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On the Mailman

August 13, 2010
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Karl Malone has a special place in my heart, because if it weren’t for Karl Malone, I would have missed out on the great passion of my life. Karl Malone is the reason I became a Jazz fan, and for that–for all the joy and bliss and emotional roller coaster rides that being a Jazz fan has brought me–I am grateful.

It just kind of happened as I watched the Dream Team play in Barcelona. I didn’t have any particular interest in basketball at the time, but I was watching because my mom and sister were watching. As my basketball knowledge was zero, I don’t know what it was about the Mailman that engaged my interest (no, it wasn’t his muscles). I wish I could say that even as a basketball ignoramus, I recognized that Karl Malone played basketball the right way, but that would be a lie. I can only say that something about his banging-down-low style of play clicked with me.

Only recently have I begun to understand just how completely spoiled I was. While other teams were dealing with injuries, drama, rumors, losing, tanking, no playoffs, a revolving door of coaches and players, choking incidences, assaults, arrests, and the like, we had Stockton and Malone quietly going about their business, coming to play every night, and winning. They were the standard. Having no interest in NBA games that didn’t involve the Jazz, I thought every player played every night and never got injured.

[I hate it when Boozer fans prop him up by tearing Millsap down, so I’m going to try my best to avoid Malone-Boozer comparisons. I know they’re unfair, especially when I believe that there will never be another Karl Malone. At the same time, comparisons are somewhat unavoidable since Boozer was, roster-wise, the next Malone. I’ll just leave it at this: For the past six seasons, Boozer made my appreciation for Karl Malone grow more and more.]

It wasn’t just Karl’s ability to score and rebound. Along with Stock, he executed Jerry’s inside-out offense to perfection. He got to the line at will and with incredible efficiency. He didn’t start shooting jumpers until he was in his 40s. He knew how to slap the ball and get a steal instead of a foul. Everyone knows about his incredible consistency, which makes it even more amazing that we saw some aspect of his game improve year after year, whether it be FT%, passing, shooting, elbow fighting, etc. Conditioning was never a question, and probably had everything to do with the ability to play through injuries, and avoiding major injuries (Karl’s definition of “major,” not mine).

“Every hour I’m not in the weight room, I know someone else is. Every mile I don’t run, I know someone else will.”

Karl Malone had some God-given talent to be sure, but everything he became and everything he achieved was earned through hard work, blood, sweat, and tears. When you read or hear stories about his mom, you understand where Karl got his work ethic from. Karl often said that his mom was his life, and that he could never repay her for all that she did. Until she remarried, Shirley Turner was a single mom raising eight kids. She didn’t expect anyone to take care of her family but herself, and turned her nose up at the idea of applying for welfare.

–She once picked 174 pounds of cotton in one day, barely losing a contest to two other women, and then gave birth to a son that night.
–She ran a forklift in a sawmill ($50 a week), took apart chickens in a poultry plant, cooked for another family and went on fishing and hunting forays to feed her family.
–She wore cardboard in her shoes so that her children could each have a good pair.
–She couldn’t afford Karl’s first basketball ($2.95), so she made a down payment of 75 cents and paid it off in installments whenever she could. Karl didn’t have a basket to practice on, so she stood on a chair and held her arms out in a circle for a hoop. (“Special Delivery” by Clay Latimer)

18 months after she unexpectedly passed away, Karl chose what would have been her 67th birthday to announce his retirement.

Tomorrow–the Hall of Fame induction ceremony–will be the seventh anniversary of her death.

Yes, he missed free throws in the Finals. It wasn’t from lack of heart, desire, or work. It was just one of those things.

Yes, he squabbled with LHM and management during the summer. In the grand scheme of things, did it matter? When training camp rolled around, you knew that Karl was going to be in the best shape of anyone on the team (Stock excepted), and that he would deliver another year of 20/10 and 82 games.

When you look at all-time greats, and this extends beyond basketball and sports, they are always fueled and elevated by some motivation. For some, like John and Jerry, it was the competition and love of winning (or, perhaps more accurately, loathing for losing). For Karl, I think, it was proving the naysayers wrong. He needed to feel angry, to feel disrespected.* On the court, this propelled him to greatness. During the off-season, this materialized in the form of rants and tantrums. The thing is, none of the things Karl said during the summer ever affected the team once the season started.

You knew what you were going to get with Karl. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind or be his own man. Maybe we didn’t want to know what he was thinking all the time or wished he thought before he spoke, but we always knew what he was thinking and where he stood. The sincerity meter moved when he spoke. On the court, you knew that he was never going to give up on a loose ball or shirk responsibility as a leader. No big ever ran the floor like Karl did, which is why some say he revolutionized the power forward position.

In the early 1980s, power forwards were basically “garbage” men. They did the dirty work and got the rebounds, but weren’t expected to score. Then, Karl and Charles Barkley came along. Every night, you saw Karl get the board, toss it to Stock, and then beat everyone down the floor to score. According to LHM, Gail once turned to him at a game and said, “[Boozer] doesn’t seem to run hard. He certainly doesn’t run like Karl.” (They’re the owners; they can compare all they want.)

Given his ridiculous offensive numbers, Karl’s defense is often overlooked. Stats of course don’t tell the whole story, but Karl is ranked 10th all-time in steals, 53rd in blocks, 1st in defensive rebounds, and 5th in defensive win shares. He also made the NBA All-Defensive First Team three times. I talked earlier about how he seemed to improve on different aspects of his game every season. He made those All-Defense teams in his 12th, 13th, and 14th seasons.

At his retirement ceremony, Karl told the players present, “Respect the game. Give the game more than it gave you. It’s what’s on the front of your jersey, not what’s on the back.” In terms of performance on the court and community work off the court, no players ever earned their contracts more than Malone and Stockton.

Watching Karl’s recent interviews, it seems to me he has a newfound peace. He’s at peace with himself and with his place in NBA history. Given everything he’s accomplished, he is amazingly humble and has a great appreciation for things. Now that he no longer needs fuel for competition and for motivation, I think we’re getting a glimpse of the real person. Yes, feelings were hurt and relationships were left with scars, but if Karl needed that in order to give us what he gave us, it couldn’t be more bygones to me. His relationship with Larry was as tumultuous as it gets, but during Larry’s last hospital stay, Karl was right there at his bedside for days, happy to be waiting on him hand and foot. He needed to be angry to play well, but underneath all the drama there was a fierce loyalty that we don’t often see today.

I’m not trying to paint a picture of a saint. Sure, Karl had his faults and said and did things he shouldn’t have. What I’m saying is, as a fan, I couldn’t have asked for anything more from the leader and cornerstone of the team, and Karl and John spoiled the heck out of me. So here’s to you, Mailman. For better or for worse, my life was better with you in it. (If MJ could pretend at last year’s HOF ceremony that he never played for the Wizards, I can believe that Karl Malone retired a Jazzman. For all intents and purposes, it’s true anyway).

*Three summers ago (and one year before Larry started having medical problems), Karl called Larry one day, said he was in town, and asked if they could meet.

As told by Larry:
I climbed into his car, and, after we exchanged greetings, he did something that was very meaningful and moving to me: He apologized. For everything–for the many public diatribes against me over the years, for the way he lashed out at me. It wasn’t just the words he said; it was an aura about him, a maturity and a self-confidence. He explained that during his career he always felt that he played best when he was angry at someone or something, and so he turned that anger on me. He said I hadn’t deserved that. It meant a lot to me. I was very moved by his gesture, which I could tell was very sincere. (“Driven,” Larry H. Miller with Doug Robinson)

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