Karl Malone - The Man
Originally published in Utah Jazz HomeCourt Magazine in December 2001.
Karl Malone – The Man
by Darryl Howerton
Chuck Berry once said, so it must be true: "You never can tell." Which is precisely why we placed a call to Karl Malone's agent Dwight Manley, requesting a rare summer conversation. Vickie called back from office to say Karl didn't want to do any basketball-related interviews, undoubtedly a standing policy written somewhere on the office wall. We bravely countered with, "Oh, we don't want to talk about basketball either. We want to talk about Karl Malone the man."
While the statement was mostly true, it was also slightly disingenuous: We would have been happy talking to the Mailman about the weather in Saskatoon, if only he'd deign to call us back.
Still, we were determined this time to find out (if only to satisfy our own curiosity) what made the best true power forward in NBA history tick. We did what we hoped Karl would do. We threw some bait on the water with our phone call to Manley. And waited. Karl, who was "out of touch" in Alaska, doing his outdoors thang, was given the request but, naturally, no promises were made. We weren't holding our breath.
"Hello. This is Karl Malone."
The 801 area code displayed on the cell phone confirmed that the enigmatic Mr. Malone was indeed in the house.
"Yeah, I just got done working out," says the Mailman, "so I'm in recovery now. I thought it would be a good time to do the interview."
Cool. Except that I'm in the car, on LA's busy 101 freeway on a Thursday afternoon, with no tape recorder or phone jack. So until I can get the car off the jammed-up freeway and into a remote neighborhood, idle chatter must be made and time must be killed on the phone with a basketball god who doesn't want to talk basketball. Sure thing.
Instead, we talk workouts — since I had just finished mine and so I too am in recovery mode in my ultimate quest to get from 290 pounds to 220. It's a subject the greatest forward of all time jumps to like it was his 11,703rd or next rebound.
"Lemme tell you something I do, Darryl," says the 6-9, 256-pound legend. "Everybody has to do what works for them, but this is what I do. Every day, I try to do something a little bit harder than something I did the previous day. It could be something as small as lifting five pounds more, doing two more reps or going 0.1 mph faster on the treadmill. But I always find something to improve on from the previous workout.
"I find that when I do that, Darryl, I'm always getting better, stronger, faster," says Malone, working in the first-name references throughout the conversation, so that I am immediately brought home, into The World According To Karl. (It's wonderful how he motivates, even at long-distance.)
"The workouts I do this month are a little tougher than the ones I did last month," he continues. "The workouts I do this year are a little tougher than the ones I did last year. And the workouts I do now are definitely tougher than the workouts I did ten years ago."
The pearls of weight-room wisdom keep dropping, and we haven't even started the formal interview. From "I like to work two different body parts each day, six days a week," to "Do cardio every day, even if it's only 15-20 minutes" to "Make sure you work on your stomach, because you can always do some abdominal work everyday"— it's pretty neat to get a Fitness 101 instruction from Professor Malone. You certainly can't argue with the success of his formula: The 13-time All-Star has averaged 25.0 ppg and 10.4 rebounds over 16 years in the League and has never missed more than two games in any season.
The car is pulled over now, the notepad is out and the scribbling is about to get intense. The Utah Jazz superstar has not even begun to tell the story of what makes Karl Malone the man he is today. And already keeping up with him is like running at 10-mph speed on an inclined treadmill (which Malone recommends for trying to lose those extra pounds).
But with pen and pad in hand, I ask Malone the million-dollar question: What makes Karl Malone the man he is today? His answer is both candid and illuminating.
"I had a grandpa, Leonard Jackson, who was 6-9 and worked in a sawmill," says Malone. "One day, when I was only five, he took me to work. And what you have to realize, Darryl, is that for every step he took, I had to take five or six steps just to keep up. We were about to go on a two-and-a-half mile walk to work, and I remember looking back at our shotgun house. At that point, it was almost out of sight, and I was already dead tired. I was ready to quit walking. I put my arms up for my grandpa to carry me the rest of the way and I will never forget what he said. He said, 'Noonie.' That was his nickname for me. He said, 'Noonie, if I carry you today, someone will carry you the rest of your life. You're stuck with me and I'm stuck with you. So let's walk through this together.' And then we both walked off together until we got to the sawmill. After he said that to me, I never wanted to be carried again."
"And that, Darryl, is when I started to become the man I am today. The man you are asking me about now. Believe it or not, I knew that day when I was only five years old that I would make something of myself. Because I wouldn't let anybody else carry me from then on. I'm a big believer in carrying myself, and I can trace those beliefs back to that day.
"Don't get me wrong, there are times you need to carry other people along, to help them out, and I'm a big believer in that, too. But I knew right then what I was called to do. I was one of God's chosen ones. I was put here to be a leader. Not a follower. And that's what I do."
To this day, he is an NBA leader, even if he has never been officially acknowledged as such. After all, he plays for the hype-proof Utah Jazz, is twice as old (38) as three of the first four players taken in the 2001 NBA Draft and represents a generation of players who are extinct or exist in exile or on some island like Jurassic Park III.
Malone has always been his own man, evidenced in discussions concerning one of his favorite pastimes: hiking. "I don't like following a path," he says. "Sometimes I just like going up a mountain and avoiding the path. I'm a trailblazer. I've always thought, 'Why stay on a trail that hundreds have walked on when you can make your own?"
In a sense, that's what he's been doing in the NBA now. His peers have come and gone or are wilting under the test of time — Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing — while Malone's star shines as bright as ever. Of the 15 All-NBA players last year, Malone was one of four over the age of 30.
You see his inspiration live on in the development of his friends around the league who have learned at the foot of Malone, for his offseason conditioning in the mountains and in in-season tutelage on the basketball courts.
"You're only able to go through this cycle of life one time," says Malone. "What impact do you wanna make? I want to touch lives. I like inspiring people. I might talk to a roomful of 100 kids, and I'm not gonna be able to reach everyone. But if I can single one out and have a lasting impact on him that's what makes me happy."
I check my phone and see that Karl has been on the line for 25 minutes now. I ask for another five minutes or so, under-standing that he has to leave. "Darryl," he replies, "I don't need to go anywhere. I can talk about this stuff all day. You know why? Because we're not talking basketball. We're talking life. When I do interviews on my time, don't talk basketball. I don't touch a basketball in the summer, and I don't talk about it. Everything to me is seasonal and I don't deal with basketball right now. When I do any interview, it's gotta be from the heart. I speak about who I am. There is a story to be told about Karl Malone, and it's not about whether I'm gonna win a ring or not, or how the Jazz are gonna do this year. These are the interviews I love to do, so ask me anything and everything you want."
So we talk. Family. God. Life. You can almost picture the Mailman leaning back in his easy chair, pausing for reflection.
"I’ll tell you something about myself most people don't know," says Malone. "I'm not afraid to die, but I am afraid to fail. I've got that phrase on my desk that I'm speaking to you from right now.
"One day when I am gone people will ask, 'What would his book have been about? We never got to know the real Karl Malone.' I’ll tell you something that might surprise you, Darryl. Only one chapter in that book would have been on basketball. Most of the book would be on growing up hard with four brothers and four sisters. Seeing my own father commit suicide when I was a little boy. See, people don't know where I come from. What I've been through. I'm from a small town of 250. I had every opportunity to fail. I was hunting at age seven to put food on the table. I was working at age 12. But I knew at age five — like I told you before — I was gonna be successful and influence people in a way. Some may see that as being cocky, but oh well. That's how I felt at age five. I knew I had to suck it up even back then."
It is not only these stories that define Malone, but you see the full portrait after hearing how he continually deals with adversity. And how he continues to overcome it — even if it does take time.
On his father's suicide: “I just forgave my father when I was 31 years old. Finally. It took a long time, but I finally forgave him for taking the easy way out, for leaving us alone. I needed to grow up and turn the page. Once I did that, I was able to enjoy my family in ways I couldn't have before."
On how he subsequently became a good father, once he forgave his: "I began doing things with them I never did with my dad. Take my boy to his first day of school, see his first baseball game, shoot a basketball with him, go hunting. Take my daughter to her swim meet, take her to lunch, take her on a trip, play hide-and-seek. All the stuff you see on TV. I learned to be a good dad. I learned it's not the quantity of time but the quality of time. It's the times that you are down on the floor laying with them, looking in their eyes. You wish you could freeze-frame those moments forever. By forgiving my father, I was able to enjoy those moments."
Thank God. It's something Malone does everyday, whether he's on the spacious surrounds of the great outdoors that he loves or whether he's under his own roof, enjoying God's gifts to him in the form of his family. It's a side he doesn't often talk about, but it is a side he loves nonetheless.
"I don't live in the church and I don't tote around a Bible," says Malone, “but I know God the creator. And I serve God daily in many ways. I serve God by not being judgmental. I talk to God everyday, the same way I'm talking to you. I just had a conversation with him earlier today, when I was on the tractor. I don't have to spend hours in church to talk to God. But I know who Jesus is. You'd have to be an idiot not to think there is someone out there more powerful and creative than all of us. How else did all of this happen?”
"Don't get me wrong. I have my faults and I've made a lot of mistakes. Do I get mad? Oh yes, all the time. I don't believe in turning the other cheek either. If I have a confrontation, I will not avoid it. I'll have the confrontation. But I won't hold a grudge about it. I handle it and then move on. That's what God helps me with. Moving on."
It's been an hour. It's probably time for me to move on from this phone call. But I can't go without asking the inevitable question: How much longer will we get to enjoy the Mailman's presence in the NBA? I tell him I can imagine him and John Stockton in their mid-40s, still running game on the young fellas who will enter the league later this decade, still rewriting the entire NBA record book.
Part of me is joking, but more of me isn't. After all, there have been no signs of slowing up.
Malone replies, "On my 38th birthday, I rode the stationary bike for an hour before I went on a 29-mile mountain bike ride. I don't think I'm slowing down either. There is just no substitute for hard work. I believe you get out of your body what you put into it.
"Funny you say that about playing in my mid-40s. My wife and I were talking about the future this morning and I told her, 'Let's just see how many more years I can go. Let's just see.' She looked at me and said, 'By the way you work, you could probably play at this level another five, six years."
Well, it's probably time to hang up now. I tell him thanks for the great conversation. He says, "Thank you for letting me talk about it. Good luck in getting to 220. Good-bye, Darryl."