Someday the Mailman would like to settle down. Get away from the deal-makers and pitchmen. Buy a grassy cattle ranch in north Texas, drive his big-rig truck and watch his kids playing in the sun.

He says he can see himself with a big spread, several thousand acres, with cattle scattered across the land. Four, five kids in the yard. And plenty of time. Not so many public appearances and shoe commercials to make. Fewer interviews. Time to get back to what counts - family and friends.But all that's a long way off. It's the playoffs again, and time for the Mailman to make his rounds. Time for hammer jams, flexing biceps and prime time TV.

The Mailman says for now there's postage due. He's tired of hearing how the Jazz were eliminated in the first round two years running.

"This year," says Karl Malone, "it's going to be different."

"Promise?" says a reporter.

"Yeah," says the Mailman, "I promise."

It is a midwinter afternoon at Orlando airport. The Mailman, wearing a pin on his denim jacket that says "attitude," awaits his luggage while a steady flow of fans timidly walks up and ask for his autograph. Malone shows no sign of irritation. He signs them all.

A man in his 30s approaches and says reverently, "I saw you on `Arsenio,' and what you have to say makes a lot of sense." Malone nods and thanks him.

Noting the small crowd gathering, someone asks Malone if he's "big" in Orlando. "I'm big everywhere," grins the Mailman.

Yet for all his fame, all his bigness, Malone remains surprisingly accessible. He rarely refuses to sign autographs. He gets 1,000 to 1,500 letters a week and claims he personally autographs all requests. "They may not get them back in three days, but I do return all my mail."

Children are the Mailman's weakness. Growing up with eight brothers and sisters, he learned early the worth of family. He wants to have "three, four, maybe five" children of his own.

Consequently, he takes special care to treat them respectfully. He was appalled when he read Philadelphia's Charles Barkley spat on a child at courtside. "I like Charles, but that was wrong," he says.

For a man who regularly does battle with Rick Mahorn and Buck Williams, it is a touching sight to see him - shoulders bulging - kneeling by a child in a wheelchair, talking softly. After games he often hands his signature "Mailman" wrist bands to kids near the court.

"I have 16 nieces and nephews," he says. "Maybe one of these days their Uncle Karl isn't going to be their hero anymore - who knows? But I try to treat kids like I would like my nephews' and nieces' heroes - and my own children's heroes - to treat them."

Malone has a hero as well - Texas Rangers' pitcher Nolan Ryan. He likes Ryan's class and longevity. But even more, he likes his Texas roots and his love of ranching.

There are times, though, when Malone's accessibility can cause problems. "People will sit down and enjoy their meal at a restaurant and then walk over and interrupt mine and ask for an autograph," he says. "It's rude."

Other times, they want more than an autograph. Those are the fast talkers who always have another project, another opportunity. "You can't believe some of the deals people come up and say they have," he says.

They have knocked on his door in Salt Lake and claimed, falsely, they had been sent by owner Larry Miller or team president Tim Howells. He once donated money to a man in a wheelchair, only to find later that, once outside, he had folded up the chair and walked to his car.

Such experiences have made Malone more skeptical and less trusting than he was as a back woods rookie out of Louisiana Tech. "As far as people go, I've changed tremendously in that aspect," says the Mailman. "I still respect people. But I have to be really careful, especially on the business side."

Malone had a bad experience with an agent early in his career. Consequently, he no longer has one. Last summer's eight-year, $26 million contract was negotiated personally by the Mailman.

Now there are numerous people around him, but no agents. He has many business interests, including a beginner 50-acre cattle ranch in Arkansas, a custom truck business and numerous investments. Most are run from an office on South Temple that houses Malone Enterprises.

He says he trusts the people he has surrounded himself with. And he no longer needs people who just want to be around a star.

"I love people," he says, "but I'm not in dire need of people that like Karl Malone because he's an athlete, not a person. I want people to be interested in me as a person, because I'm intersted in people as persons. While they're watching me, I'm watching them."

Watching Karl Malone can be a treat, because as the world's largest Mailman, he aims to please. He will walk along press row, a hard scowl on his face, and quickly wink at reporters. He has been known to grin at taunting fans. Occasionally, just to get a rise, Malone waves his arms to incite the opposing crowd.

"I'm in the entertainment business," says the Mailman. "I think it's part of the job to give the fans their money's worth."

But for all his mugging and posturing, all his colorful quotes, the Mailman says he has mellowed over the years. Ask who's better between him and Charles Barkley, he says, "I'm not even going to touch that." Ask about the Spurs showing them up at the end of a lopsided win, and he will tell you it's "just part of the game."

However, lest one think the Mailman has become like the rest of the Jazz players - who are straight-from-the-book type interviews - he needs only to look back at the past year. Malone was quoted liberally about his contempt for the abilities of the Clippers' Olden Polynice and Ken Norman. He got in a brief verbal bout in with Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins in the papers, but that was quickly smoothed over. He theatrically pushed Lakers' Coach Mike Dunleavy during a time out.

In the first month of the season, he claimed most of the Jazz bench didn't belong in the NBA, later apologizing.

But on the whole, the Mailman truly seems to be mellowing. He married in December to Kay Kinsey, who isn't particularly interested in basketball. That in itself lends perspective to Malone's life.

"I'm not only more mellow in basketball, but in life," says the Mailman. "I've matured, or whatever. My mind is on a lot of things. I love basketball, but I don't eat, sleep and drink it. Really, you go play, then you go home, and I have another life. Basketball isn't the most important thing in my life."

His wife has helped him decide what is important. Both have interests other than basketball. She sells Mary Kay products while he works on business and plans for an upcoming movie. Both want children. When he gets home, there is little talk of the game. "She isn't crazy about basketball, which is great with me," he says. "Then she can't tell me what I should or shouldn't do."

He says a few years from now, all his press clippings and awards will mean a lot. But he also wants to diversify. Become Karl Malone the entrepeneur, Karl Malone the person. He doesn't want to end up a broken-down athlete with no other interests, no other name.

"When I finish up, I think it will be more important what kind of guy I was, not what kind of athlete," he says. "It's an honor to sign basketball cards. It's an honor to play."

However mature Malone has become in his sixth NBA season, he admits it hasn't kept him from being spoiled. "Yeah, I am a spoiled brat," he says. "I'm not going to lie. But with the help of God, my team and people close to Karl Malone, I worked my butt off to be a spoiled brat.

"Yes, I spoil myself. But how many people wouldn't spoil themselves if they could? I may be spoiled, but I'm also willing to help other people."

Whatever his condition, the Mailman says he wishes people understood him for more than his biceps and his basketball. But that isn't likely to happen. "People don't know me," he says wistfully. "They just look at the athlete. They say I'm spoiled, I'm moody on the court. But I compete. I entertain. And I do other things. I'm sure until they know me - which I doubt they'll ever get the oppportunity - they'll just judge me. And they won't really know what I'm like."

Changed? Yes and no. The Mailman still has his personal zoo of exotic pets, still has his auto collection. He continues to pump his arm after dunks, draw technicals, complain about negative fans, entertain reporters.

But he's different, too. He's wiser to the con men that come in and out of his life. "Early in my career I got burned. Now I've got people working with me that I trust. It's an unbelievable opportunity."

And he's wiser - at least more wary - with the press. More and more he lets things pass rather than launching off on a tangent. More than ever he credits his teammates for his own accomplishments. Where he once said publicly he would only play five more seasons, he now says he will honor the last seven years of his eight-year contract before thinking of retiring.

He's also wiser with his game. He has improved steadily each season, going from a raw kid with size to one of the league's best players. One year he worked all summer on free throw shooting. Now his passing has become a dangerous weapon. He even spent an off-season working on three-pointers.

"In this business, everyone looks for your weaknesses," he says. "So I try to eliminate them. But if you do, that means sacrifice. When you do that things tend to work out."

And sometimes, you tend to become a superstar.

So what's ahead for the Mailman? A championship? An MVP ring? Certainly, at age 27, he is at the peak of his game, headed for more All-Star seasons. He'll have at least seven more years of basketball, barring injury. Then he'll retire.

Retire to what? Well . . .

"I'll have my beef ranch and a nice little family. I'll play the beef market, and I'll drive my 18-wheeler. That's my goal. That's my dream," he says.

He'll retire to the Texas grasslands. To family and cattle and quiet starry nights. To a world where he doesn't have to be the Mailman. A place where a few people can watch him, and he can watch them. And maybe they can even get to know one another.