Karl Malone brought a work ethic honed on the farm to the glitzy world of the NBA, then became its second all-time leading scorer.
by Michael Bradley / @DailyHombre
It all begins with a small, leather harness, made for young Karl Malone by his mule-riding, log-hauling country-strong grandfather, so the boy could spend a day out in the logging world to know what hard work is. His grandfather taught Malone: give ’em your best every time and you’ll be rewarded. That sure sounds simple. And maybe to those city folk, it is. But lessons like that are the heart of Malone’s world, from his earliest days in tiny Summerfield to his post-retirement days as a businessman and all-around living legend. They helped him live without regret or remorse. He might have wanted a few more wins, especially in the ’97 and ’98 NBA Finals, but which player wouldn’t ask for that? Everything else, well, that’s been just fine.
Malone lasted 19 years in the NBA, precisely because he worked so hard. He worked on his body. On his jumper. On his passing. On his defense. On his free throws. (Boy, did he work on his free throws.) And when he was done working on all that, he found something else to do, whether it had to do with basketball or driving an 18-wheeler. He wanted to make his family proud. He didn’t want to disappoint the fans. More than anything else, Malone wasn’t going to cheat himself. Once you get to that point, you can do just about anything. The world is filled with people who will give you a break. They’ll let it slide, back off or take five. You’ve done enough, they’ll say. But they aren’t you. And you can’t be like them.
Malone wasn’t. He was a bumpkin in a league of guys trying be cool. He was the one who beat up his teammates in practice. The one who thrived—some say too much—on contact. The one who went out and ran after practice, just so he could satisfy himself.
“I never saw a guy take to work like he did,” says Jerry Sloan, who coached Utah for 23 seasons and Malone for 15.
When a guy like Sloan, for whom toughness came as naturally as breathing, compliments somebody’s work ethic, you take notice. When Sloan played, the guy was known as “The Clamp,” because he would affix his hand to the ballhandler’s hip and basically steer him around the court. Dribble penetration? That’s a good one. This wasn’t a hand check. It was a full imposition of one player’s will on another. When Malone played, he was called “The Mailman.” A more perfect appellation you won’t find. He certainly delivered. No wonder Malone and Sloan are such close friends.
“I love to hunt, and if I was on a dream hunt in Africa, and the plane had just landed after an 18-hour flight, and I had just put my hunting clothes on, and Jerry Sloan called me and said he needed me, I would get back on the plane and come home,” Malone says.
That’s Malone’s style. Do the job, no matter how inconvenient it might be. It was his role on the floor for Utah, an unlikely man in an unlikely city for a team with a name that made no sense. One thing that did add up was Malone’s Hall of Fame career. He finished second all-time in points scored (36,928), behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was named First-Team All-NBA 11 times and played in 14 All-Star Games. Malone was part of one of the greatest duos in League history, teaming with John Stockton to help the Jazz win five division titles and reach the Finals twice.
Malone played with a rare blend of power and speed. The rough stuff made sense, since he was 6-9, 260 pounds of country muscle. But watching him dash down the court on the break must have confused those who weren’t accustomed to such movement from a big man—and scared the hell out of anybody who was back on D. “He was the first guy out on the break,” says Darrell Griffith, the Louisville legend who played five seasons with Malone in Utah. “He was like a locomotive.”
Those who had the misfortune of encountering Malone in the post often ended up like a nickel flattened beneath that train’s wheels. Griffith recalls an occasion in practice when he switched onto Malone and had to guard him down low. It was memorable but hardly enjoyable.
“With him pushing you, it was like going through a boxing match,” Griffith says. “He was so damn physical, and he really knew what he was doing. He wanted to wear people down early, so when he got on the block late in the game, opponents would just let him have the shot.”
Malone apologizes for nothing. He was a big, aggressive player with a nasty streak that often left his bruised victims crying foul, and relishes the idea that those assigned—doomed?—to check him were often battered by game’s end. Reminded of his encounter with Griffith, Malone merely laughs.
“If you switch off on me, I’m going to make sure you won’t think about doing that again,” he says. “I always thought like that.”
During one of Malone’s first few seasons in Utah, the Jazz played a pre-season game at Louisiana Tech, his alma mater, in Ruston, which sits about 30 miles from Summerfield. After the game, some of the players visited Grambling, the Historically Black College, just west of Ruston. From there, it was on to Malone’s house in Summerfield, for some home cooking. Griffith ended up in Malone’s truck and on a high-speed ride across some real backwoods “roads.”
“We took the shortcut,” Griffith says. “It was like the Dukes of Hazzard.”
Malone doesn’t make any apologies for his roots. Summerfield is a town of about 350 people, with no traffic lights. “I could lie and say I’m from Shreveport or Ruston or Monroe,” he says. “I’m proud as hell to say I’m from Summerfield.” That’s why Malone went to Louisiana Tech, despite having offers, he says, from LSU, Arkansas and UCLA. “I’m a mama’s boy,” he says with a big laugh. “I wanted to be close to home.”
Some people adopt the country mindset because it makes for good copy. Not Malone. He still owns property near where he grew up. He became famous for his work in Utah—where he owns a Toyota dealership, a Jiffy Lube franchise and some Burger King restaurants—but when he went “home,” he went to Summerfield to see his mother, Shirley Turner, and let his childhood memories wash over him. Malone also owns a logging company, and he has plenty of real estate.
When the Jazz chose him with the 13th overall pick in the 1985 Draft, Malone came to town raw, a little doughy and in need of guidance and plenty of the hard work that came to define his career. “He hadn’t developed yet,” Griffith says. “He had a little bit of baby fat on him. But he made a total transformation.”
One of Malone’s best early moves was attaching himself to Jazz veteran Adrian Dantley, who led the League in scoring twice and was a master of scoring in the low post. Though they played together just one season—Malone’s first—Dantley showed his young pupil how to shoot the turnaround, pass out of a double team and work hard.
Malone arrived in Utah one year after Stockton, and the two formed one of the most memorable NBA pairings of all time. It’s rare that two Hall of Famers end up playing together on the same team and rarer still that they spend 18 seasons together. Though the Jazz employed a variety of other solid NBA performers during the Stockton/Malone era, the pair defined the franchise for nearly two decades. It was a strange combination on the surface, but when they teamed up on the pick-and-roll, they were less “Felix and Oscar,” as Griffith calls them, and more perfection.
“They were totally different personalities, but those differences brought them closer, as teammates and friends,” Sloan says. “For them to stay together for that period of time was quite an accomplishment.”
It’s ironic, but the two standouts were cut from the 1984 team that won the Olympic Gold medal in L.A. By the time they had finished in Utah, and played on US teams in ’92 (the legendary Dream Team) and ’96, they had erased any memories of the snub and had authored careers that were among the most identifiable with one team in League history. As you might expect, Malone is quite complimentary of Stockton, which makes sense since he was on the receiving end of about half of Stockton’s 15,806 assists.
“I always tell people that you can’t have the chicken without the egg,” Malone says. “I played with a man who every night brought it and never made excuses. He wouldn’t have had it any other way. They talk about Magic Johnson, but John Stockton is the best point guard ever to play the game.”
There are those who argue—quite convincingly, by the way—that Malone was the best ever at his position. Not only did he score at a remarkable rate, averaging at least 25 ppg for 11 consecutive seasons, Malone was a powerful rebounder (10.1 career average) and an accurate shooter who made 51.6 percent of his attempts throughout his 19 years in the League. And for a guy who made a mere 48.1 percent of his free throws as a rookie, Malone worked his way to 74.2 percent for his career and made less than 70 percent of his tries only once after his first two seasons.
But the thing that defined Malone was the sheer power that he brought to the court. At a time when people were telling players to avoid weightlifting because it would harm their shooting strokes, Malone attacked the weights and built a frame that was perfect for leaning on opponents and cracking their wills as the game wore on. Amazingly, he missed a total of just 10 games during his time in Utah while playing in 1,434 others. He and Stockton missed only 32 combined while teammates.
“When Karl would post up, John would hold the ball a little longer, even if Karl was open, because he wanted Karl to beat his man up,” Griffith says.
As potent as the Malone-Stockton pairing was, it was never good enough to reach the top of the NBA mountain. For a while, many wondered whether the two could lead the Jazz to great things. Forget that it took a decade for the franchise to surround them with enough good talent to make a run. For every Dantley and Griffith on the roster, there were plenty more Andy Toolstons, Walter Palmers and Dan O’Sullivans. From 1986-91, the Jazz won just two Playoff series. But things started cooking after that. Utah played in three conference finals from ’92-96 and reached the Finals in ’97 and ’98. Unfortunately, so did Michael Jordan’s Bulls, who earned a pair of 4-2 series victories over the Jazz.
“You couldn’t ask for anybody any better than them,” Sloan says. “They went into every season with the idea of trying to win a Championship, but it didn’t happen for them.”
Malone does not consider the lack of a Championship as a blot on his résumé. Even though there are scores of players with rings that can’t match his other accomplishments, Malone contends that he would have had greater remorse had he not prepared and played with the same enthusiasm and commitment every day. Rings tarnish; peace of mind doesn’t.
“When you put in the time I put in, of course I wish I won one,” Malone says. “I gave everything I had, but it was never meant to be. But, I never said I should have trained harder or run harder.
“Of course I wish we won more, but a lot of guys got rings who were on the bench. I’m not mad at them. I didn’t win one, but I don’t have any regrets.”
The hard workers never do.