KARL MALONE IS a lot of things in the playoffs, but boring isn't one of them.
Now that appointed rounds like the regular season, an All-Star Game appearance and a new contract that first involved a threat to become a mailman in Italy are out of the way, here Malone is, back in the playoffs, his emotions intact. Or as intact as they've ever been.Malone approaches the playoffs a lot like Onassis approached Jackie Kennedy. Subtle he isn't. He isn't intrigued, he's driven. Tuesday, after the Jazz finished their off-day practice to get ready for Game 3 against Portland Wednesday night in the Salt Palace, Malone was asked if it would be fair to say he is obsessed about getting past the first round of the playoffs.
"Oh yeah, sure," he said, "Definitely."
"Nobody wants to be a first-round wonder," he said. "I don't want to be one. I want to get to the next round, and the next round, and the next round."
That would about cover it.
"In this game people look at what you've done every year compared to the year before," he said. "It's a matter of improving, of picking your game up a notch. That's what says how good you are."
In his first two years in the NBA Malone, and the Jazz, were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. In 1986 Dallas ended the Jazz's season. Last year Golden State got them.
In the Golden State series Malone became the focal point at the end of Game 2 after flinging a basketball at the Warriors' Greg Ballard, a pacificist, normally, who flung it back and started a melee in the Salt Palace that amateur psychiatrists still contend swung the series in the Warriors' favor. Despite the fact Utah was up two games to none at the time, Golden State won the next three games, becoming only the second team in NBA history to rally back from an 0-2 deficit to win a best-of-five series.
That turn of events still rankles Malone, who, first of all, didn't think the Game 2 incident was all that pivotal and who, second of all, still feels a need to atone for three rather lackluster games thereafter.
"I don't think I learned anything special from what happened with Golden State," he says. "Besides, that wasn't no fight. It was blown all out of proportion. A fight is knuckle to knuckle, blood spurting, down on the ground, punches thrown. At least that's the Loosiana definition of a fight. I don't know what you all call it here in Utah."
For Malone, as the, uh, incident with Ballard illustrates, the playoffs are an emotional experience.
"I'm an emotional player," he says. "That's my style. That's why I like the playoffs. They're emotional."
But they can heap on added pressure. A lot of it self-induced. Hence, there was the Karl Malone of last Thursday night in Portland, when the playoffs began and he was in dire need of a tranquilizer. He was as nervous as he was during warmups at the AllStar game last February. But unlike the All-Star Game, where he settled down to lead the West in scoring and all players in rebounds, he never returned to earth in Portland. He shot the ball 22 times and made only five baskets. He missed three dunks.
What was this guy, the Portland press wanted to know the day after, a maleman or a mouse? Malone went into a shell before Game 2, refusing to talk to any outsiders, the media especially.
Playoff hysteria had begun.
In Game 2 he got 37 points and 16 rebounds . . . and after the game he broke his vow of silence just when several Dominican orders were getting interested.
Naturally, he no sooner opened his mouth than he said something that got everyone's attention. He told the media that he didn't think the Jazz will have to go back to Portland. English translation: they'll wrap up the series with a sweep here Wednesday and Friday.
However, inferences that he guaranteed no returns to the Great Northwest were wrong, according to Malone. "Quotes can get out of context in a hurry," he says. "What I said was if we play defense the way we did in Game 2 we've got a good chance to end it here. Myself personally, I don't like Portland and don't ever want to go there. Playoffs or not. Everytime I go there it's raining.
"If somebody wants to try to use what I said as an edge, so be it," the Mailman said.
"I don't know why things seems to keep happening to me (in the playoffs)," he said, musing over the phenomenon. "But they seem to. Everybody's always looking at me, to see what will happen next."
If Malone has his way, what will happen next will be another playoff series for the Jazz , and another one after that, and so on. "I want to be on CBS," he said. "Everybody wants to be on CBS."
Where you can attract serious attention.