GREENSBORO, N.C. — Malcolm Delaney is an underdog guard from an underdog city playing for an underdog program. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Delaney grew up in Baltimore and was a basketball standout, but he wasn’t considered a top recruit because he disassociated with the street agents that infiltrate the sport. He came to Blacksburg, Va., to play for Virginia Tech, a school known more for its football program.
Driven by an against-the-world mentality, Delaney has burnished his status as one of the elite guards in the ACC.
“I’m definitely motivated,” Delaney said of how he has fought to create a name for himself. “That’s why I work so hard.”
Delaney, a junior, has led Virginia Tech to the verge of its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007. The Hokies (23-7) will play Miami on Friday in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, and should they earn an NCAA tournament berth, Delaney finally will find himself in the national spotlight.
Delaney leads the ACC in scoring with 20.9 points per game and is a critical reason for Virginia Tech’s run. On Monday, Delaney became the first Hokies player to beunanimously selected first-team all-ACC. Yet for all the accolades, he isn’t as comfortable in that position.
“He loves being called the underdog,” Josh Czerski, one of Delaney’s longtime friends, said in a recent telephone interview. “Every game, he goes in with that chip on his shoulder. He looks to prove the haters wrong.”
Even though Delaney’s rise started in Baltimore, he has a love-hate relationship with Charm City: It is his home town, but he is mindful of the pitfalls that surrounded him.
Delaney knew better than to hang around on the streets. He grew up in a two-parent household in which he had to finish homework before he could leave for the gym and befriended a group of up-and-coming basketball players that included Donte Greene, now a guard with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. The group called itself the “Circle of Success.”
“You can get caught up at a young age,” Greene said in a telephone interview. “For us to stay together and make it past that, whatever we do we’re going to be successful at it, going out and doing it right. We made a pact in high school, and we’re sticking to it.”
Delaney developed into a highly regarded guard locally. But although Baltimore has produced its share of basketball talent, Delaney didn’t receive scholarship offers from the nation’s traditionally top programs.
Delaney said his relatively under-the-radar recruitment was a product of the decision not to get involved in basketball’s underworld. He said he declined to accept money to play and refused to work with a runner who would steer him to certain programs; he said the same street agents with whom he refused to get involved later spread malicious rumors about him to the colleges that were recruiting him. Instead, Delaney’s recruitment went through his father.
“If you let people know up front, there isn’t any problem,” his father, Vincent, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t have to wrap my arms around him or put a shield up around him. With college recruitment, you come through me. If you try to go through someone else, you’re wasting your time.”
Delaney committed to Virginia Tech in large part because of his connection with Coach Seth Greenberg.
Like Delaney, Greenberg plays the role of underdog. Greenberg has started to build a basketball culture at Virginia Tech, but it is a long, hard battle to earn respect. Delaney appreciated Greenberg’s tireless work ethic and aggressive competitiveness.
Delaney is an extension of Greenberg on the court. And both are extensions of the entire Hokies basketball program, which is in a constant fight for respect.
“I would hope we both share an appreciation of hard work and toughness and competitive spirit and trying to prove ourselves,” Greenberg said. “He and I always joke we’re connected at the hip.”
Delaney’s fire showed from the moment he walked onto campus. As a freshman, he told reporters that the Hokies “just gave up” in a lopsided loss at North Carolina, a bold statement that sent a message about holding teammates accountable. And he is so intense that he has a hard time eating after a loss.
While Delaney always has been motivated by perceived slights, his something-to-prove attitude is growing more incongruous with reality.
Delaney is starting to become more widely recognized as one of the nation’s top guards and has helped put Virginia Tech in position for a likely NCAA tournament berth this season. He will soon have to take a hard look at whether to return to Blacksburg for his senior year or to leave early for the NBA. He says he has not started that process.
But though Delaney has emerged as a star in the ACC, he hasn’t let that affect his drive. There are always new goals, new people to prove wrong, new obstacles to overcome, and so his motivation will remain unchanged.
“I always play with a chip on my shoulder,” Delaney said. “That’s never going to leave.”