"Yeah, it'll get some stares," says Malone, "but I wanted something special."
The Mailman has a game plan all worked out for Malone Enterprises. He will spend a portion of every off-season making runs, short ones or long ones, in his truck. Kay and Kadee can travel with him; the tractor is equipped with television and VCR, stereo, refrigerator, microwave and even a fax machine, not to mention ample sleeping room. He will charge a "Malone rate" of $5,000 and up per run, far steeper than the average trucking-company charge of about $1.25 per mile. But after delivering the goods, Malone will sign autographs or make a personal appearance, whatever is spelled out in the contract. Then, too, the rig itself is a show. Smith's Food King, a large Utah-based supermarket chain, has already hired Malone to make two short runs from Salt Lake this summer, one to Ogden, Utah, and another over the state line to Idaho Falls. Idaho. Malone's main problem will be fitting the trips in among his Olympic responsibilities.
When Malone's playing days are over—"and my marketability isn't as high," he says—he'll buy a few more rigs and run Malone Enterprises like a standard trucking business. "A lot of guys have dreams about what they want to do when they retire," says Malone, "but I'm already living my dreams."
Malone climbs into the tractor (real truckers consider cab a greenhorn term and use cither tractor or truck to describe the front part of an 18-wheel rig) and backs out of the garage ever so carefully, not at all like he drives to the basket. It happens often that Malone is sitting at home, maybe eating or watching TV, and suddenly he misses his rig so much that he must go visit it, just to check out the paint job or maybe take the tractor for a spin. Malone has even driven the rig to practice to show it to his teammates, though the taste of the average NBA player runs more to Lamborghinis and Porsches. But Jazz center Mark Eaton, a mechanic before he was an NBA player, told Malone that he would like to make a run with him.
As Malone drives, waving and subtly acknowledging the stares from virtually everyone on the road—"Hey, that's the Mailman in that damned thing!" one man hollers to his wife as he pulls alongside Malone at a stoplight—his love and appreciation for truck driving comes through. His greatest fear at the moment, aside from Utah's performing poorly again in the postseason, is that he will be taken for a dilettante. Ever since James Davison, a Louisiana Tech alumnus who owned a trucking company in Ruston, La., first let him handle an 18-wheeler when Malone was 20, he has been preparing to be a real truck driver. Malone studied, he drove, he talked to other drivers, he immersed himself in the lore and the mechanics of the profession. And last month, with beating heart and dry mouth, he passed, on his first try, the test to acquire his commercial driving license.
"I wish I could describe that feeling of satisfaction," he says. "On my way home after passing, I climbed in the truck, rolled up the windows and yelled for 10 minutes straight. I was trying to keep cool when I came home, but Kay took one look at me and said, 'You got it, right?' Hey, you just can't be cool about some things."
Malone is fortunate, of course, that his $3 million annual salary gives him a little seed money. Being a relatively inexperienced driver in a $190,000 rig, he could get the insurance policy he needed only from Lloyd's of London, and he was able to pay the $10,000 premium (for two years) without blinking. But he took no shortcuts in learning how to become a driver. The test involved not only guiding the rig through several intricate maneuvers—the 48-foot trailer had to be parallel parked in a 58-foot space, for example—but also passing a written exam.
"Karl went through every single step we'd put any other potential driver through," says Lynn Thompson, who, as safety director for Dick Simon Trucking, Inc., trained Malone for several months before administering the test. "Being a professional athlete, sure, his reflexes and strength help him as a driver. But his intelligence is just as important. I can't wait for him to start driving, because even though he'll be a competitor, he's going to represent the industry well."
That he will. Put Malone behind the wheel and he positively proselytizes. With an absolutely straight face he says things like "Yup, the pride is back in trucking." It's hard to find words, he says, for the passion and excitement he feels when he starts moving through the gears of an 18-wheeler. "Basketball is my job," says Malone, "but this is my love. It's the whole thing: the machinery, the companionship with the other drivers, the smell of the diesel. I'm a careful driver—when you've got a 10,000-pound tractor, a 10,000-pound trailer and a 60,000-pound payload in the back, you've got to be—but I'd be lying if I said I didn't like the feeling of being the most powerful thing on the road, yet under control, too." He thumps his hand down on the steering wheel. "You know what I feel like when I'm driving? A runaway truck under control." The paradoxical metaphor hangs in the air for a moment, "I guess that's kind of what I'm like on the basketball court, huh?"
Though it seems preposterous now, doubts about Malone's intensity and commitment scared off several NBA teams in the summer of 1985, and thus did the kid from Louisiana Tech hang around until the 13th pick, after players such as Benoit Benjamin, Jon Koncak, Joe Kleine, Ed Pinckney, Keith Lee and Kenny Green. Malone justified Utah's faith in him by combining the raging-bull mentality of a middle linebacker with the body of a very large defensive end. There is a lot of "runaway" and a lot of "truck" in Malone's game, so much that the elements of control, style and finesse he possesses are often overlooked. He is probably the NBA's best outside-shooting power forward, deadly on a step-back move from inside 18 feet. The improvement in his free throw shooting (from .481 in his rookie season to his current mark of .771) has oft been noted, but it is worth mentioning again only because he still gets to the line as frequently as any NBA player since Wilt Chamberlain. (Through last week Malone was shooting a career average of 9.3 free throws per game; Chamberlain averaged 11.4 over 14 seasons.)