THE VOICE ON the other end of the line had a touch of humor. He said he watched the NBA Finals with more than passing interest last month; after all, he used to play for the Jazz. He knew almost all the players and for sure knew all the plays.
As a matter of fact, he would love to be the next Jazz coach."Once I get some experience," he said, "I'll be ready. Tell them to get ready for me."
The voice didn't belong to Thurl Bailey, Mark Eaton or Bobby Hansen. It wasn't even Adrian Dantley, who has some college coaching experience. It was Jeff Malone, the erstwhile Jazz guard who left the team in 1994 after being traded to Philadelphia in the deal that brought Jeff Hornacek to Utah.
Malone was hired last week as an assistant coach with the Yakima Sun Kings of the CBA and, like one of his running attacks on the hoop, he's proceeding full speed ahead. The big difference is now he has to wear a tie to work.
"I thought about coaching for the last three or four years," he said.
Malone isn't the first guy one thinks of when considering coaches. Larry Bird and Jerry Sloan notwithstanding, coaches are often former bench-warmers who had a lot of time to observe, not hotshot scoring machines. Pat Riley, for instance, played just 15 minutes a game as an NBA player, Phil Jackson 17. George Karl logged only eight minutes per outing. Malone, on the other hand, was always a starter.
After retiring in 1996, Malone began thinking about gettng back. He talked with basketball coaches and executives such as Dave Cowens, Frank Layden, Jerry West, Larry Bird and Larry Brown, then put his plan into action this spring when he contacted each of the CBA teams. Shortly thereafter, the Sun Kings called, and Malone was in business.
"Ultimately, I'd like to get an NBA assistant job or even head coach," said Malone.
He spent 31/2 seasons in Utah on a team that was, at the time, in dire need of a consistent shooter to complement John Stockton and Karl Malone. He also supplied a much-needed sense of humor to a franchise that had been living off Frank Layden's one-liners for years. He wasn't a belly laugh type of jokester; his humor included winking at writers on press row and nodding as he came out of a huddle. Sometimes he would covertly signal to the P.R. man from the Jazz that he had the hot hand and was dying to shoot.
Though not noted as a great passer, rebounder or defender, he was the quintessential scorer who could make a dozen straight shots in a game situation. Unlike many players, he could shoot on the move. His running, twisting fadeaway wasn't something you would want to try without a safety harness. Often he would make shots that seemed destined for the side of the backboard, not the middle of the hoop.
To his credit, Malone adapted his freestyle game to the rigid Jazz system. He uncomplainingly went from rapid-fire scorer to card-carrying member of the pick-and-roll, Stockton-to-Malone system. In the Jazz playbook, he was officially Option No. 3. Playing in their shadow killed any chances of making another All-Star team, as he had in Washington, but he went along.
Perhaps his most lasting impressions in Utah came, fittingly, on a running shot and at the free-throw line. The Jazz and Bulls were locked into a triple-overtime game at the Delta Center in 1992. As the clock ran down, Jeff Malone faked Michael Jordan and angled for the basket. Jordan reached in and fouled Malone as he dribbled right, with a half-second left. Jordan became so incensed over the call he was hit with a technical and ejected. Malone - who ranks 10th on the all-time free-throw percentage list - made both free throws plus the technical to lift the Jazz to a 126-123 win.
After moving to Philadelphia, Malone later played briefly in Miami, then Greece before returning to his home in Macon, Ga., where he and his wife, Alicia, have been raising their four children. Now he's back out West, no longer a hired gun but more like the town constable.
"I'm not going to be a screamer as a coach," he said. "You'll see me as a laid-back type guy. There are different ways to get to players, and you won't see me running up and down the sidelines like Jerry (Sloan) does. But the players respect him. He's a fair guy, and that's what I respect about him."
Malone plans to teach his players to use a changing defense to offset any shortcomings. And, of course, he'll teach them all the un-blockable running fader.
"That's a terrible shot. I wouldn't teach anyone that shot," he laughed. "I don't want anyone taking that shot."