Mike Tyson was looking for the baddest man on the hardwood. The candidates, some of the best players in the NBA, were sitting in the ballroom of Los Angeles's Century Plaza Hotel, assembled for the festivities surrounding Magic Johnson's Mid-summer Night's All-Star Game on Aug. 7. From his seat near one end of the head table, Karl (Mailman) Malone watched as Tyson approached. Malone is of that slice of Americans called country people, who are usually distinguished from city people by two traits—they talk slower and live longer. Country people work hard and clean their plates. Hardwood is Malone's element. Glitz isn't. Here he was just a plain man stuck in a tuxedo. Country people also don't see wonders and feign indifference. An awestruck Malone saw Tyson offer curt nods to the other stars. Then the heavyweight champ stopped behind Malone's seat. "Yo, Mailman," Tyson said, "I want to talk to you." The Mailman stood. Tyson smiled and said, "You're my man, Mailman."
"I don't know who I am when I'm at something like that," Malone said later. "It's an honor, but I wonder, Do I really fit? Am I that important to society? It's hard to believe I belong, because of my age and where I'm from. So all I can do is work and perform. I'm always thinking, Have I paid the price to be here? Have I worked hard enough? Do I deserve to be the Mailman?"
Considering how far the 25-year-old Malone has come in three NBA seasons, how can he harbor doubts? Country people usually aren't much on angst, especially when the harvest has been so bountiful. The Mailman averaged 27.7 points and 12.0 rebounds a game last season. He made more free throws than Moses Malone (552 to 543) and had more rebounds than Charles Barkley (986 to 951). He led the Utah Jazz in scoring 63 times and in rebounds 59 times, and led the West in last season's NBA All-Star Game with 22 points and 10 boards. He was fifth in the league in minutes played. In the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs, Malone averaged 29 points and 12 rebounds and played every minute of three games as the Jazz went seven tough rounds, only to lose to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers then went on to win the NBA title.
Now the question isn't whether Malone belongs in the NBA paint—the question is who belongs in there with him. "It's where men are made," says Malone. "If you're a boy, you should be home with mom. In the paint either put up or shut up. I want to play all 48. I don't want nobody coming in for Karl Malone."
"Yes, I can see him saying that," says Michael Cooper of the Lakers. "When you're as strong as Darryl Dawkins and run the floor like Byron Scott...when you're the fastest big man ever to play, I think you're allowed."
The Mailman had also said, "My rivalry isn't with one player in this league. My rivalry is with the Los Angeles Lakers." Cooper can't disagree. In the first game of the western semis, Cooper was told by L.A. coach Pat Riley to get in front of the Mailman on the wing and deny him the lane to the basket on the break. Easy for Riley to say. "Mailman gave me a little flick," says Cooper, who wound up wrapped around the press table beneath the visitors' basket at the Forum.
"He runs the court like a small man, then overpowers bigger people," says Golden State Warrior coach Don Nelson. "Is there a more dominant power forward in the game today? If there is, I'd like to see him." But the Mailman claims he's not a power forward, even though he's 6'9" and 256 pounds, with a torso that narrows to a 31-inch waist. "I'm a hard forward," he says. "You either are a forward or you aren't. I don't see how these guys let people call them small forwards. That's an insult."
"He'll play both positions this year," says Utah's coach, Frank Layden.
"Then let's say he's the toughest matchup in the frontcourt, period, at least in the West," says Warrior power forward Larry Smith. "When you play the Mailman, be ready to bang, be ready to run, be ready to go all night."
"Well, I just don't know," says the Mailman. He's off the hardwood when he says it. "I don't know if I really belong."