He has been called the most recognizable athlete in the world, and who's to doubt?

Tonight in the Salt Palace (7:30, Channel 13), the Jazz meet the Chicago Bulls, a.k.a. Michael Jordan and his Traveling Aerial Show. As usual, all the game's interest is centered around Jordan, the most marketable product in a league filled with big-ticket names. Every year when Jordan is in town, the game is sold out weeks ahead. Newspapers start getting fan calls asking where the Bulls are staying, so they can camp out and catch a glimpse of the game's biggest star.So far in the 1990-91 season, Jordan has been no disappointment. He scored 41 in a win over Boston on Friday night. Saturday he had a sub-par night, scoring just 23, but it was enough to get the Bulls by Charlotte.

Chicago is 3-3 and Jordan is averaging 29 points a game.

Depending on whether or not his swollen right elbow is better by tonight, Jazz guard Jeff Malone will get the call to stop, or at least slow, Jordan.

"There are a lot of tough guys to guard in this league," says Malone, "but when you're talking about a guy who can go off the dribble and fly through the air - just the moves he makes are incredible."

Last year, without Malone, the Jazz-Bulls game was one of the most talked-about of the season. John Stockton made a driving shot with only a fraction of a second remaining to provide Utah with a 108-107 win at the Salt Palace on Nov. 15. The Jazz also beat the Bulls 98-94 on March 8 at Chicago.

Malone got his first look at Jordan six years ago, when Jordan was a rookie and Malone a second-year man. Jordan scored 38 against him.

"When I was a second-year guy, I'd play against him and it would be 'He's unbelievable. Man, he can really play!"' says Malone.

But now Jordan is less of a surprise. The moves are still there, but there are ways to combat them.

Malone's history against Jordan hasn't been bad, comparatively speaking. Last April, playing for Washington, Malone held Jordan to 21 points. In the other two games he got 28 and 32 against Malone, which, by Jordan standards, isn't great. Jordan has averaged almost 33 points a game for his career. That average would likely be higher, but he played in only 18 games his second year due to an injury, and averaged just 22.7 points.

Malone didn't play in one of the games against the Bulls last year.

In 1988-89, Jordan averaged about 32.5 points a game for the season, but Malone held him to a slightly lower average of 31.5 against the Bullets. As Malone admits, he hasn't exactly shut him down, but at least Jordan has been kept from one of his 40, 50 or 60-point nights.

Malone has kept Jordan in check by using a combination of hard, physical defense, keeping him outside, and by scoring enough points himself to wear Jordan down.

"My philosophy is to make him play defense, first of all," says Malone. "Then you've got to bump him and stay with him. You've got to make him beat you on the jump shot. You just try to put a hand in his face. Unfortunately, he can shoot the ball on the jumper, too. But if he's going to get 40 on you, you hope you're making him shoot jumpers."

Having spent six years in the NBA, Malone says he is past the "gee-whiz" stage of watching Jordan. He doesn't call him "Mr. Jordan" or ask for autographs or bring a camera to games.

"It's not like I'm nervous when Mike is in town," says Malone.

He doesn't even worry about being embarrassed. "No, I don't give noone that much respect," says Malone. "I try to look at him the same as a lot of other good players - Rolando Blackmon, Dale Ellis . . . "

But, adds Malone, when you get down to it, there's only one Michael Jordan. "There are a lot of good guys, but I think he is the toughest," Malone continues. "He's in a class by himself."

Jazz notes: Malone is being listed as "probable" to start tonight after injuring his elbow . . . Karl Malone has a bruised arch. It was feared he might have a stress fracture which could have sidelined him for weeks. He'll play tonight. . . The long trip to Japan may be taking its toll on the Jazz. Last week Coach Jerry Sloan said the team had the same feeling one gets after being together for 50 games. After the loss to Houston on Sunday, he reiterated, "It seems like our 45th game." . . . Sloan was pleased with Sunday's comeback against Houston, but that's where it ended. On Akeem Olajuwon, Sloan said, "He competed. We quit competing." . . . On reaching the 12,000-point plateau Sunday, Darrell Griffith replied, "I wasn't even conscious of it. We didn't win, so . . . "

*****

(ADDITIONAL INFORMATION)

Jordan, J. Malone points per game

Michael Jordan

1984-85 28.2

1985-86 22.7

1986-87 37.1

1987-88 35.0

1988-89 32.5

1989-90 33.6

Career average 32.8

Jeff Malone

1983-84 12.1

1984-85 18.9

1985-86 22.4

1986-87 22.0

1987-88 20.5

1988-89 21.7

1989-90 24.3

Career Average 20.2