BEHIND THE INTERVIEWS: THE MAILMANJune 6th, 2012
(Third in a series that will appear from time to time about the backdrop to the player interviews that took place for the writing of Dream Team.)
Karl Malone warned me.
“You a hunter, Jack?” he said via cell as I neared his home in Ruston, Louisiana.
“Far from it,” I said.
“Well, you better be ready then,” he said.
I wasn’t. The first thing one notices upon crossing the portal into the huge Malone home is the hundred or so pairs of eyes trained on you. Ceilings and walls are covered with taxidermied beasts, big ones—nay, huge ones—all felled by the Mailman. He was not known in NBA parlance as a pure shooter, but evidently he is when he has a high-powered rifle in his hands.
It was a leisurely Sunday morning in the Malone home when I came to visit a while ago, pancakes being made by his daughters; his son (K.J., a 6’4’’, 300-pound lineman who has committed to LSU) prepping for an afternoon of football-watching with the pregame shows; his wife, Kay, drifting in and out; and Malone, with a sly smile, enjoying my discomfiture at the stuffed Serengeti that constitutes the giant parlor in his giant home.
“What am I proudest of?” Malone ponders the question. “Probably getting the grand slam of sheep. In the hunting world, those four sheep would be the Super Bowl, the NBA championship, the World Series and the Stanley Cup all in one.”
(For the record, and I had to look this up, the Grand Slam is the Dall, the Stone, the Desert Bighorn and the Rocky Mountain Bighorn. As they stared down at me, they all looked the same, though I wouldn’t say that to their faces.)
“I don’t think there’s three thousand hunters got all four of them,” Malone says proudly. “And that’s going back to President Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt.”
Strangely, I ask Malone if he’s among the “top African-American hunters in the world.” Then I quickly ask him if that’s a stupid way to frame the question.
“No,” he says.
“See, because, I figure there are so many more white hunters than black hunters,” I explain, “and you never had all that much time to hunt when you were playing, so it was logical …”
“You don’t have to explain, Jack,” he says. “I get it.”
“So you are one of the Great White Hunters, only you’re black?” I ask. “I don’t know anything about this, so I’m just asking.”
“Okay, my thing is …I’m not going to say that I am,” answers Malone. [One of his favorite phrases is my thing is.] But what I am is persistent. And knowledgeable. And I’m pretty damn good. I take absolute pride in my hunting, and, yes, I would say that I’m one of the best African-American hunters in the world.”
That disquisition, in essence, defines Karl Malone. He first tap-danced around the question, started thinking about it aloud, and finally admitted that, yes, he is pretty damn good. He got himself into a lot of hot water over the years with that pattern.
I’ve tried to figure out why, during my years of covering the league, that I looked fondly upon Malone, a rural Louisianan who loves guns and right-wing politics, characteristics that do not describe myself. He has not always been a responsible man, having fathered three children out of wedlock, including one, Philadelphia Eagles tackle Demetress Bell, whom he has not supported. And he has a tendency, as do many athletes, to consider himself, at various times, undervalued, unloved and underpaid.
He was never far from oncourt controversy, as when, as I describe in Dream Team, he sliced open Isiah Thomas’s head when the Pistons guard drove for a layup. “Of course I did it on purpose,” Malone told me. Nor was he far from offcourt controversy; after the Dream Team came home from Barcelona it wasn’t long before the Mailman was claiming that he was worried about playing against Magic Johnson because of Johnson’s HIV, even though Karl had just spent he better part of the summer with Magic and never said anything.
At the time of our meeting in Ruston, Karl was locked in a bitter verbal battle with Greg Miller, the owner of the Jazz. Miller called Karl “high-maintenance,” and Karl called Miller a lot of other things. That squabble is now resolved. I think. Stay tuned.
In short, Karl Malone is—and always has been—a 6’9’’, 260-pound opera.
But for whatever reason I felt affection for him, his larger-than-life personae, his Southern ways, his attempt (and ultimate failure) to stay humble, his sometimes tortured syntax, his infectious enthusiasm when he talked about the things he loved, like big trucks, working out, hunting, the military.
I understand why some didn’t like the bruising style of the Mailman’s game—when he laid out Isiah, it put Pistons coach Chuck Daly in an awkward position since Chuck would soon be coaching Karl, but not Isiah, on the Dream Team—but you have to respect the way he approached his profession. Malone played for 19 seasons and in all but two of them (his rookie season of 1985-86 and his final season with the Lakers in 2003-04) he played in 80 or more games. (He played in 49 of the 50 games in the strike-shortened season of 1998-99.)
“I never met anyone who worked as hard as I did,” Malone told me, “except maybe Stock [John Stockton] in his own way.” I believe that.
In Dream Team, I devote some discussion to the question of who was the greater player, Malone and Barkley. I’m not going to say which side I come down on other than to note one difference between them: In his 16 seasons, Charles hit 80 games only twice.
Malone and Barkley form a mutual admiration society, and Malone told me that from time to time he asks Charles to accompany him on hunting trips. Malone describes their conversations thusly:
“What are we going after?” Charles will ask.
“Mountain lion and bear,” Karl will answer.
“Can’t we hunt something that won’t fuckin’ kill us?” says Barkley.
They’ve never gone and probably never will.
Like Barkley, the Mailman understands that part of his legacy is tied to his never having won a championship. But I didn’t come to Louisiana to talk about that because what is there to say on the subject? Lots of great players didn’t win one, starting, of course, with Malone’s teammate Stockton. George Gervin didn’t. Patrick Ewing didn’t. Dominique Wilkins didn’t. Hell, Elgin Baylor didn’t, and you could begin the discussion of NBA forwards with him. There are a host of reasons it didn’t happen but there are also two simple ones: For much of his career he went up against the Magic Johnson-led Lakers in the West, and when he and Stockton finally made it to the Finals in 1997 and 1998, there were Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Did the Mailman chase a championship when he signed on with the Lakers in 2003? Sure he did. So did lots of other guys, Barkley for one. But what interests me most about Malone was that he didn’t hang around to try to eclipse Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. He needed 1,459 points when he walked away after a disappointing ’03-’04 season during which he tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee.
Malone had slowed down by that time but, given his facility for work and rehab, he could’ve probably gotten back to, say, 80%, and covered the point total in one season. He hadn’t lost his strength game, he had an accurate outside touch and no one had his facility for getting to the line. (The Mailman is the all-time leader both in free throws made and attempted.) I’m not saying that he should’ve hung around; I’m just saying I was surprised he didn’t.
“I’m gonna tell you why, Jack,” Malone said. And he turned serious.
“When I lost my mother nothing mattered for a long period of time,” Malone said. (Shirley Malone, to whom Karl was extremely close, died, at age 64, on Aug. 13, 2003, about six weeks before Malone would join the Lakers.)
“Nope, nothing mattered,” he continued. “Not basketball, not business, not my friends. My world, which was basketball, didn’t matter. Records didn’t matter.”
Malone is tearing up by now. He tells me that he kept a journal during that time. He called it “Through My Eyes.” In the journal he pledged not to retire and come back.
“That is one of the most disrespectful things you can do to the game,” Malone continues. “I think when my mother died it just made me think about certain things more seriously. That was one of them.”
He may also have been drawing a distinction between himself and Magic, who did retire and come back. Twice. Malone was respectful to Magic’ leadership in Barcelona but broke away with his comments about HIV when they got back to the States. I detail it all in Dream Team.
Predictably, Malone’s reflective mood after Shirley’s death wasn’t the only factor in his leaving. The 2003-04 season was a turbulent one in L.A., defined by Kobe Bryant’s occasional absences to deal with his legal issues tied to an assault charge in Colorado. (Bryant missed 17 games.) And it eventually came to light that there were problems between Malone and Bryant involving Kobe’s wife, Vanessa. (She is now his ex-wife.) It is an impossibly complicated story and I have to be honest: I have no idea who to believe. (I direct you to this link (es.pn/Medb9x) if you want to read more.) But it was part and parcel to the drama of the season.
“When nobody cared what was written or said, that season with the Lakers was the most fun I ever had playing in the NBA,” said Malone. “It even came close to the Dream Team experience. When we were good, we were great. Watching the way Shaq and Kobe played together was something else. (Note: The Lakers won 10 in a row early and 11 in a row late.]
“And then it was like somebody threw in a little string. ‘Okay, let’s tell something that Shaq said about Kobe.’ ‘Okay, today, let’s go get Kobe. What did he say about Shaq?’ You could always use one against the other. And I always said that when it became a job instead of a passion, it was time to go.”
Malone also brought up another anecdote that factored in his decision to retire. I found it surprising.
“We’re playing San Antonio in the playoffs. [The Lakers eliminated the Spurs in six games in the Western semis.] They’re fouling the hell out of me and I’m talking to the referee, Bernie Fryar, about it. Now, here I am, 40 years old. Done what I did in the league. And you know what he says to me? ‘Just shut up and play.’
“Man, that bothered me a lot. To say that to another person? A veteran? That stuck in my mind. I knew it was time to go, and I loved how I did it. I just retired and went on with life.”
The incident with Fryar says much about Karl, and, to a degree, the mentality of the superstar athlete: He seems so strong, invulnerable even, but slights, real and imagined, sting him.
I ask him if there’s anything he would like to take back, maybe some of his parenting decisions, maybe push the reset button on his post-Barcelona comments about Magic.
“I’m gonna say this to you, but, listen, Jack, I’m far from having it figured out,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t play the way people wanted me to play, and maybe I didn’t say the things people wanted me to. But I don’t take nothing back. As a writer, don’t you cringe when somebody says, ‘I was misquoted?’ When somebody tries to change their story? Well, I have never done that. I have stood behind what I said.”
And so I left him, with his family around him, his future unsettled (coaching? Jazz exec? conservative talk show host?) save for the certainty of more slain animal flesh. I took one last look at his conquests, up there on the ceiling and walls, staring me down.
“The eyes on these animals?” Malone says. “They’re marbles.”