Karl Malone is arguably the greatest power forward of all time. Built more like a tight end than a basketball player, his size and strength made him difficult to defend in the low block, but he also filled the lane on the fast break and shot a deadly medium-range jumper. The two-time MVP finished his career with 36,928 points second only behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
He also attempted more free throws and grabbed more defensive rebounds than any player in NBA history. He was also selected to the 50th Anniversary All-Time Team and won two Olympic gold medals. As a player who consistently delivered on the court, he deserved the nickname of “The Mailman.”
Malone will also be forever linked to Utah Jazz teammate and point guard John Stockton. The two formed the most consistent guard-forward combination in NBA history. How many of Malone’s field goals came at the end of a Stockton pass may never be calculated but surely the vast majority.
Stockton was drafted by the Jazz in 1984 and the subsequent year the team drafted Malone. The two played together for the next 18 years, never missing the postseason. The two were so intertwined with their infamous (to defenders) pick-and-roll that was almost impossible to stop and Stockton constantly feeding Malone for baskets that the phrase “Stockton to Malone” became a NBA maxim.
“They are masters at getting into peoples’ heads,” said legendary NBA coach Pat Riley of the two near the end of their careers in Utah. “They are very well drilled in the physical game. They are very physical at both ends of the court, and they have the experience of being able to play technically and tactically.”
Malone exceeded many expectations of a country boy from Summerfield, La., a town with a population 200. He worked hard on and off the court with a rigorous offseason training that contributed mightily to his durability. Not fitting the mold of a stereotypical superstar, he remained fond of his rustic ways of fishing, hunting and loved to drive his truck and motorcycles.
Malone also never shied away from speaking his mind or comporting to what others thought about him. That earned him numerous selections to the First Team NBA All-Interview, and begrudgingly respect among his peers.
“He was extremely physical, and at times he was borderline cheap,” Doc Rivers, a contemporary of Malone’s, recalled in his role as an analyst. “But that didn’t bother me because he was trying to win. When a guy throws an extra elbow or tries to knock you down, I’ve always viewed that as part of the game, especially if you let him get away with it.
“But over the last year, especially this year doing TV, I have a new respect for him. The things you didn’t know about him, you start to get to know. The thing that stands out to me is the professionalism. After being around him and talking to him, I understand why he has played so long and I also understand why he has played so well over his career.”
If professional scouts had correctly predicted the impact Malone would have on the NBA, he would have been picked much higher than 13th in the 1985 NBA Draft. The fact that he played in relative obscurity at Louisiana Tech, averaging 18.7 ppg and 9.3 rpg in three collegiate seasons, may have caused him to slip so low.
As a rookie, Malone averaged 14.9 ppg and 8.9 rpg. He finished third in the voting for Rookie of the Year honors and was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team.
Perhaps noticing Malone’s potential, the Jazz prior to his second season, traded Adrian Dantley, the club’s scoring leader in each of the previous seven seasons, in exchange for Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson. Assuming more scoring responsibilities, Malone’s game improved exponentially as his scoring went up to 21.7 ppg and his shooting percentage increased from .481 to .598.
However, beginning in 1987-88, Malone began a string of seasons virtually unmatched by power forwards in NBA annals. He made All-NBA Second team with 27.7 ppg and a career-high 12.0 rpg that year. Utah also posted a 47-35 record — the best in franchise history to date.
Over the next 11 seasons, his scoring average never dipped below 25.2 ppg and he collected no less 9.80 rpg in any give season. In 1988, he also began a string of 11 consecutive All-Star Team selections and in 1989 started a streak of 11 consecutive berths on the All-NBA First Team.
Malone was Most Valuable Player of the 1989 All-Star Game and co-MVP with Stockton (first time in NBA history that teammates shared the All-Star MVP Award) of the All-Star Game played at Salt Lake City in 1993. In 1992, he was a member on the U.S. Dream Team, which won a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona. He also won a gold medal with Team USA at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Despite all the offensive production and honors up to that point in his career, Malone was criticized for his failure to lead the Jazz to a championship. The team consistently won in the regular season but always fell short in the playoffs.
Not until the Jazz reached their first NBA Finals in 1997 did many of his critics quiet. The Jazz won the Western Conference after defeating the Houston Rockets led by Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler in six games.
The series’ final victory came after Stockton made a three-point basket at the buzzer to unknot a tie score of 100-100. The shot is indelibly inscribed in Jazz lore — small forward Bryon Russell inbounded the ball to Stockton with 2.8 seconds remaining in the game and Malone set a devastating screen that cleared open space for Stockton. And after the made basket, Malone, Stockton and shooting guard Jeff Hornacek celebrated with a mid-court hug before being joined by their teammates.
The Jazz, however, would go on to lose in The Finals to the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in six games and suffer the same result in a rematch the next year. Malone would continue to put up prodigious numbers for the Jazz in his last five years with the team but the team never again reached the Finals.
Although Malone never won a championship, he played in the playoffs every season and his postseason production were equal to his phenomenal regular season stats. He had career regular-season averages of 25.0 ppg and 10.1 rpg while his playoff averages were 24.7 and 10.7 rpg.
In his rookie season, the Jazz were eliminated by the Dallas Mavericks in the first round but Malone’s scoring spiked from 14.9 ppg to 21.8 ppg in the four postseason games.
His increased production continued and formed his breakout 1987-88 season as Malone became a full-fledged superstar. He scored 27.7 ppg and grabbed a career-high 12.0 rpg. These numbers placed him fifth in the league in scoring and fourth in rebounding.
And for the second straight season Malone played in all 82 regular-season games, something he would do a total of nine times. He ended the season on fire — scoring at least 30 points in each of the Jazz’s last eight games, including a 41-point outing against the Seattle SuperSonics.
The Jazz roared through the first round of the playoffs against the Portland Trail Blazers, and then stood face to face with the defending NBA-champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Jazz didn’t blink. In fact, Utah pushed the Lakers to a seventh game, in which Malone scored 31 points and grabbed 15 boards.
But Los Angeles eked out a 109-98 victory and went on to beat the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals and the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals. Malone had a monster postseason, averaging 29.7 ppg and 11.8 rpg in 11 games.
Just 17 games into the 1988-89 season Utah head coach Frank Layden moved upstairs as team president and his assistant, Jerry Sloan, took the reigns. The Jazz went on to set a then club record with 51 victories.
Malone also had his best season to date, finishing second in the NBA in scoring (29.1 ppg) and fifth in rebounding (10.7 rpg). He earned MVP honors at the 1989 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, scoring 28 points on 12-of-17 shooting from the field.
He was named to the All-NBA First Team for the first time in his career and finished third in the balloting for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. However, despite superb individual play, Malone averaged 30.7 ppg and 16.3 rpg, the Jazz were swept in the first round by the Golden State Warriors.
In 1989-90, Malone was again named to the All-NBA First Team after averaging a career-high 31.0 ppg and 11.1 rpg. He finished second to Michael Jordan (33.6 ppg) in scoring and fourth in rebounding. But when the postseason rolled around Utah couldn’t shake the first-round jinx, losing to the Phoenix Suns in five games.
Although the Jazz acquired another Malone — guard Jeff Malone — in a three-team deal prior to the 1990-91 season, giving the club another offensive weapon, the remainder of the 90s for Malone and the Jazz was much of the same until the Finals run in 1996-97.
It was odd that in the next three even numbered years of the decade, the Jazz lost in the conference finals. The Jazz lost in the Western Conference Finals in 1992 to the Trail Blazers in six games. In 1994, Utah lost to the Houston Rockets in five games although the team was bolstered by the midseason arrival of Jeff Hornacek. Finally in 1996, after Seattle took a 3-1 advantage in the Western Conference Final, the Jazz rallied to force a seventh game. But a few missed free throws cost them that elusive trip to the Finals, as the SuperSonics prevailed at home 90-86.
The bitterness of playoff failures for Utah fans was sweetened a bit on February 21, 1993 when Malone and teammate Stockton shared MVP honors at the NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City, leading the West to a 135-132 overtime victory. Malone topped the West with 28 points and 10 rebounds, while Stockton dished for 15 assists.
Between defeats in the 1994 and 1996 Conference Finals, the Jazz produced an excellent 1994-95 regular season, winning 60 games for the first time ever. Malone scored 26.7 ppg and grabbed 10.6 rpg but the postseason ended too quickly for the Jazz, who lost to the defending and eventually repeat NBA champion Houston Rockets in the opening round of the playoffs.
Malone kept churning out great numbers during this period but even more personal and team success would follow in the near future. The highlight of Malone’s career with the Jazz would come in the next few subsequent seasons.
In 1996-97, Malone became only the fifth player in NBA history to surpass 25,000 points and 10,000 rebounds. Led by Malone, who would garner his first MVP award and make All-NBA Defensive team (first of three), the Jazz quietly destroyed nearly every team in its path, earning the best record in franchise history (64-18), a trip to the NBA Finals and a healthy dose of nationwide attention and respect that had eluded the team in previous seasons.
For the first time in their history, the Jazz posted the best regular-season record in the Western Conference, earning home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Utah continued its home-court success against the Chicago Bulls in the Finals, tying the series 2-2 after dropping the first two games in Chicago. Game 5 would be Utah’s only home loss of the playoffs, and it was courtesy of another Michael Jordan Finals special. Playing despite a stomach virus, Jordan nonetheless scored 38 points, including the go-ahead three-pointer in Chicago’s 90-88 victory.
Malone was the Jazz leading scorer in each game of the Finals and finished with a 23.8 ppg average in a defensive oriented series that saw just one team top 100 (Utah in Game 4). Malone chipped in 21 points in Game 6 as the Jazz fought hard but dropped a 90-86 decision, losing the series 4-2.
As the 1997-98 began, Stockton was sidelined for the first 18 games due to knee surgery. Malone carried the load at the start and the Jazz and finished the regular season with a NBA-best record of 62-20 along with the Bulls.
Just as in the previous season, the Bulls and Jazz met again The Finals. The Jazz took Game 1 with an 88-85 overtime win, but the Bulls again eventually defeated the Jazz in six games. Malone’s late jumper capped a 39-point game in an 83-81 Game 5 victory at Chicago that forced the series back to Utah.
Unfortunately for Jazz fans, in Game 6, Jordan was unstoppable at game’s end. He managed to strip the ball from Malone and then made a jumper to seal the 87-86 win and the Bulls’ sixth title in eight years.
In 1998-99, the NBA played a shortened 50 game schedule due to labor issues. The Jazz went 37-13 record, the best in the NBA along with the eventual NBA champs Spurs. But the team lost in six games to Portland in the conference semifinals.
Although Malone’s production seemingly slipped to 23.8 ppg and 9.4 rpg, he picked up his second MVP, at the time one of only nine players in NBA history to win the award more than once.
Malone would spend four more years in a Jazz uniform adding his name to the team record books. He finished his career as the franchise’s leader in points, rebounds, games started, minutes played, free throws made and attempted. In addition, he finished second in assists, steals and blocked shots.After Stockton retired following the 2002-03 campaign, he signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Lakers. He joined fellow free agent Gary Payton and the dynamic duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant to form a team with an almost assured four future Hall of Famers in an effort to capture that elusive championship.The Lakers had won three consecutive titles (2000-02) prior to Malone’s signing, but the team was defeated in the Western Conference Finals by the eventual 2003 NBA champs, the San Antonio Spurs, who were led by Tim Duncan. Many declared the Lakers the 2004 NBA champs the day Malone and Payton signed on the dotted line.However, in 2003-04, for the first time in his career, Malone spent significant time away from the court. Due to a knee injury and subsequent surgery he missed 40 games but did return near season’s end only to re-injure his knee in the 2004 Finals against the Detroit Pistons. Malone was unable to play in Game 5 and the Lakers lost the game and the series.
Ironically, his daughter Cheryl Ford who entered the WNBA in 2003 won a title later that year with the Detroit Shock.
Malone during the regular season deferred to his younger Lakers teammates and scored just 13.2 ppg, the first time since his rookie season he did not score over 20 ppg. He did manage to still rebound as he secured a robust 8.7 rpg.
Malone contemplated returning for the 2004-05 season but decided to call it a career after one season in a Lakers uniform. He held his retirement news conference in Salt Lake City, and declared “Even though I left for a year, I grew here as a Jazz man… If I’m fortunate enough to go into the Hall of Fame, I will go as a Jazz man.”
Malone was immortalized in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010, one year after fellow Jazzmen Sloan and Stockton received their honor.
“Even though he never won a championship, he had an outstanding career,” said Jerry Sloan, Malone’s coach for 15 of his seasons in Utah. “He played a lot of times when he shouldn’t have. He did whatever he could to try to win, and I think that kind of thing is overlooked a lot these days in the game of basketball.”