The NBA is celebrating players from the NBA 75 list almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is Karl Malone, who skipped his senior year at Louisiana Tech and was taken 13th overall in the 1985 draft. This story appeared in the Feb. 13, 1989, issue of The Sporting News, the week before Malone won his first NBA All-Star Game MVP award.
SALT LAKE CITY — The jukebox is blasting. Karl Malone is looking for his stash of homemade beef jerky and talking non-stop to ball boys, teammates, Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller, General Manager Dave Checketts and anyone else who wants to speak or listen.
This postgame activity is nothing new for Malone, who has been on the job for seven hours. As part of his pregame ritual — his love affair with basketball — he reports to the Salt Palace for a home game at 4:30 p.m., three hours before tipoff.
This night has been successful for Malone. The Jazz has won and, as usual, he has scored more than 30 points and had a double-figure rebound total. But while he savors the victory and his performance and inhales the atmosphere that he worships, he celebrates previous triumphs.
And why not?
Many, including Malone, have called him the best power forward in the world. He has proved himself on the court. He has backed up brash statements with a staggering bottom line. So if someone else starts something and he finishes it, he figures that it is his right to gloat.
The parable Malone relates on this occasion features Ralph Sampson. The scene occurred on December 10, 1987, as Sampson — then with Houston — and Malone were being interviewed live on television before a Rockets-Jazz game in Houston.
“We were standing next to each other on the court before the game,” Malone said, “and they were doing a story about how the U.S. and Russia had agreed not to make some kind of nuclear bomb or something. That was the big thing leading into sports. And then, all of a sudden, they said they were going to interview us and said, ‘Sampson is not intimidated by Malone.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about. The guy started interviewing him, and he was saying, ‘Malone is 6-9. How can I be intimidated by him?’ And I said, ‘Akeem (Olajuwon) intimidates everybody in the league, and he’s seven feet. Ralph Sampson is 7-4, and he’s not as intimidating as Akeem.’
“Well, he was standing there, and he didn’t try to tone down what he was saying. He didn’t say, ‘Well, I respect Karl.’ If he did, I would have said the same thing. But if a guy is going to show me up and talk trash, I’m going to do everything I can to make him look bad. So I said, ‘When the horn blows, may the best man win.’”
So what happened?
“I had about 25 points (actually 21). and he didn’t score,” Malone recalled.
And then what happened?
“And then he got traded,” Malone said, smiling mischievously.
That happened two days later, in fact, and for Sampson and perhaps a few others in the National Basketball Association, it was a lesson learned. In 31/2 years with the Utah Jazz, Malone has taught lessons to many. For some, it has been painful professionally. For others, the hurt has been all physical.
When Malone left Louisiana Tech after his junior year, some scouts were worried that his game had peaked. There was no room for improvement. Some said he wasn’t smart enough or dedicated enough to become great.
All of them have been wrong.
His improvement has been obvious. He increased his scoring average from 14.9 points per game as a rookie to 21.7 the next year and 27.7 last season. At the midway point this season, he was averaging 30.3 points a game, which placed him second in the league.
His field-goal percentage has improved from 49.5 percent as a rookie to 51.2 percent in his second season, 52 percent last season and 52.2 percent this season.
And his free-throw shooting, once the weakest part of his game, has improved from 48.1 percent as a rookie to 59.8 percent the next season, 70 percent last season and 77.6 percent this season.
His rebounding also has improved from 8.9 per game as a rookie to 10.4 the next season to 12 last season to 11.7-oops, it is a little lower this season. But, as he said, “The season isn’t over yet.”
It is apparent that Malone did not peak at Louisiana Tech.
But the mark of a great player is how well his team does, and in each of Malone’s seasons, Utah has won more games than the previous season.
The year before he arrived, the Jazz won 41. In his rookie year, they won 42, then 44. Last season, Utah won 47 games. At the midway point this season, Utah was 25-16, which projects to a 50-win season.
And each year, the Jazz has done better in the playoffs. In Malone’s rookie season, the Jazz lost a best-of-five first-round series in four games. The next year, they lost in the first round in five games. Last year, they lost to the Lakers in a tough seven-game series in the Western Conference semifinals.
Utah has a nice nucleus, including All-Star guard John Stockton and standout reserve Thurl Bailey. But it is obvious that Malone is Utah’s single most significant force, the man who makes the Jazz a legitimate threat to the Lakers’ Western Conference supremacy.
During the last off-season. Malone again put to rest the notion advanced by scouts when he was in college that he was not dedicated. Since the end of his rookie season, Malone has been an avid weightlifter. During the summer, he also jogs and sprints. With each inch of muscle he gains, there seems to be a corresponding improvement in his game. And with each game of experience, he seems to become more disciplined.
“His physical skills are incredible,” said Jazz President Frank Layden. “For his size, he has great hands and he’s so quick and agile. The difference between his game now and his rookie season is temperament. As a rookie, he was like a runaway colt, difficult to put under control. Now he plays with a purpose.”
He also plays with a sense of security. During the last off-season, the guy who had to sit out his freshman season at Louisiana Tech because his grade-point average was below 2.0 negotiated a 10-year, $18 million deal for himself. Because he did it himself, he did not have to pay the standard 4 percent commission to an agent, which saved him $720,000.
Malone structured the contract so that he gets all cash this season. For the next nine years, 30 percent of his money will be deferred. He’ll receive that money beginning at age 35. “And then when I’m 45, my NBA pension will kick in,” he said, smiling smartly.
It is obvious that in a very short time Malone has disproved the theories that led to his being available when Utah exercised its 13th overall pick in the 1985 draft. Executives from 11 of the 12 teams that bypassed him get slightly ill with each new Malone achievement. Probably only one player should have been picked ahead of him — Pat Ewing. And that is only because the Knicks’ Ewing is a seven-foot center.
Golden State Coach Don Nelson said Malone is “the most dominant power forward in the game today.”
And Milwaukee Coach Del Harris said, “Karl Malone is the definition of what a power forward is supposed to be.”
It’s obviously satisfying for Malone to be considered the best. But he no longer is motivated to prove people wrong.
“The guys that passed me over were saying, ‘He’s as good as he’s going to get,'” Malone said. “So the first couple of years, I went out there to prove them wrong. Now, I just go to play. It’s hurting them more than it’s hurting me.
“This is the first year I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. I made the All-Star team last year. I’ve got a new contract, so I don’t have those added pressures. I can go out and have fun.”
Not that Malone has ever minded proving himself.
“I’ve been faced with that ever since I’ve been playing sports,” he said. “In high school in Summerfield, La., they said, ‘You guys are just a lot of country farm boys, and you’ll never win the state championship at this school. Go to another one, and play football and basketball.’ We just had baseball and basketball, and I just played basketball. We won the state (title) my last three years in school.
“I went to Louisiana Tech, and everybody said, ‘You ought to go to the University of Arkansas so people will get to know who you are and you can get the publicity.’ But I wanted to stay close to my mom, so I went to Tech. My last year there, we were ranked fifth in the nation and almost beat Oklahoma.
“So then I got drafted by the Jazz, and people said, ‘It’s nice that you got drafted, but nobody knows the Utah Jazz any more than they knew the New Orleans Jazz. You will never win anything.’ So I wanted to prove them wrong. That’s what motivates me. If you tell me I can’t skydive, I’m going to make a liar out of you because I’m going to do it. I might die, but I’m going to make a liar out of you.”
Malone hasn’t yet led the Jazz to the NBA championship, but despite playing in one of the more anonymous NBA cities, he has been voted to the All-Star team twice by fans across the country. That indicates widespread popularity and appreciation for the Mailman.
“The pub I’ve been getting is unreal,” Malone said. “All the time. Everywhere. Everybody said I would never get recognized in Utah. But I think if you carry yourself the right way and do the right things you’ll get it.”
And if you do things the way Malone does, with flair and force, you’ll also get noticed: Ask some of the players — “misguided individuals,” said Utah center Mark Eaton —who have attempted to slow Malone by taking a charge. Besides being the strongest forward in the NBA, Malone also may be the fastest. He may get called for a foul, but the other players never forget, nor do they want to relive the experience.
“They all do it once,” Malone said, “because they want to know how it feels. But they only do it once.”
And those players who want to challenge Malone publicly usually do it only once. Ask Sampson.
Malone has achieved so much in such a short period that the only question facing him is: What’s next?
He has proved scouts wrong. He has been an All-Star. He has financial security. He even made a three-point shot on January 12 — the first of his career.
“I’ll never forget that,” Malone said. “Maybe I should be in the three-point contest.”
Malone, however, is not worried about becoming content. His background won’t allow that. Malone is the eighth of nine children. Shirley Turner, his mother, remarried after Karl’s father died when Karl was four. Shirley worked for 20 years running heavy equipment in a plant and also had a part-time job at night.
The Malones were so poor that Shirley used to form her arms in a circle so Karl could practice shooting. But Malone is driven by the future as much as by the past.
“What keeps me going is that I know there is somebody out there that is waiting to take my spot in the limelight,” Malone said. “Some young guy that is waiting and saying, ‘If he slips just a tad, I’m going to be in there.’
“And I’m curious myself to know how good I can be. They say you don’t reach your peak until your fifth or sixth year in the league. III keep my perspective and keep myself straight on and off the court, I’m just curious …”