Karl Malone skillfully yanks his Chevy minivan into a small space behind the Judge Cafe in downtown Salt Lake City and bounds in the back door of the restaurant, greeting the kitchen help by name. A cellular phone, a tape deck and several of his favorite country and western tapes, not to mention a small bib that is usually tied around the neck of his five-month-old daughter, Kadee, are among the items he leaves behind on the front seat.
"Uh, Karl, aren't you going to lock it?" his lunch companion asks.
"Lock it?" he says, an incredulous look on his face. "Son, you're in Salt Lake City now. You don't have to lock it."
Logic would suggest that the City of Unlocked Cars—40% Mormon, 92% white and 100% serene—would be too small, too tame to contain Karl Malone, 6'9" and 260 pounds of barely controlled fury. He has now endured six consecutive years of playoff frustration with the Utah Jazz (can a seventh be far behind?), and one keeps waiting for Malone to explode, for a Barkleyesque mushroom cloud to rise above the Wasatch Mountains that border the city. Sure. Malone and his All-Star running mate, guard John Stockton, have gotten their share of accolades, including berths on the U.S. Olympic team, from which they were cut as collegians in 1984. But Malone and Stockton have yet to show that they can win the big one. Or even the semibig one. The disappointment and disillusionment that have consumed Malone's good buddy in Philadelphia, Charles Barkley, must be eating him up inside. Mustn't they?
"There's nothing eating me up inside." says Malone, settling into his customary table, nearest the kitchen. "Absolutely nothing." He smiles and greets the owner, Carole Couch, then says hello to his lawyer, Randy Call, a Mormon bishop who is lunching a few tables away. "I eat for free in here," says Malone proudly. "Did some advertising for the Judge my rookie year and made a deal with 'em." He exchanges a few jabs with teammates Jeff Malone, Delaney Rudd, Eric Murdock and Isaac Austin, who are at an adjoining table, the Judge being rather like the team's public training table, a place where players can eat virtually without interruption. There is a jazzed-up Sloppy Joe that is identified on the menu as " Karl Malone's favorite," but on this day Malone picks idly at a pasta salad as he tries to explain how a black man from Summerfield. La., has gotten along so well in a conservative white community that also happens to be the NBA's smallest market.
"You know what I've found?" says Malone. "The less talking you do, the more you learn. I love athletes who live their lives by example. My alltime favorite is Nolan Ryan. He's done his job with class, dignity and pride. The night he threw his seventh no-hitter, some of his teammates wanted his autograph. That's the kind of respect any athlete would love to have. I'm concerned with what people think of me as a person. Why, when you become a professional athlete, should you forget that other people have feelings?"
A few nights earlier, right after the Jazz edged the Philadelphia 76ers 100-94 at the Delta Center. Malone grabbed Barkley in a bear hug near midcourt. Malone talked quietly to him for a minute, and Barkley listened intently, nodding his head in affirmation before heading for the locker room. Malone has invited Barkley to spend a week in the off-season with him and his wife, Kay, to relax, talk some basketball, eat some hot Louisiana food and kick around the subject of frustration, something they both feel but manifest in different ways.
"I look at Charles, and I see a guy who's not only unhappy that he hasn't won but a guy who doesn't really like the whole situation he's in, the guys he's playing with, the guys who are his bosses," says Malone. "That's not the case with me. I look around at the Jazz, and I see guys who've given their all, guys I like as people. And, anyway, when you start to point lingers, your own game starts to go. I feel close to Charles, like there's lots of similarities between us. But we look at things a little differently. And we're going to talk about it."
From time to time Malone kids Jazz owner Larry Miller by saying, "Hey, I could pull a Barkley on you now. You better give me what I want." But he doesn't, even though, by rights, he should be every bit as frustrated as Sir Charles. Since Malone arrived in 1985 and Stockton became the starting point guard in '87, Utah has progressed steadily up the victory ladder to become one of the league's handful of elite teams. Utah captured the Midwest Division title this season with a 55-27 record, its fourth straight 50-win season. Yet, except for a stirring seventh-game loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the 1988 playoffs, the Jazz has rarely been taken seriously in the postseason. " Utah has been known to crumble at the end," the San Antonio Spurs' Terry Cummings said recently, infuriating the Jazz players partly because they could not dispute him. Utah will be favored in its first-round series beginning on Thursday against the L.A. Clippers, but, frankly, no one will be surprised if the Jazz loses. Many theories have been presented for Utah's past postseason swoons, all of them plausible: The team is too predictable; it's too dependent upon Malone and Stockton; it lacks depth and has trouble matching up with a small lineup; it lacks overall athleticism; it doesn't have a winning attitude. Is there any reason to believe this year's Jazz will be around any longer than, say, the second round?
"A lot of reasons." says Malone. "It's the first time we have guys who are athletic and who want to play. I have a better feeling now than the year we took the Lakers to seven games." So goes the party line around Jazz headquarters. Club president Frank Layden says flatly, "This is the best team we've ever had." Added depth and talent arrived by trade (versatile forward Tyrone Corbin came over from the Timberwolves in exchange for Thurl Bailey last Nov. 25), by draft (rookie guard Eric Murdock from Providence) and by free agency (surprising small forward David Benoit, who played last year in Spain). When both Malone and Stockton had off nights in a March 21 game against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Corbin-Murdock-Benoit trio combined for 34 points in a 95-77 Jazz win.