On his way to Chicago for the 1988 NBA All-Star Game, Karl Malone was worried. He was already talking about wanting a new contract, considering changing agents and wondering if he was stuck forever on an average team with several players who were either jealous of him or too busy complaining.
Nothing major.So just look at him now, going into today's '89 All-Star Game in the Astrodome. Presenting . . . the all-new Mailman.
New contract: Ten years, $18 million.
New agent: himself.
New team: Kelly Tripucka, Mel Turpin and Rickey Green are gone; the Jazz are in the Midwest Division race and, by all accounts, everybody's getting along almost as well as the Brady Bunch.
"I'm having the most fun I've ever had playing basketball," says Malone.
That's way different from last February. "I'm pretty good about blocking everything out," he says. "I never took it on the court. Off the court, I had to stop and do a lot of wondering. Nobody else knew that."
Even while big minutes are wearing him down and he lost Frank Layden, things are better now. Oh, Malone secretly still wants an expanded role with the Jazz; he recently called general manager David Checketts and asked him not to trade Jose Ortiz. "I told Karl that he already owned the team," reported Checketts. "Did he want to be GM, too?"
Although he's played hard for Jerry Sloan and kept racking up big numbers, Malone was hit hard by Layden's quitting in December. He still has "Frank" in purple ink on the back of his shoes and will wear No. 26, Layden's high school number, today. For a good month after Sloan took over, Malone's quotes about Layden appeared in one game-day newspaper story after another in the cities the Jazz visited.
All of which seems an affront to Sloan. Checketts says otherwise. "It hasn't been a distraction or a disservice at all - it would be different if Jerry was a brand-new guy, from outside; maybe that would be a hard thing to take," he says. "Jerry has handled that part of things very well. I think (Sloan) was tempted to write Frank's name on the back of his shoes, too."
Generally, ever since the Chicago All-Star Game, everything's gone the Mailman's way - starting with 22 points and 10 rebounds to lead the West. This season, he's improved his free-throw shooting again (.766), become a top five NBA scorer (29.6) and rebounder (11.4) and developed into the best power forward in the game.
"I don't consider myself in any class," Malone says. "I know what I can do, and everybody else knows what I can do, too."
He's come a long way in four seasons. "He had major-league ability; there were so many things he could do," said Sloan, remembering Malone's mostly disappointing rookie camp. "Naturally, you think he's got to do it all at once."
Instead, he's improved steadily and still has some rough edges - taking bad shots, missing big shots and taking off too early on the break. He'll get better. "They say you don't reach your peak until your fifth or sixth year," he mused. "I'm sort of excited about those years."
Proof that he's arrived in the NBA comes from the overwhelming response to him in the fan voting for the All-Star Game - only Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson had more votes - and in the way referees and other players respect him these days.
Philadelphia's Charles Barkley used to talk trash to the Mailman and intimidate him out of his game; this season, he treated him like a long-lost friend, hugging him on the court before the game and speaking of him in glowing terms. With rare exceptions, referees are giving Malone superstar treatment. He's only slightly behind a pace that would make him and Wilt Chamberlain the only players to ever try 1,000 free throws in a season.
"I can remember how I was treated my first year in the league," says Malone. "Now, it's just the opposite in how people look at you and treat you as a player."
So what's ahead for Malone? His 10-year contract - coming 13 months after he signed a six-year deal - hardly guarantees that he won't ever ask for more money, but means he'll play out his career in Utah. He's looking ahead to a career in action movies, but for now, he's glad the Jazz are almost acting like an NBA contender.
"It used to be years down the line, talking about a championship," he says. "For the first time, everybody's mind is in the same direction."
And Malone has a lot less on his mind.