"Karl, what are you going to do about Charles Barkley?" Jazz guard John Stockton says, mimicking reporters. "I love it: Who's the best player? What is guarding Charles Barkley really like? How do you think you'll match up against him?"

The Mailman smiles in amusement. Philadelphia is in town, and that means more reporters asking more questions about the Barkley-Karl Malone friendship/rivalry. It's an obvious angle, but one that never seems to lose interest.Certainly, the Karl and Charles Variety Show is as good a value for your viewing dollar as money can buy. Both are relentless All-Star players who can pass, run, shoot, rebound and talk themselves in and out of trouble. Barkley regularly draws the ire of opposing fans with such comments as the one last month after playing Miami: "This is just a game to get over with. We play a real game (against Detroit) tomorrow night. Good teams come in here, win and go on."

He has been called in by NBA security to talk over, among other things, his penchant for yelling back at fans.

Malone, too, gets in his share of trouble. This year he suggested several teammates didn't belong in the NBA, after which he was called in by Coach Jerry Sloan. He soon was talking about loving teammates "like brothers."

Despite an occasional public relations blunder, Malone and Barkley rarely fail to entertain. Malone can be seen woofing at opponents and waving his arms at fans, only to turn and wink at reporters along press row. "We're in the entertainment business," explains Malone. "I try to give fans their money's worth." Barkley has been known to kick chairs and get fined for verbally abusing officials, yet he also can be seen smiling and chatting amiably to fans.

Both are staples on the NBA's All-Interview Team, picked by reporters covering the league. In an Orlando airport last month, someone asked Malone if he is "big" with fans in that area. "I'm big everywhere," he grinned. Barkley once told a Philadelphia writer, "If I were seven feet tall, I'd be illegal in three states."

Although they cultivate tough-guy images on the court, Malone and Barkley are notoriously soft touches for charity causes. Malone has handed out $100 bills to homeless people on the streets. Barkley planned to spend one Christmas at a children's hospital in Philadelphia, but hesitated when he learned television crews wanted to follow along. He explained he wouldn't go unless the cameras stayed home. "This is between me and God," he said.

"Charles is the exact opposite of most modern athletes," said Dave Coskey, a former Sixers public relations director, to The National. "Most of these guys are jerks who want you to think they're nice guys. But Charles is a genuinely nice guy who wants you to think he's a jerk."

The relationship between what many consider the two best forwards in the NBA began in the early 80s, when Barkley was a 300-pound forward at Auburn, earning such nicknames as the Crisco Kid and the Round Mound of Rebound, and Malone was a little-known Louisiana Tech player that a sportswriter dubbed the Mailman.

"To be great, Charles had to lose weight and he did," says Malone. "When I saw Charles in college, he was fat and out of shape. But even then I knew he could get the job done, because he was a hell of a player even with (the weight)."

Malone and Barkley are kindred spirits, given to dramatic plays and brash statements. Both are from small Southern towns - Barkley from Leeds, Ala., and Malone from Summerfield, La. - and both have become monsters of the middle. "Out of all the guys in the league, I guess he's the guy I'd do things with in the summer," says Malone. "We're close, to some degree, but we're only close when we're not playing. For the most part, we're friends. But he knows his job and I know mine."

They are doing them well. Barkley, in his seventh year in the league, is in a neck-and-neck race with Washington's Bernard King and Chicago's Michael Jordan for the league scoring lead, at about 30 points a game. Malone, in his sixth year, is fifth in scoring, averaging 28 points a game. Both are among the top 10 in rebounding.

Utah, 20-10, is struggling with San Antonio for the Midwest Division lead and the Sixers, 19-11, are playing catchup with the Boston Celtics in the Atlantic Division. However, Philadelphia has lost three in a row. Tipoff for tonight's game is at 7:30 in the Salt Palace.

Despite the obvious interest in a one-on-one matchup between Barkley and Malone, it doesn't take place all that often. Since the Sixers acquired Rick Mahorn last year from Detroit, he and Malone match up at power forward and Barkley plays the small forward.

Still, Malone is ready for the inevitable comparisons with Barkley. But for once, he has nothing to say. "I'm not going to mess with that," he says. "I'm not going to mess with that at all."

Pregame Notes: Jazz center/forward Mike Brown and his wife, Alessia, became the parents of a baby boy on New Year's Day . . . Utah is 12-2 when holding opponents to under 100 and 17-2 when scoring over 100 . . . John Stockton has a strained knee ligament but is expected to play.


(Additional information)

Karl Malone

Year Pts. Reb.

1985-86 14.9 8.9

1986-87 21.7 10.4

1987-88 27.7 12.0

1988-89 29.1 10.7

1989-90 31.0 11.1

1990-91 27.9 12.4

Charles Barkley

Year Pts. Reb.

1984-85 14.0 8.6

1985-86 20.0 12.8

1986-87 23.0 14.6

1987-88 28.3 11.8

1988-89 25.8 12.5

1989-90 25.2 11.5

1990-91 30.4 10.4