Karl Malone - a superstar who plays with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy

No disrespect intended, Karl Malone, but if you are a professional athlete in Utah, publicity-wise you can get lost! Even with the National Basketball Association sending your stats each week to the Elias Sports Bureau for worldwide distribution, they still get printed in agate type. It's not like New York, where the press clips of 7-foot center Patrick Ewing are taller than he is; or Chicago, where Michael Jordan has to hide from autograph hounds; or Los Angeles, where they start talking about Magic Johnson as the league's MVP in December.

In Utah, which has an excellent NBA team, by the way, it's not how much you score with Jazz fans but how hard you work. The fact is, all-star forward Malone does both. His 28.7 average has him in a close race for runner-up honors behind Jordan, and Michael gets the ball much more often that Karl does.

Normally when you think of a man 6 ft., 9 in. and 256 pounds, you concede his power on the boards but wonder about his quickness. No problem with Malone, whose first step to the basket usually means that nobody is going to catch him. Defensively, only pro football linebackers see more contact. As for stamina, Karl was fifth in the league in that oft-overlooked key statistic, minutes played.

Last year, Malone led Utah in scoring 63 times and in rebounds 59 times. In the playoffs, even though the Los Angeles Lakers were able to stop the Jazz in seven games, they never really contained Malone.

One of the most frequently asked questions about Karl is how come 12 other players were taken ahead of this highly touted Louisiana Tech undergraduate in the 1985 NBA college draft?

``Everybody knew about Malone,'' explained Frank Layden, who has moved into the team's front office after his resignation as head coach.``You can't keep a guy with Karl's talent a secret. But I think a lot of teams were turned off by his temperament. He got into too many fights during his college career, and he complained too much. That's why he wasn't taken sooner.

``However, when it came time for us to draft, Malone was the best big man available, so we chose him and felt fortunate to get him,'' Layden continued. ``Even though he still had a temperament problem, we always thought we could change it. Remember, he was young, and like a lot of kids he needed time to sort things out.''

Actually, Frank was so sure Malone would come around that after his rookie year (14.9 average and more than 700 rebounds) the Jazz traded veteran Adrian Dantley, a two-time NBA scoring champion, to the Detroit Pistons.

``I made that deal because I wanted to give Malone more playing time,'' Layden said. ``And Karl made me look good by averaging more than 21 points a game and leading us in rebounds. We also got the change in attitude that we expected.''

Asked to explain the improvement in his second season, Malone told me:

``Pro basketball was tougher than anything I'd seen in college. You traveled all the time. You never had a chance to get yourself together. There wasn't much rest between games, and a lot of times I felt like I was overmatched physically. Even though I knew by then that I could survive in this league, I also knew that if I expected to get better, I also had to get stronger.

``So during the off-season I lifted weights every day while also working on the rest of my game,'' he continued. ``I just felt I had to do this if I was going to get anywhere. The best part was when the season started and I played better right away. You have to develop confidence to play this game well every night, and finally I had what I needed.''

Unlike most superstars, Malone has never had an agent, and negotiates his own contracts.

Karl grew up on a farm, where his chores included working with the 200-pound razorback hogs his family raised. He got his nickname, ``the Mailman,'' in college when people said he always delivered in the clutch.

For a while, Karl had a cross-country trucking business that included two 18-wheelers. But he sold out when he discovered that if you can't be around something like that 365 days a year, you've got problems. Malone also worked as a deputy sheriff during the summer of 1986, counseling with prisoners and helping kids in trouble.

On the basketball court, one of Malone's biggest assets is his ability to maintain a consistently enthusiastic approach to the game.

``There are some great players in this league who will cruise occasionally when their team gets a lead, or maybe it's just a case of not feeling much like playing that night,'' Layden says. ``But in the four years I've had Malone, I've never seen him do that.

``He's like a high school kid who is about to play in his first varsity basketball game. He would probably be unhappy doing anything else. He brings an approach to the game that you can't teach. You just wish more guys had it.''

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