Karl Malone has been to Japan before, although never to start an NBA season. And while he's not convinced that the twain should meet, his return to the Orient has brought back many personal memories, some of them pleasant.

"I was over here for almost a month my sophomore year of college," said Malone as the Utah Jazz arrived in Tokyo Wednesday for two games with the Phoenix Suns this weekend, games that will start the NBA regular season for both teams."I swore I'd never come back in my life," the Jazz's All-Star forward continued. "But that was just the first couple of weeks. By the end I was really enjoying it."

In his own way.

Malone recalled the cultural highlight of his trip.

"I went down the Snake Alley," he said. "That's this place where they kill cobras and drink their blood. Then they bite the head off and eat the snake."

Hence of course the name.

Malone was part of a U.S. collegiate all-star team that was dispatched to Japan in 1984 as a kind of training team for many of the world's Olympic basketball teams. The competition was called the Jones Cup - for reasons Malone doesn't recall - and many countries sent teams to warm up for the Olympic Games that would be played in L.A. later that summer.

"We played Israel, Italy, Spain and a bunch of countries," said Malone. "We had a lot of good players, guys like Brad Daugherty, (Olden) Polynice, Danny Manning. We won the Cup. Nobody got within 20. We knew the U.S. team wasn't going to have any trouble in L.A."

Malone remembered a terrific reception from the Japanese fans, who he said sold out the arena nightly and who were a lot more polite and appreciative than the fans in, say, Detroit, or Miami.

"It was fine until we played the Japanese team," he said.

He made some Japanese friends on the trip - of the Japanese people he says, "I'll say this, they're the hardest working people in the world" - but said he doubts he'll strike up any old acquaintances on this visit. Chiefly that's because his knowledge of the Japanese language is rudimentary, to say the least.

"All the people I knew, we communicated by slapping each other on the back," he said. "I figured that as long as my teammates and coach spoke English, I was OK."

That will be the case again this week, although, unlike 1984, the competition for Malone and his teammates won't be the rest of the world. It will be other Americans. Other NBA Americans.

"No use in lyin'," said Malone. "No one would want to start the regular season over here. These are two important games. What are we doing playing them here? At least it's the same for both us and Phoenix," he added. "And it is important for international basketball and for the NBA."

"But wherever it is," he added further, summoning up his best positive attitude, "when that horn blows, you better be ready to play."

During his previous visit to Tokyo, Malone said he discovered a favorite restaurant he plans to re-visit on this trip. Several times if possible.

"I ate at McDonald's about every day," he said. "I hear they've got 52 of them now."

He said he will have no reservations recommending an Oriental Big Mac to his Jazz teammates, but didn't say for sure if he will conduct a tour of Snake Alley.

"I don't think we're going to have a lot of time," he said.

Not for culture, at any rate. The two games with the Suns will dominate the last two days of the Jazz's short five-day trip - and the first three days will be filled with practice, sleep, eating, mastering chopsticks, and engaging in what Malone remembered as Japan's national pasttime.

"Everywhere you go," he said. "They come up to you and ask to take your picture."

That was six years ago, but Malone is prepared for the same country he remembers from '84. A country that expanded his horizons as a young collegian from Louisiana - and now he is prepared to expand theirs.

"We goin' international now," said the Mailman. He's speaking for the NBA, as well as himself.