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More on Karl Malone

The Mailman always delivers
By Bob Carter
Special to

"I know you're not supposed to hate people, but I just hated him because we didn't ask to be here. And we were here and he didn't want to have anything to do with us," says Cheryl Ford, whom Karl Malone didn't acknowledge as his daughter until she was 17, on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

The main events played themselves out on winter evenings in large NBA arenas. Karl Malone against the best power forwards the opposition could throw at him, games that Malone and his Utah Jazz usually won.

The prelims came in the suffocating summer heat, in the training sweatbox of Louisiana and Arkansas, Malone working that marvelous body into shape. While Malone ran, pounded the stair climber and lifted weights, his rivals often skimped on the prelims, taking time off to golf or travel or … heaven forbid, merely rest.

"I can do something physically the other guy can't," Malone said. "I know the other guy has not dedicated himself the way I did."

Who could outwork the "Mailman," a 14-time All-Star Game selection whose desire was to play all 48 minutes and all 82 games?

Coaches trimmed him a bit on the minutes, but Malone got in his games – all but 10 in his 18 seasons with the Jazz – as he and All-Star point guard John Stockton became a Salt Lake City staple: "Malone the basket … Stockton the assist."

Some said Malone trained so hard because he was always fighting for respect. Malone himself said he feared failure, feared not keeping up, especially as he grew older.

Those who faced him knew only that Malone, who retired as the NBA's No. 2 scorer with 36,928 points and No. 6 rebounder with 14,968 boards, represented an intimidating force, a unique challenge.

"Every play, every rebound," said the Lakers' James Worthy, "you are going to have to go harder than you would go against anybody else in the league."

Malone had 10.5 percent body fat as an undeveloped rookie in 1985, under 5 percent for most of his career. He had massive arms and legs on a 6-foot-9, 256-pound frame, with the strength to play inside, the shooting ability to roam outside and the speed to beat other forwards down the floor. He competed tenaciously, elbows flying, some opponents calling his play dirty.

The league had never seen such a package. "His first three steps out of the block were the quickest of anybody's in the league," said Pat Riley. "He just exploded out of the lane."

Malone, an All-NBA first-team selection for 11 straight seasons, averaged 25 points and 10.1 rebounds. He won two MVP awards, was voted to the All-Defensive team three times, twice was the MVP of the All-Star Game and played on two gold medal-winning Olympic teams. In 1996, he was chosen as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.

The youngest boy of nine children, Malone was born on July 24, 1963 in tiny Summerfield, La., and grew up on a farm. His mother, Shirley, ran a forklift at a local sawmill, and often worked two or three jobs. His father, Shedrick Hay, was married and raising another family. Hay committed suicide when Malone was 14, a tragedy he kept from the public until 1994.

As a youngster, Malone chopped trees, baled hay, fished, hunted and sometimes stirred mischief with his brother Terry, riding neighbors' hogs like horses and shooting out windows with BB guns. "If we didn't get a whupping, we just couldn't sleep at night," Malone joked.

He was a standout player at Summerfield High School, which he helped to three straight Class C state titles (1979-81).

Malone was recruited by Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton, but went to Louisiana Tech, about 40 miles from home. When he learned his grade-point average was too low to play his first year, he improved his grades in college so that he would be eligible in 1982.

He led Tech to 74 wins and two NCAA Tournament appearances in three seasons, an all-Southland Conference selection each year. Playing for defensive-minded Andy Russo, he averaged 18.7 points and 9.3 rebounds. In his junior season the Bulldogs went 29-3 and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16.

He left early for the NBA in 1985, with Utah drafting him No. 13 in the first round, behind such players as Benoit Benjamin, Jon Koncak and Joe Kleine. Malone wasted little time showing he should have been a higher pick. He made the all-rookie team, averaging 14.9 points and 8.9 rebounds despite shooting .481 on free throws.

The next season he set a standard for preseason conditioning and hiked his scoring average to 21.7, the first of 17 consecutive years of 20-plus. His foul shooting climbed to .598.

By the third season, his average skied to 27.7, he sank 70 percent of his foul shots and he appeared in his first All-Star Game. The next two seasons, he averaged 29.1 points and a personal-best 31.

"He's built on his game every year," Stockton said. "He could have stayed pat where he was after his third year. Every year he found another way to hurt a team. That's his legacy."

Malone improved his passing, too, finding open teammates when opponents double-teamed him down low. His only significant weakness was an inability to create shots off the dribble, and he got plenty of help there from Stockton, the NBA's all-time assist leader. The pair brought new appreciation to the old pick-and-roll.

Try as they might, the two stars couldn't bring the Jazz a championship. Utah had a winning record in each of Malone's 18 seasons there and made the playoffs every year. But it went 85-87 in the postseason, gaining the Finals twice and losing both times to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls 4-2.

An outdoorsman, Malone settled nicely into Salt Lake City, the smallest NBA market. Though other African-American athletes had found the city and its lack of racial diversity uncomfortable, Malone had few problems. "It didn't bother me," he said in 1988. "I grew up in a home where color meant absolutely nothing."

Malone rode motorcycles to games, fly-fished, ran car dealerships and did charity work. He and wife Kay, a former Miss Idaho USA whom he married in 1990, had four children, the family living in a $5-million house in the nearby mountains.

His reputation took a hit in 1998 when it was revealed he had been involved in two paternity suits involving women from back home in Louisiana, both cases being settled out of court. Blood test analysis set the probability that Malone was the father of Demetrius Bell at 99.3 percent. He acknowledged that twins Cheryl and Daryl Ford were indeed his. The twins played basketball at Louisiana Tech, with Cheryl going on to become the WNBA Rookie of the Year with the Detroit Shock in 2003.

As time went on, Malone squabbled with ownership over contracts, received occasional suspensions for rough play and criticized teammates for what he saw as poor conditioning. But he performed at an amazingly consistent level, his scoring average never falling below 20 points except for his rookie year and a final, injury-slowed season with the Lakers (13.2).

He averaged 27.4 points and 9.9 rebounds in 1996-97 when he led Utah to a franchise-record 64 wins and won his first MVP award. Two years later, in a strike-shortened season, he won the award again as Utah went 37-13.

Malone expressed disappointment over his play in the two Finals against Chicago and looked forward to one day winning a title in Utah. The team never made it back, though, and he and Stockton left after the 2002-03 season. Stockton retired and Malone, a free agent, signed with the Lakers, taking a pay cut of $17.8 million for a shot at a ring.

"Let him chase his dream," Jazz owner Larry Miller said. "He's entitled to it."

A knee injury forced the 40-year-old to miss 40 regular-season games and limited him in the 2004 playoffs. The Lakers, despite the presence of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Gary Payton, were upset by Detroit in the Finals.

Malone didn't play the next season and announced his retirement on Feb. 13, 2005, just 1,459 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "All records," Malone said, "are not made to be broken."

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