The Karl Malone I saw up close played in fewer games and scored fewer points than in any other of his 19 seasons, yet that was the time I came to respect him the most.
I didn't really know Malone until he left the Utah Jazz and came to the Los Angeles Lakers for that ill-fated run in 2003-04. In my mind, he brought with him the baggage of being the guy who led my favorite player into retirement a second time when he expressed fears of playing with the HIV-positive Magic Johnson. And Malone always seemed to criticize the younger players, the ones who were closer to my age than Malone's.
There's a danger in following sound bites and secondhand reports and thinking that gives you any indication of what a person is really about. I learned that from Malone. I wouldn't call it the hard way; I'd call it the easy way, given that he simplified the task of covering that star-studded and star-crossed team as best he could.
It was some experiment, bringing in Malone and Gary Payton in an attempt to return the Lakers to the top of the NBA after the San Antonio Spurs ended the Lakers' run of three consecutive championships in 2003. That meant two of the top eight active career scorers at the time were joining the already strained duo of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. And thrown into the mix were a pending sexual assault charge against Bryant, unresolved contract extension negotiations for O'Neal and coach Phil Jackson, and the possibility of Bryant's departure at the end of the season via an escape clause.
And somehow, in the midst of Payton's nonstop high-decibel commentary and O'Neal's mood swings and Bryant's isolation, Malone provided a measured sense of peace and stability. After the last game of the season, Rick Fox offered the highest praise possible for a member of that team when he said, "Karl is, in no way, as dysfunctional as the rest of us."
Malone constantly made himself available for the media, through the good days and the bad days.
Even though he had just arrived and didn't know the full backstory on the Kobe-Shaq feud that flared up again at the start of the season, he did his best to explain it. Malone never made excuses, never asked to be given an exception or a free pass.
Malone could speak with authority because he had done just about everything possible in the league. He had never missed more than two games in a season and had gone the full 82 10 times. He had scored more points than anyone other than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was named the league's most valuable player twice. The only thing missing from his résumé was a championship, which was the reason he was in Los Angeles. He was willing to make the financial sacrifice, as his salary dropped from $19.3 million to the $1.5 million veteran exception, and even that represented a sacrifice within the sacrifice, as he volunteered to take the smaller amount so Payton could have the $4.9 million midlevel exception. So he had credibility and authority, serving as both a respected voice within the locker room and a spokesman for the team. It made him far more valuable than the 14.5 points he averaged, the only time other than his rookie season that he scored less than 20 points per game.
Even his work ethic had temporary effects on O'Neal. In a preseason game, O'Neal wanted to sit out but suited up when he saw Malone was going to play despite a nagging injury. He also forced O'Neal to get more aggressive on the boards because if O'Neal wasn't quick to the ball, Malone would surely snatch it. The 11.5 rebounds O'Neal averaged were the most among his final three seasons in L.A. and represented the last time he averaged more than 11 rebounds per game.
Malone quickly gained my respect, and I soon gained his trust. One day in March, he was talking to the media about his availability for the U.S. national team that summer when he dropped a hint that he might not even want to play basketball anymore after the season. The next time I got a chance to speak to him alone, I asked whether that meant he was considering retirement, and he said he was giving it serious thought. He still hadn't recovered from the sudden death of his mother at age 64 in the offseason, and the thought of achieving milestones such as the all-time scoring record didn't appeal to him if she couldn't be there to watch.
The next time he faced a group of reporters, I was curious to see whether he would stick with those sentiments or try to distance himself from it and say he wasn't really feeling that way. Athletes do it all the time when they get a bigger reaction than they intended from their initial, candid comments to an individual reporter. But Malone maintained his position and didn't claim he was misquoted. I thanked him for not selling me out. He quietly acknowledged it, then pondered it for a little while as I moved to the other side of the Lakers' locker room. My moment of doubt kept nagging at him.
"Did you really think I would sell you out?" he asked.
Now I felt bad, because he had taken my appreciation as an insult. I had a moment of doubt because I had seen so many others change course when that was the most convenient route. I hadn't viewed him as his own individual case.
Malone was far from the usual NBA player. He was more interested in casting a fishing rod than hitting the club, and if he ever did buy an iPod (I sincerely doubt it), it wouldn't be filled with hip-hop. He superstitiously wore the same pair of game socks throughout the season, and when they started to fray, he sewed them himself.
Unfortunately for Malone, it wasn't so easy to mend his body, the one that had held up in machinelike fashion for 18 seasons. He damaged a knee ligament when Phoenix's Scott Williams landed on him during a fluke play, and Malone missed half of the season. Then he injured the same ligament in the playoffs and wound up watching the end of the Lakers' shocking NBA Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons in street clothes.
He followed through on his plan to retire that summer, then any notion of rejoining the Lakers the next season was doused when Bryant angrily accused Malone of hitting on his wife at a Lakers game in December. Malone went back to Salt Lake City to announce his retirement, and until he was announced as a member of the newest Hall of Fame class this year, about the only time we've heard from him was when he used his logging company to help clear debris from the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
That sounded like something the guy I got to know in Los Angeles would do.