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Monessen graduate appears on ABC's 'Secret Millionaire'

Kevin Gorman
| Sunday, March 20, 2011

When James Malinchak was dropped in the heart of a crime-ridden city without his cell phone and credit cards and just $44.66 in cash, it was only natural that he gravitated toward a basketball gymnasium.

Before becoming a multimillionaire motivational speaker and star of ABC's reality drama "Secret Millionaire," which airs at 8 tonight, Malinchak was an all-state guard who averaged 21 points in leading Monessen to its first PIAA title.

Malinchak calls leading the Greyhounds to a 62-60 victory over Bristol in the 1988 PIAA Class A final in Hershey — a game in which he scored 24 points — "one of the most special memories that I have in my entire life."

The self-improvement specialist and CEO of James Malinchak International Inc. refuses to reveal his personal net worth but claims he's richer because of the six days he spent last April in Gary, Ind. Malinchak's mission was to live on welfare-level wages while looking for people and organizations in the community worthy of his donations.

"It was one of the greatest experiences of my life," said Malinchak, 41, of Las Vegas, who earned a basketball scholarship to Cincinnati but transferred and suffered a career-ending knee injury before graduating from Hawaii-Hilo. "I met some good-hearted, generous people who didn't have a whole lot of income but were rich in life. They taught me the greatest lesson: that being rich is more than having money."

Malinchak said he wasn't told of where he was going until the day he departed.

He was dropped off to live in an apartment in Gary — like Monessen, a downtrodden steel town — with one of the nation's highest crime rates. When he asked a stranger if there were any areas he should steer clear of, the answer astounded him: You're in it.

"I was so worried, I slept with a steak knife under my mattress every night," Malinchak said. "I put a chair underneath each door every night. For me to do something like that, you knew I was a little nervous. ... When the guy was telling me how tough it was, I thought, 'You've got to be kidding. This is not what I signed up for.' "

During taping of the show, disguised as a documentary on community organizations, Malinchak befriended Tony Branch, a volunteer girls basketball coach for the Baylor Youth Foundation League in Gary. Malinchak can't reveal the show's ending, but he helped raise $350,000 for charities while personally donating $160,000 of his own money.

Malinchak's generosity is no surprise to those in Monessen who know him.

"That's the kind of person he was," said Monessen principal Randall Marino, an assistant basketball coach in 1988. "He was very caring. He comes from a great family, and that's how they brought him up.

"I'm really not shocked at all this. I really felt all along he was going to be successful. The kids who played on that 1988 state championship team, they were driven kids from old-time Monessen families with hard work ethic."

Monessen boys' basketball coach Joe Salvino, whose Greyhounds recently won the WPIAL Class AA title, is proud that the former basketball star he still calls "Jimbo Ma-lin-chak" is putting his hometown in a positive light.

"It's good for the town, because a lot of times, Monessen just gets all bad publicity," Salvino said. "With us winning the WPIAL and 'Jimbo' getting this television show, it shows that good things do happen in Monessen."

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