And though one does not want to over-analyze the raw power of Malone's low-post moves, he does not simply run pell-mell toward the basket and start throwing bodies around. Generally, Utah first posts up the small forward—starter Blue Edwards or reserve Benoit—as if the ball is going in to him. (Sometimes it actually does.) Then suddenly Malone and the three-man exchange spots, the Mailman bolting into position as if he were leaping onto a subway train before the doors closed. There is no defensive player in the league who can beat Malone to the blocks when he has a running start, nor is there one who cares to impede Malone's progress by stepping in front of him. Utah's offense also involves a series of back picks designed to get Malone into low-post position. Surprisingly, Stockton is Utah's best at the underappreciated art of screening; typically, he'll set an unseen screen on Malone's man, take the punishment, pop out to catch the ball, then try to deliver it back inside to Malone.
"I worry about John down there, getting whacked around by the guys who guard me," says Malone. "I draw all kinds of defenders, from the big, quick guys like David Robinson to the power guys like Charles Oakley. John takes 'em all on."
For Malone the presence of Stockton is 95% salvation, 5% curse. There is no way Malone would average nearly 30 points per game without a passer like Stockton, who, as much as any point guard in NBA history, is equally proficient on the open floor and in the half-court game. The one thing Malone does not do well is create his own shot off the dribble in a set offense, and he needs Stockton to get him the ball. And in the transition game Stockton's intelligent decisions have turned Malone into quite possibly the best running big man in NBA history.
The curse comes from the fact that as long as Stockton is around. Malone will never get full credit for being a great player. The question of who's more important—Malone or Stockton, scorer or passer—is a chicken-or-egg conundrum that simply can't be solved. And the more success they have as a tandem, the more complex the question becomes. From time to time the Mailman has offered the opinion that he is overlooked in the MVP voting each year (his highest finish was third, in 1989) because he plays in a small market. That might limit his name recognition and endorsement opportunities (and it definitely hurt him in 1990 when the fans voted the Lakers' A.C. Green to start over Malone in the All-Star Game), but it does not hurt him with MVP voters. Neither Malone nor Stockton will become the MVP as long as they play together: They cancel each other out.
The arrival of guard Jeff Malone from the Washington Bullets in 1990 took some of the offensive pressure off the dynamic duo. But night after night too much of the offensive burden still falls upon the Mailman and Stockton, as does too much of the responsibility for injecting energy and intensity into the Jazz. Stockton does it with a controlled, purposeful anger that is readable only in his dark eyes; Malone, like Barkley, seems to walk an emotional tightrope on the court. Last year's technical-foul leader was not Barkley, with 16, but Malone, with 23, and they are battling tooth and larynx to the wire this season; at season's end Barkley had 18 T's, Malone 15. The Mailman's outbursts lack the theatrical Hair of Barkley's and come in spasms of rage that frequently end with extracurricular physical activity. By rough estimate, 50% of NBA players consider Malone physical but entirely within the rules, 40% say that he tests the upper limit of physicality too frequently, and 10% I believe that he's outright dirty. The Atlanta Hawks' Dominique Wilkins made that charge publicly two seasons ago, and others have suggested it. One Western Conference coach who desired anonymity said of Malone. "When things are going well for him, he laughs at all the bumping and shoving. But when things aren't going well and the game is physical, it gets to him. That's when he gets the technicals and gets out of his game. And, frankly, I've never seen him pick on anybody his own size." The always-quick-with-a-quote Chuck Person of the Indiana Pacers said recently, " Karl Malone is not a man."
Indeed, the Mailman has a reputation in some quarters for going after smallish guards, which made the events of last Dec. 14 all the more intriguing. On that night at the Delta Center, the Detroit Pistons' Isiah Thomas drove toward the hoop in the first period, and Malone came off his man to defend. Both players went up in the air, and by the time Thomas landed, his face was a bloody mess. Contact with Malone's right elbow had opened a gash above his right eye that required 40 stitches to close. Malone was charged with a flagrant foul, and later, alter the NBA reviewed the tape, he was suspended for one game and fined $10,000. To others, though, the replay showed nothing flagrant—indeed, Thomas ducked under Malone, and that was where the contact occurred. But Thomas had burned Stockton and the Jazz for 44 points in a game one month earlier in Detroit, and Piston center Bill Laimbeer and coach Chuck Daly made broad hints that revenge had motivated Malone's hard foul. Later Malone left a message at Thomas's hotel that he wanted to talk to Thomas, "not to apologize, but to clear the air and tell him it wasn't deliberate." Thomas called him, and they talked it out.
Malone acknowledges that he's a physical player—which is rather like Madonna acknowledging that she's a controversial performer—but he denies that he is, or ever has been, dirty. "I make my fouls worth it," he says. "But I don't go after anybody. I don't understand these little stabs and jabs that go on from time to time, always when I'm not around. What is Chuck Person doing in Indiana talking about me? I never said one thing about him. I'd like to think I have more sanity and class than these guys who are always talking about me. I don't understand where they're coming from, and I don't want to understand.
"My temper? Hey, I've calmed down. I fly off much less than I used to, and if I tried to tone it down any more, I wouldn't be effective. I'm exactly where I want to be, emotionally, on the court. If that's not O.K. with my opponents, tough."
It's O.K. with some of them. "There's no way I consider him a dirty player," says Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson. "He's physical, throws his body around and does play the enforcer role on that team. But that's not the same thing as being dirty. The main thing a coach asks from his players is to be competitive every minute. And Karl Malone is."
The basement of Malone's spacious house in the classy Federal Heights section of Salt Lake City—he bought it six years ago for just $250,000 and says. "It would've cost a million in L.A."—is a combination gymnasium/museum. A state-of-the-art stair climber, which is the center of attention in the main room, is the key to maintaining Malone's admirable aerobic capacity. "I punish that thing in the off-season," he says, "absolutely punish it." A gleaming weight room that would've cost a retail buyer about $100,000 to equip (Malone got the weights free from the manufacturer) sits menacingly to the rear. He recently did an eight-part series called " Karl Malone's Muscle Minute" for the NBA-produced TV show Inside Stuff, but he is otherwise loath to be specific about his workout. He's proud of his strength but doesn't like to talk about it.