He's still working out three to four hours a day even though, as he confessed to his former boss, he doesn't know why. With no more jump shots to shoot, no more fast breaks to break, no more dunks to throw down, no more elbows to throw, the old pro is still lifting weights and running windsprints.

Old habits die hard for Karl Malone, who will retire today at 41 with Olympic medals, All-Star berths, records and acclaim as the Greatest Power Forward Ever, but, alas, no championship.

A fanatical work ethic and talent are rarely found in the same player, but that was Malone. He made himself into one of the greatest NBA players in history with a boot-camp-like training regimen. But no longer will he be able to unleash the results of that labor on beleaguered NBA opponents, who are no doubt breathing a sigh of relief through their bloodied lips.

After a mid-life fling with the soap-opera known as the Lakers — a team that couldn't be more unlike the businesslike, composed Jazz — all in pursuit of the only thing missing from his Hall of Fame resume, Malone is coming home to say goodbye. Which is only fitting. Malone never looked right in Laker yellow.

Malone should have known better. He was old school, a one-team, one-coach player with old-fashioned work ethic. For Malone, anything could be accomplished with hard work and playing the game the right way, which would include unselfishness and team play — hardly the stuff of the Lakers. As fate and fortune would have it, Malone found men of like mind in John Stockton and Jerry Sloan. The stars must have been aligned right when those three were united — Sloan, the farmer from Illinois who was prematurely cast off by his old Bulls; Stockton, a small, white guard from a school called Gonzaga; and Malone, an insecure black man from Louisiana. They turned the laughing stock of the league into a juggernaut and saved the small-market franchise.

When he found himself playing alongside the next generation, Malone found a different game and rebelled. Malone set a pick for Kobe Bryant in the 1998 All-Star Game and Bryant waved him out — Bryant wanted to go one on one. Malone vowed never to return after that. He called the next generation "knuckleheads."

And then at the end of his career, he joined the knuckleheads. To get his ring, he joined the Lakers and Bryant, a player so selfish that he noted of this year's Laker team, "(The players) are here giving me 110 percent."

Me?

Malone had no business on such a team and, not surprisingly, he wound up in a he-said, she-said dispute with Bryant that drove him from the team. It was bound to happen.

Malone was like that, though. He always seemed about half ticked off about something. He was always creating a rift with management or teammates — from Greg Ostertag to Uncle Larry — and then making up with them. Nobody ever figured him out. If he wasn't griping about his latest contract — which should have been written in pencil to accommodate the annual demands for a new deal — he was pouting about respect or something Miller did or didn't do or something the broadcast team said or teammates' efforts or wanting a piece of Miller's car dealership or his own radio show.

He had another falling out with the Jazz last winter over a halftime skit the Jazz produced that poked fun at Malone, the Lakers and Bryant. They made up, as they always do.

Miller figured out the routine years ago. During All-Star weekend in Minnesota in 1994, after Malone had lashed out again (this time about getting him some help to win a championship), Miller discussed the outburst with Deseret News columnist Brad Rock and when they were finished, Miller's parting comment was, "See you next round, Brad." He knew there would always be more, and there were.

For a long time, Malone failed to cooperate for a sculpture that Miller commissioned of the power forward. Last October, Malone finally flew to Salt Lake City and allowed himself to be measured and photographed by sculptor Brian Challis for 3 1/2 hours. Afterward, he asked Miller if they could talk. They drove to Miller's house and talked for four hours. Later, Miller told his wife Gayle, "That was probably the most mature talk I've had with him."

Says Miller, "He said he appreciated the way he was treated here and how fans related to him. Earlier I read something in which he commented that he had learned a lot of things. He realized that to compete he had had to have something to focus his anger on and he realized he had focused it in the wrong place."

Malone's legacy will be a mixed bag — great player, complex, discontented person.

But fans have short memories, and when Malone is given the inevitable ceremony in the Delta Center, they'll treat him warmly. For all the mixed signals he sent, Malone played and prepared for the game with intense professionalism.

Now he will turn the game over to the Knuckleheads, one of the last of a great era of players — Jordan, Magic, Bird, Doctor J, Stockton and now Malone. A few years ago, Malone complained that the Knuckleheads missed games for hangnails and stomachaches and that they had no interest in playing a team game and were merely interested in endorsements and paychecks. Now the game is theirs.

"It's going to be interesting — when the older guys leave the game — to see what this league is like," he said.

Now we find out.


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