wasn’t as excited as last year because it was bittersweet, not having my dad at the game. All I wanted to do was give him a hug, to tell him we did it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t, but I know he’s proud. I know he’s smiling.”
If his teammates didn’t fill the void of him being able to embrace his father, they came close in what surely will be an indelible moment in the life of 18-year-old Malhi.
Tony Malhi had watched the 2012 D-I championship win over Clovis West from a wheelchair on the second level of Selland Arena. The Knights followed that triumph by marching up to him to celebrate.
Then Saturday, following the Knights’ latest conquest, the entire team followed senior Chris Russell to the exact spot Tony Malhi was sitting the previous year.
They linked arms in a circle and observed a moment of silence.
“That’s when I lost it,” Navey Malhi said. “At first it was a shock; I couldn’t believe it. It was just amazing, so touching they did it for Dad.”
It was the latest in what’s been nearly a two-year tribute by the team to their father, who was diagnosed with the disease in April 2011.
This season, they’ve huddled on the court before every game with a moment of silence and had the initials “TM” stiched below the left shoulder of their white and blue home jerseys.
Saturday, after the final buzzer, a shoulder-to-shoulder Bullard student section behind the north backboard, chanted, “Team Malhi, Team Malhi, Team Malhi.”
“My father fought for his life, but was so positive,” said Navey, a 22-year-old graduate student at Fresno State. “He cared more about other people than himself. And he became an inspiration.
“I am absolutely amazed at what this team has done for my brother, my family and my dad. I wouldn’t think 16- and 17-year-old boys could do so much.”
Consistent with his play on the court as one of the section’s elite point guards, Russell has taken control.
“Chris is always the first one to do things for my dad,” Taran Malhi says.
“We feel it’s only the right thing to do,” says Russell, whose custom-made Nike shoes have “TEAMMALHI” inscribed on the inside of a Velcro strap. “We know what Taran has gone through. We know his dad fought so hard for his life for two years, and the only thing he wanted to see was a smile on his family’s face.
“Their family went through a lot, needed support, and we feel we’re the closest to them.”
Navey Malhi has sold “TEAM MALHI” bracelets for $3 while raising money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
“I had a goal for $200,” she says. “And I raised over $400. I had no idea. It’s amazing.
“This isn’t just a team; it’s a family. And this family helped my brother fulfill his promise.”
It’s the highlight of a basketball career that couldn’t have been predicted for Malhi, whose parents were raised in England, where soccer reigns, and whose both sets of grandparents were from India.
“I’m not the best player out there,” he said of a team best identified by such stars as Russell, Silverstrom, Adam Armstead and Calvin Young.
Yet Malhi is a starter of a state sixth-ranked team that will play Westchester-Los Angeles today at 7 p.m. in the first round of the Southern California Regional D-I Open Division tournament.
He’s a role player, and a good one.
Above all, he kept his word. And he had help.
“What these guys have done for me has been phenomenal,” he said. “Honestly, words can’t describe it. It’s been amazing, just great, for my dad to live on through us.”
By Andy Boogaard