THE BATTLE THAT'S brewing between Karl Malone and K-FAN radio could provide a lot of off-season fun - if you could just determine precisely what it's really about.

To bring you up to date: Malone, the famous pro wrestler, is angry at K-FAN's Tom Nissalke and David Locke for criticism they directed toward him during the NBA Finals. He wants them fired, or else. Him or them. Clearly, Malone is throwing his weight around. (NOW he acts like a power forward.)The battle lines have been drawn. On one side, you have Malone, who is so thin-skinned that just hours before an NBA Finals game he disputed comments made on K-FAN and did so again after losing the championship. Malone, vague as always, won't say exactly what was said that upset him.

On the other hand, you have Nissalke and Locke, the Jazz talk-show hosts who are trying to serve two masters. Nissalke and Locke work for K-FAN and the Jazz. They aren't talking either, which must be a first. What they say can and would be used against them in the court of Malone.

Which is the heart of the matter. This is about professional distance. K-FAN works in partnership with the Jazz. Some of its on-air "talent" is actually paid at least partially by the Jazz, including Locke. Bottom line: They are serving the Jazz/K-FAN and the public.

It's a common and profitable arrangement. The station gets exclusive broadcast rights, advertising dollars and a built-in audience. The team gets round-the-clock advertising. Fans get information about their team. Advertisers get big exposure. Nice deal.

The trouble starts when the radio "talent" starts acting like journalists, delivering critical analyses and opinions about their employer - the team and its players and coaches. Some call this biting the hand that feeds them. Everything you need to know about the situation is this: Malone really could get these guys fired or at least force them to toe the line.

Who's fault is that? Nissalke and Locke were placed in a precarious position from the start. They're expected to be interesting and informative and honest - but only to the extent their employers allow.

This is part of the new breed of quasi sports reporting that is blurring the line between journalism and public relations. Journalism takes a huge hit in the NBA and, for that matter, in all professional and major college sports.

TV/radio play-by-play broadcasters - Hot Rod Hundley, Johnny Most, Chick Hearn, etc. - are employed by the team. They are homers - guys who root for the home team. They are biased. At least they know who they are, and the rest of us know it, too.

Then there is the breed that pretends to be a journalist but is really just a fan with a mike - or a Mike. Ahmad Rashad has become a running joke in the media because of his fawning friendship with Michael Jordan. He has no business whatsoever covering NBA games for NBC when he's doing I-Want-To-Be-Like-Mike commercials and playing the piano with his pal in his free time (and by the way, isn't that Chris Berman in the commercial as well?). Rashad has set new standards for gravy training. If Rashad had an ounce of professional integrity, he'd be too humiliated to show his face in an NBA arena.

Then there is the breed of journalist who is a closet cheerleader - guys who use the unpardonable pronoun "we." During press conferences at the NBA Finals, members of the Chicago media gushed and fawned over their Bulls so much that their peers were reaching for air-sick bags. Finally, during one such press conference, a writer yelled, "Stop the homer-ing!" The Chicago media felt so ashamed that they donned Bulls hats and drank champagne to celebrate the Bulls' championship.

So much for maintaining professional objectivity and even reporting. Eventually, there is a price to pay for cozy relationships, and Malone is demanding it.

Malone keeps telling us that he doesn't worry about what people say, that he plays for himself, that he just concentrates on playing the game, but three hours before Game 5 of the NBA Finals he confronted Nissalke about critical comments he had made on the air. It was one of the first things Malone discussed the morning after the Finals ended.

Malone was certainly open to fair criticism for turning into a pumpkin every time the clock struck the fourth quarter. But maybe that isn't even what upset him. He isn't saying, so we don't know exactly what this is about.

In the end the losers could be K-FAN listeners. Malone disparaged Nissalke's qualifications for expert analysis, but he was wrong. Nissalke, a former successful NBA coach, brings expertise, wisdom, objectivity, refreshing honesty and bluntness to a business of sycophants. Listeners would be cheated if he weren't allowed to speak his mind.