DRAPER — The memories were flowing and Karl Malone was speaking from his heart, his gut and any other part of his soul that made him a perennial NBA all-interview selection.
Quickly the years turned back.
Seemed like yesterday the Mailman was cracking heads on the court and entertaining the media off. Now, here it is, time for the Hall of Fame. Malone, who was in Salt Lake this week, will be inducted Aug. 13 in Springfield, Mass., joining Jerry Sloan and John Stockton, who were elected last year.
I asked how he wanted his career to be remembered.
"By the kind of person I was," he said. "At the end of the day, what was Karl Malone like? Not the athlete. You can debate that and do whatever you want to do. As a human being, in life, did he give more or did he take more? The basketball stuff, that ain't for me to decide ... but as a person, that's something I can control. What did I do for people."
On and off the court, Malone has done much. He made countless hospital visits, donated shirts and shoes to charities and started several of his own. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, he not only sent his logging company into Mississippi for cleanup work, but went himself, sometimes even operating heavy equipment.
Before his mother passed away in 2003, she told him, "I have the feeling that one of these days you'll have an opportunity to influence someone's life and you don't even know it."
"Couple years later," said Malone, "Katrina came up."
Malone said an 18-year-old man approached him at Lagoon this week, and Malone noticed a scar on the youth's neck. The young man went on to say that as a child he needed a tracheotomy while at Primary Children's Medical Center, and Malone had visited him. The boy privately vowed if he ever again saw Malone, he wouldn't miss the chance to thank him.
That chance came Thursday.
"My kids were there," continued Malone. Then his voice caught as tears pooled in his eyes. "I don't always do right. I do more wrong probably than right; I know I do. But for that brief moment, for that kid to come up and say that, that's when I smile."
"The Hall of Fame, you can dissect that and you can flip all that around, but what kind of person are we?"
Here's the kind of basketball person he was: He left as the second-leading scorer in history. He is also arguably the Jazz's greatest player, though he says in his mind it was Stockton.
Either way, it was no contest who was the most colorful. Malone entertained and occasionally incited. In hindsight, his occasional public uprisings were harmless, usually over hurt feelings regarding contracts, or the lack of effort by certain teammates.
But Malone always reported for work. He missed only nine games in 18 years with the Jazz — some due to suspension — and says he hated missing every one. He remembers spraining an ankle so seriously in a game that he crawled to the bathroom that night, yet played the following day.
Nowadays, he said, that sort of thing doesn't happen so often.
"A strain?" he said, speaking of players in general today. "What's a strain?"
That's the thing about Malone. His opinions were always unrehearsed. He was as transparent as a raindrop. Whatever he was feeling, Jazz fans were soon hearing. That eventually transitioned into the Carlos Boozer era. While Malone was emotional and open, Boozer was distant and opaque. With Boozer, you never knew when he would play; with Malone it was a given.
Despite his work ethic, Malone retired without a championship ring. Twelve years after the Jazz last appeared in the NBA Finals, he said it still bothers him.
"It bothers me less as time goes on," he said. "But you know as well as I know, when you look at it, that's how they measure you. But I just happen to be on list of lot of great players that played and did it the right way for lot of years and didn't win it — in every profession.37 comments on this story
"But how did you lose it? Did you lose with dignity and pride? I know a lot of people who are great winners. But I don't know a whole lot of good losers. I don't like it, but it's winners and losers. Could I have done better things? Maybe I could have. I'll put that responsibility on me. But does it measure what kind of player or person I was? Absolutely not."
Either way, said Malone, it's not basketball he wants to be remembered by.
"I hope someday somebody will walk up to my kid, without me there, and say, 'Let me tell you about your dad.' And I hope it's not anything sports related."