Karl Malone looks nice. He looks very, very nice. And Malone likes the way he looks. It's important. Very, very important. Look good, feel good. In 10 or 12 years he wants to quit his present job with the Utah Jazz so he can train year-round and become Mr. Olympia. That would be nicest of all. Why does Malone work so hard at lifting weights—up to four hours a day at a health club in Dallas last summer—sculpting his body like an artist? "It's always nice to look in the mirror and see yourself," he says. Nice, very nice. But not the real reason.
As the starting power forward for the Jazz, Malone is not so nice. He is 6'9" and 256 pounds, with negligible body fat and a nasty disposition. Last month the Jazz agreed to pay him $6 million over six years, then they went out and traded for 6'11", 270-pound Darryl Dawkins and 6'11", 275-pound Melvin Turpin. With 7'4", 290-pound Mark Eaton starting at center and 6'11" Thurl Bailey 20 pounds heavier at 232 after an off-season weight-training program, the Jazz this year may look less like a basketball team than a buffalo herd.
Like it or not, Malone, and a growing number of players built just like him, may be the future of the NBA. In fact, teams such as Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, Indiana and Detroit, which rely on strength to complement their quickness, are threatening the league's balance of power. The Lakers, the ultimate example of quickness and grace, won the championship last season, and they may repeat next spring. But the special athletes who have made that system a success will be gone someday, and even L.A. will have to adapt.
"The Lakers ran away from people in the playoffs last season until Boston banged with them, slowed them down," says Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Fratello. "If Boston had been at full strength throughout the finals, who knows what would have happened? I'm not saying bulk is for everybody, that we need 250-pound bruisers, but it plays an important role.... It's a big factor in our success. Because of the contact, the physical beating night in and night out, the stronger he is, the better a player is able to cope."
Seattle president Bob Whitsitt is emphatic about the strength factor: "No pure finesse player is going to make it in this league, because the game is simply too physical."
"You can't be a punk under there," says Sixers forward Roy Hinson. "You let them, they'll back you right into the stands." The rumbling under the boards has gotten so rough that Hinson lost four teeth in a game last year, though to hear him tell it, he didn't even mind. "Not many people in the NBA have teeth anyway," Hinson says, "especially the front ones." You may think that's easy for him to say, but try putting yourself in Hinson's bridgework and gum these facts:
? Dominique Wilkins of Atlanta, already the most explosive player in the NBA despite being only an occasional weightlifter, prepared for this season by taking karate lessons. Wilkins didn't like it when Detroit's Bill Laimbeertossed him to the floor during the playoffs last spring. "I'm tired of being pushed around," he says, "tired of them messing with me. I make my living in there. I've got to get stronger just to survive."
?Laimbeer and Larry Bird, a couple of guys with about as much natural muscle tone between them as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, both hit the weights in the summer. Bird entered the Celtics' training room one day last season, did a couple of bench presses and walked out, never to be seen there again. But by the start of the playoffs Bird was so worn down from the NBA's 82-game bump-and-grind that he had lost 12 pounds and looked haggard. Against the Lakers, Bird shot only 44.5% and frequently disappeared in the second half. Both Bird and Laimbeer, known throughout their careers as "physical" players despite an almost contemptuous aversion to conditioning, are acolytes at the altar of the new NBA religion: Stronger is better.
?During the season, Indiana Pacers coach Jack Ramsay—a fitness zealot himself—makes sure to book his team only into hotels with a health club and swimming pool. "That's a must," Ramsay says. Home or away, win or lose, the Pacers seek to maintain a consistent strength level with a minimum of two weight workouts a week.
?Many of the NBA's 23 teams have developed some kind of off-season weight and conditioning program for their players, and several clubs now employ strength coaches.