SALT LAKE CITY — When Karl Malone left the Utah Jazz in 2003, many believed he was abandoning a sinking ship. They had wearied of his recurring contract squabbles and blamed him for the Jazz not winning an NBA title. Others simply thought he was arrogant.
But last week when Malone showed up at EnergySolutions Arena to discuss Jerry Sloan's retirement, he offered something else: humility.
Granted, this is the guy who regularly referred to himself in third person. But as he stood outside the Jazz locker room, he spoke emotionally of Sloan's retirement, saying, "I will without a doubt make his legacy live in my life."
It sounded a lot like a guy who recognized he wouldn't have made the Hall of Fame without help.
The Mailman could annoy people with his summertime eruptions, seemingly calculated to keep himself in the news. Some days he was grouchy, even belligerent. But there was an appealing side, too. In the right mood, he could truly entertain.
Malone grew up an impoverished rural Louisiana kid with seven siblings. But clearly his mom did something right. Some parents teach their kids to expect and demand help from others; she taught gratitude. Case in point: At his own expense, with some of his own equipment, Malone rushed to help clear property following Hurricane Katrina.
Malone eventually grew accustomed to fame and fortune. Yet he never assumed anyone owed him a living. He improved his game every summer.
The occasion for Malone's remarks was Sloan's sudden retirement last week, and the situation surrounding it. In the process, he said, "At some point in my life, I will carry his legacy on, in some form of coaching."
Not many former superstars thrived as coaches, but carrying on legacies? Now that's surely something he can do.
Loyalty is underrated in today's NBA. Most players brush it off, saying it's only a business. Although blind loyalty is one thing, belief in a common cause can be a powerful motivator.
"I want people to understand that what we lost will never, ever be replaced," Malone continued. "I've heard guys on TV talking about Coach Sloan ... his will ... he don't have the fire ... I heard a lot of that. Half those guys don't know what they're talking about. Some of those guys I played with; I mute it when they start talking."
For all the mixed feelings Malone engendered when he played in Utah, he left no doubt about his feeling for Jazz fans.
"I'll say this about Utah Jazz fans," he continued. "You can't B.S. them. They know basketball. So people can spin it any way they want to spin it, but if you lie to them, they're gonna call you on it."
Malone expressed additional appreciation for assistant coach Phil Johnson, who retired along with Sloan.
"Loyalty," Malone said, his voice growing husky, "is what Phil Johnson did. That right there is one of those things that — who else would have done that? But now when you talk about that, those are the kinds of friendships and buddies I like: 'You're done, I'm done.' "
Talk of loyalty may seem odd coming from a man who left for the Lakers to pursue a championship after John Stockton retired. (What happened to "You're done, I'm done"?) But Malone probably deserved a chance to try for a title. He was 40 years old and the Jazz wanted to move ahead.27 comments on this story
The Jazz made Malone a token offer — far below what he had been making — and he declined. Though L.A.'s offer was less than Utah's, it provided a resolution both Malone and the Jazz could embrace.
Eight years later, he returned to pay tribute to the coach that pointed him to the Hall of Fame. If there are contradictions, they don't overshadow the fact that Malone displayed a trait sorely missing nowadays: The ability to give credit to someone else. That alone is a legacy worth noting.