A representative of the NBA players union showed up at Westminster College for an after-practice briefing with the Utah Jazz players in January. Bob Dan-dridge, an ex-player now with the union, met for an hour or so with most of the Jazz - but Karl Malone didn't bother sticking around.

Jump to last week in New York City. Malone, after cutting short a trip to Alaska, was sitting on the immediate left of players union president Billy Hunter at the bargaining table when the union met with the NBA. Reports are that Malone was the most vocal of the dozen or so players in attendance. Afterward, the Jazz power forward was again the most talkative of the players, telling the media, among other things, that the NBA representatives who abruptly walked out of the negotiations acted "like my 4-year old. I don't want to play anymore so I'm going home."So why has Malone, who once paid little attention to the goings on of the players union, done an about-face and started taking such a major role in the pro-ceed-ings?

It seems he has approximately 25 to 30 million reasons.

Per season.

Twenty-five million dollars appears to be the low end of what Malone's new agent, Dwight Manley, feels his client is worth. Malone is under contract with the Jazz for next year, and he'll get about $6 million. But on July 1, 1999 - for the first time in his career - Malone will become an unrestricted free agent. At that time it will either be time for the Jazz to pay up or lose out on the Mailman, according to Manley.

"It goes without saying that Utah is going to have to step up to the plate at the right time and compensate him," said Manley during an interview on KFAN radio Tuesday afternoon.

Malone's new, higher profile during labor talks is part of Manley's strategy to get the long-underpaid all-star his market value. Manley figures it's pretty simple coming up with a figure for what Malone is worth. He points out that Malone has been the second-best player in the NBA the past couple of seasons - behind only Michael Jordan, who will likely retire. Jordan was paid $33 million last year. The next highest paid players - Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett - are in the low $20 million range.

So Malone's salary should be somewhere in between, Manley inferred.

"Karl Malone is the Jazz's to lose," said Manley. "If they don't want to go after him in the future, or compensate him in the future, then he's going elsewhere."

Malone, however, will be 36 when he becomes a free agent - long past the life expectancy of an NBA power forward. Still, Malone, the fourth-leading scorer in league history, has been at the top of his game the past two seasons and has, in many ways, gotten better in his relative `old age' while leading the Jazz to the NBA Finals the past two years.

Jazz owner Larry Miller, who is limited in what he is able to discuss during the NBA lockout, was unavailable for comment.

Manley confirmed a report in the Washington Post that the Jazz sent Malone a letter notifying him that if he were injured during his foray into pro wrestling that the final year of his current contract could be voided.

"I think they are going to pay the price for (sending the letter)," Manley said, "because that's not respecting the greatest power forward in history."

Malone told the Post that Miller promised him a lump sum of $14 million after his current contract expired, but that Miller is now denying he made such a promise. A payoff like that would be against league rules.