If this year were last year, Karl Malone says he wouldn't have as much of a problem with someone starting ahead of him in the NBA All-Star Game.

"I'm maturing," the Mailman says, "I'm learning more and more to roll with the punches."A year ago, when A.C. Green of the Lakers - by virtue of fan balloting - got the starting forward spot ahead of Malone on the Western Conference

All-Star team, Malone initially said he might boycott the game even if he was added to the roster as a reserve. Later, he accepted a position on the team, as offered by the West's coaching staff, but pulled out of the game nonetheless, because of an ankle injury.

Inexplicably, Malone received only 185,000 votes in the 1989-90 balloting, to place behind Green, who became a first-time All-Star.

In this year's balloting, however, the Utah Jazz forward received almost 600,000 votes, easily winning a starting berth in the 1991 All-Star Game that will be played this Sunday in the Charlotte Coliseum.

"I didn't understand the process last year, and I still don't understand it," says Malone, rolling his eyes.

But he says he has come to accept it for the system that it is.

"Nothing I can do about it anyway," he says. "I'm letting things bother me less than before. I'm trying to take that same approach to games now too. Try not to let what people say or do get to me. It's maturity, I guess."

"I'm not saying I wouldn't have voiced my opinion again this year, if the same thing had happened," he adds. "But I wouldn't have let it bother me."

This marks four straight All-Star selections for Malone, a six-year NBA veteran. He came to Charlotte a day early, on Thursday, to participate in a cover photo shoot for Sports Illustrated. The magazine plans to feature on the cover of an upcoming issue a photo of a potential starting five for America's 1992 Olympic basketball team.

Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and either Patrick Ewing or David Robinson will appear with the Jazz's Mailman in a cover shot that will no doubt be heard around the basketball world.

Appearing on this dream team, or nightmare team if you live in Moscow or Belgrade, caused Malone to voluntarily give up his VIP tickets for Thursday night's pro wrestling card in the Salt Palace.

"I wanted to go to the wrestling real bad," he says, "Hulk Hogan, Earthquake, Legion of Doom, oh man, I know 'em all. I've been a fan ever since I was a little boy and I thought everything was real."

"Now," he says, "I know some of it isn't."

Getting to All-Star City early offered another advantage for Malone. "The closer you get to the weekend the closer it gets to a zoo," says Malone. "I wanted to relax before it all started."

"I want to enjoy myself Sunday but I want to play hard," he continued, "the main thing is that you play hard, you show you belong, and you don't get injured."

For last year's game, Malone watched on television from his home in Salt Lake, his ankle propped on a chair in front of him.

"I wanted to go to Wendover," he says, "but I was afraid people would see me and say, `he's not really injured.' "

During the game, he got three calls from former Jazz teammate Bobby Hansen. Hansen was in Miami for All-Star Weekend as a participant in the three-point shootoff. Sitting in the stands during Sunday's All-Star Game in the Miami Arena, he used a cellular phone to phone Malone.

"Bobby kept calling me," remembers Malone. "He was trying to show me where he was on TV. He'd say, `Hey Karl, look at such and such a section.' I never did find him."

This year, Malone could return the gesture. Or at least he could after the game settles down and a substitute is sent into the game to give him a rest. Hansen isn't in the long-distance shootoff. He'll be home, watching on TV. And so, for that matter, will A.C. Green, a victim this season of an off-year and dwindling support at the ballot box.

Malone could give A.C. a call, saying, "look at such and such a section." Not that he will. He might have a year ago. This year, the only thing that's bothering him is that he's in Charlotte - and Hulk Hogan is in Utah.