His body is straight out of Muscle and Fitness, all bulging biceps and washboard abs. His game is a majestic blend of midrange rhythm shots and inside power. Though he's nearly 35, playing against Karl Malone is still like flagging down a runaway cement truck.
If there is anything more to be said of Malone after 13 years in the NBA, it is that he refuses to slow down. Just last week he was roaring past L.A.'s Robert Horry and Corey Blount in the Western Conference finals.Before that it was San Antonio's Tim Duncan; before that Houston's Charles Barkley and Kevin Willis. Each admitted, by action or word, that Malone was unstoppable. He was making his perimeter jump shot, going inside, passing off to driving teammates, taking in rebounds. He was showing skeptical veterans and trash-talking young movie stars alike that he intends to win an NBA title. He was, as they say in the trade, putting on a clinic.
"The guy's a warrior. What can I say?" says teammate Greg Foster. "The guy's better than he ever has been. He takes care of himself. He's our go-to guy. He's our Shaq. The rest of us just fit in and work around him."
While Malone's game continues timelessly, it is obvious something is driving him. Something deep down is moving him to be, at an age when most players are checking into their retirement funds, the dominant power forward - and one of the two or three dominant players - in the game. Is it because he was a poor Louisiana kid from a large family? Because he feels he doesn't get the respect he would attract were he playing in New York or Los Angeles? What makes this man rage against the machine? Theories vary on why Malone continues at such a high level. Some address the technical aspects of his game; how he has dedicated himself to improving. Assistant coach Gordon Chiesa insists the success is because of Malone's off-season habits.
"What he's done throughout his career in the off-season is have a regimen," says Chiesa. "He cross-trains. He jogs, bikes, roller blades, whatever. What makes him so young? He cross-trains in the summertime. Most guys just play pickup games and never work out."
He is widely regarded as the strongest player in the NBA, but some players even debate that point. He surely isn't the fastest, highest-jumping or quickest. Younger players tend to show up for practice and, in some cases, work as hard as they can for one to two hours. But Malone is in the weight room at least that long before practice even begins; some days he gets on a stair climber after.
His exact routine remains a secret. Malone offers the same answer as when asked what he says to himself at the free throw line: no comment.
"Whatever it is," says Chiesa, "there's no reason to be messing with it."
There's also no reason to be messing with Malone. He has gone from being a top player to the roughest, toughest man in the league. In addition, he has risen to the level that he's being accorded the ultimate compliment: Players insist he gets preferential treatment by the officials. In the eyes of some players and fans, he is a bully. That's what happens when you embarrass people. They start making excuses. So when Shaquille O'Neal complains about elbows and David Robinson about kicks, it is clear someone is getting beaten badly. Players and coaches complain about Michael Jordan getting all the calls, about O'Neal ducking his head and plowing to the basket. It goes with the territory when you're a dominating player.
But there are other reasons, besides the training schedule, why Malone continues at such a pace. "He has the ability to focus so strongly. He gets kind of cantankerous, but it's a controlled anger," says owner Larry H. Miller. "The difference earlier in his career is he always got the numbers, but now he knows how to put up the numbers when it counts. Some nights nobody can manage him."
Malone's ability to focus was illustrated in the 1994 playoffs. The Jazz took a 3-0 lead in the series, only to see Denver roar back to win the next three. They were about to become the first NBA team to lose a three-game series lead.
"We're up 3-0 and then we lose three in a row. We're on the verge of making history - or non-history," says Chiesa. "So Karl is in the locker room before the game and he's not saying a word. Not a word at all to anybody. He doesn't even look up when we do the scouting report. Then he goes out and makes his first nine shots and dunks on (Dikembe) Mutombo. The game's over at the half. Karl Malone got himself ready to go."
He finished with 31 points and 17 rebounds.
Aside from the mental aspects, Malone has improvised as the years passed. When he began in the league he was a slightly pudgy 48 percent free throw shooter. Now he's an imposingly built 76 percent free throw shooter.
"He's made himself better in almost every aspect of his game. When he came here his body wasn't what it is today," says coach Jerry Sloan. "He changed his body. Then he changed his free throw shooting. He changed his passing. You can go on and on. He changed his inside play. All those things he's improved upon. He's changed his ability to execute within a team concept. He's taken a lot of responsibility and helped his teammates as well.
"But the No. 1 thing is the work he puts in in the off-season. I've never seen a player work as hard off the floor as Karl Malone."
Why he is playing so well at his age is clear: because he works harder than virtually anyone in the league. But why he is motivated to do so is another issue. Malone has called this season his toughest mental challenge, due in large part to John Stockton's injury that kept him out of the first 18 games of the season.
"Mentally it starts wearing on you," Malone says. "You're going, OK, what can you do to keep this boat floating for a little while? Then Stock comes back and it took a little time to fit him in and adjustments must go on; then there's those little nagging injuries."
Malone considers this his greatest season - and makes a good case. Though he won the MVP last year, this season he averaged only four-tenths of a point fewer. His rebounds were slightly up, assists and steals slightly down. His blocks were way up - 22 more than a season ago.
"I feel I'm being more patient, letting the offense come to me a lot more," Malone says. "I'm doing more things defensively. This has definitely been my best year. I've scored more points, gotten more rebounds this year, but I'm a smarter player, a more patient player. If I don't get my points early I don't force it. I let it come to me. This has been my best year."
So how does he stay motivated? Is there anything left to prove? What gives him his drive?
"First of all," he says, "I don't want to disappoint Karl Malone. I have a lot of pride. I don't want to disappoint myself. Also, what drives me more than anything is, `Have you lost a step?' or `Has he lost a step?' Those are the kind of things that run through my mind all the time."
Then he smiles to a group of reporters, a man on top of his game, on top of his world. "So I'm competing against myself as well as you guys - in a good way," he says.
Someone suggests the media, then, is actually helping the Mailman stay motivated.
"Yeah," he laughs. "You are."