Alot of people are thinking it's ludicrous that the Utah Jazz are paying Karl Malone $3.2 million and John Stockton $2.3 million to play basketball this season. They're thinking the only people who make that kind of money should be working at the mint. Or, at the very least, doing something hard, like a detective working the night shift in the Bronx or a Private First Class stationed 150 yards south of Kuwait.

But I am not one of them. I think the Jazz are smart to pay Malone and Stockton $5.5 million to play this season. I think they couldn't afford NOT to pay them that much money.In the NBA of the '90s, a happy player is a productive player, and a productive player is a player who knows he's making more money than the guy he just scored over.

The only time Malone won't be happy this year is when he's scoring over Patrick Ewing or Akeem Olajuwon or Hot Rod Williams. As for Stockton, the only point guards making more money than him will be Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas.

With his $3.2 million salary, Malone becomes the fourth best-paid player in the NBA this season, behind Williams' $5 million, Ewing's $4.2 million and Olajuwon's $4 million. At power forward, he is the highest-paid.

With his $2.3 million salary, Stockton ranks No. 15 on the league salary list, behind the above-mentioned big four followed by Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, Moses Malone, Robert Parish, Mark Price, Chris Mullin, Blair Rasmussen and Dennis Scott. Among point guards, he is the third highest-paid.

These rankings are courtesy of a salaries list published recently by the Peninsula (Fla.) Times Tribune. The Times Tribune is just one of many publications that periodically educate the public as to the salaries of sports figures.

Nobody knows exactly how these figures become public and wind up in places like the Peninsula Times Tribune, since the sources are always anonymous. But it is widely suspected that the sources are usually agents who negotiated the player's contracts in the first place.

Agents know that going public with salaries is the best way to create an inflationary situation.

They also know that real money stopped being the main issue several million dollars ago.

(And they also, like your friendly neighborhood realtor, know their percentages; and that 10 percent of, say, $3.2 million is a lot more than 10 percent of, say, $1.6 million, and that's their bottom line).

So the agents have turned the situation into one that's about egos, or, as Malone prefers to say, "it's about pride. You can't put a price tag on that. It's a big thing. Everyone have that (pride). If they say they don't, they still do."

In other Mailman words: "If I'm playing against a guy who's making more than me, yeah, I think about that."

The only way you know if you're playing against a guy who's making more than you are is if salaries are made public.

Both Malone and Stockton were reportedly aware of salary lists published this past summer - in Sport Magazine - that showed them underpaid, relatively speaking.

At $1.6 million, Malone learned that he was making less money than such power forwards as Tom Champers, Otis Thorpe, Wayman Tisdale and, of all people, A.C. Green. At $1.1 million, Stockton learned that he was making less money than many of the league's point guards, even some he doubled last year in assists, and that he was considered one of the best bargains in sports.

They needed new deals to be happy.

It wasn't that they didn't have enough money to get the Mercedes in for its 5,000-mile service, or shop for small islands in the South Pacific, or pay retail for Polo clothing. It was that they were looking at a season where they would be making less money than even a lot of rookies.

So the Jazz had no choice. You can afford to have your backup players, your struggling-tomake-the-team players, working for a mere six figures a season, but when it comes to your marquee players, to the best in the league, you can't afford to have them distracted by the new math.

"You need to be able to look them in the eye and say you're being fair with them," says Jazz owner Larry Miller.

"I'm not smart enough to decide if it's fair all around," Miller continues. "I guess ultimately the fan decides that. I just know I have to do the best things I can do to protect our prime assets . . . the economics of the whole thing has caused me to be pragmatic."

In the NBA of the '90s, pragmatic means keeping a hundred thousand or so ahead of the Joneses, and the Johnsons, and the Greens. Adequate compensation means you're being compensated more than the person you just dunked over.

Jazz General Manager Tim Howells sums it up when he says, "We have to look at players salaries the same as we look at income taxes - it's just a card we've been dealt."

You can either pay now, or you can pay later.