How do you log more minutes and score more points than all but one other player in NBA history and leave the impression of something unfinished? How do you wrap up a Hall of Fame career built on an awe-inspiring work ethic over 19 seasons and somehow make it feel incomplete?
Karl Malone found a way.
Malone's persona as a monster-truck driver who liked to ride Harleys, hunt and fish in Alaska and work his logging farm in Arkansas always made him a unique character by NBA standards. He was, for most of his career, the league's most intimidating figure, with his chiseled 6-foot-9, 256-pound body and willingness to use his elbows and knees or anything else to gain a physical advantage. For the longest time he never recognized the compliment in that every up-and-coming power forward -- Chris Webber and Kevin Garnett, to name two -- measured themselves by Malone.
Going to Utah and facing the Mailman was their greatest challenge, they'd say, and yet it seemed to gall Malone that they dared take the court. He'd outrun and outwork and outmuscle his younger competition for a solid 40 minutes, smirk as they squawked while he paraded again and again to the free-throw line and then afterward refuse to even acknowledge the challenger by name. His haughtiness and arrogance and pride made him almost unapproachable at times.
On the flip side, the slightest indication that Jazz owner Larry Miller didn't go to bed and wake up in the morning thanking his lucky stars that Karl had been put into his life and thinking of how he could repay the big man would inspire a petulant whine about being underpaid and unappreciated and uncertain he wanted to stay in Salt Lake City. For most of his career, he'd full out mope over any insinuation that he was less than perfect, even when those insinuations were prefaced with the most glowing, complimentary preambles imaginable. Malone could ferret out a doubt about his or the Jazz's greatness from beneath 19 layers of praise. Questions about what went wrong after the occasional subpar performance was met with derision, as if the writer or reporter had somehow impugned his entire career.
All that changed last year with the Lakers. He played for a pittance without a peep and he graciously became a defensive stalwart, brandishing tricks and skills that had been overshadowed by his ridiculously consistent and multi-pronged offense. Aside from finishing fastbreaks and dropping in fallaway jumpers and nifty layups off the glass, no one was ever better at getting a defender on his hip and forcing a foul while somehow managing to get off his shot for a potential three-point play. Hence the nickname, "Mailman," for always delivering.
But he put all that aside to move to L.A. and become the latest in a long line of power forwards to cover for Shaq's indifference to playing defense. He never had the lift or length to be a shotblocker, but he used his vaunted karate chop to prevent post-up players from getting the ball above their waist and used his strength to keep them from getting down on the block before they had to worry about the shot clock expiring.
On top of that, he was an absolute joy in an otherwise dour Lakers' locker room. No topic was off-limits, no result beyond scrutiny. The Lakers' media relations staff would check to see if he wanted an interview session to end and he consistently waved them away, chatting amiably long after the rest of his teammates were showered and gone. For the first time, he appeared to be genuinely enjoying himself and his place in the pantheon of great NBA players.
Which is why I, for one, am truly disappointed to see him go away without one last run. It's not about the chance of winning the championship that has eluded him. Both Malone and Miller will not be diminished in my eyes for being ring-less, the way, say, Charles Barkley is. For this reason: Malone and Miller squeezed out every ounce of God-given ability they had with their work ethics. They made themselves into championship-caliber players. They stretched their careers to nearly two decades and while age took its toll, it also inspired them to make adjustments in order to continue to be effective.
Sir Charles, meanwhile, was blessed with more raw talent than either one of them and made impressive use of it -- for a while. He got as much out of his career as someone who caroused and played his way into shape and couldn't endure being anything less than the hub of the team's wheel could. The question will always linger, though, that had he watched his weight and curbed his lifestyle and committed a little more effort defensively, maybe he might've found his way to that gold trophy.
Where Malone's exit feels wrong is in the final images he leaves behind. They are:
As a guy last seen in his prime with the ball and a championship in his grasp and having them plucked from his hands by Michael Jordan.
As the old ultra-sensitive Malone, enraged by the quite valid suggestion that he should make up his mind about whether he intended to return to the Lakers or not.
As the less-than-forthright husband or teammate, in light of an accusation by Kobe Bryant's wife Vanessa that he came onto her. Rather than dismissing it as a misunderstanding by an overly imaginative young wife, Malone gave the accusation credence by issuing apologies through his agent while declaring his love and appreciation for the Lakers dead and gone as a result. I don't know what actually happened, but he made himself appear to be a man found out rather than falsely accused.
And, finally, as a guy so uncertain about what his body can do or his passion for playing that he was still toying with the idea of resuming his career a week ago by stopping by to allow the Spurs to let him know how much they wanted him. Thanks to sports medicine, career-ending injuries are more rare these days. If his knee isn't sound enough for him to play at the level he desires, he certainly knew that before going to San Antonio. If his desire to play is no longer there, it's hard to imagine how he didn't come to that realization last summer or last fall or anytime prior to this week.
Maybe, though, this is exactly the way Malone wants it. Maybe this exit feels perfectly right for a man with a knack for keeping everyone off balance, on and off the court. Maybe there's something about fairy-tale endings or loose strings neatly tied into bows that he finds inauthentic. Maybe it's fitting that he should say goodbye in the same time zone and at roughly the same altitude but 371 miles away from the rest of the league as it officially anoints a new host of stars. So close, and yet so far -- maybe, in Karl's mind, that's the way it's supposed to be. Maybe, for him, that's the way it's always been.
All I can say is that he got the day right. No one ever delivers mail on Sunday.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.