What would it be like if Karl Malone suddenly uttered, in the third person language he so often uses, “Karl Malone is coming back to basketball”?
As all Jazz fans know by now, Karl Malone was recently hired as a part-time player development coach for the Utah Jazz—being given the specific responsibility to mentor the young and veteran post players in the organization. It’s true his return has created a stir among Jazz nation, with many critics of Malone’s free spirit personality claiming the decision to hire him was a poor one, especially considering his history of unfulfilled commitments since retiring from professional basketball in 2004. Even Jeff Hornacek, Karl’s former teammate with the Jazz, took time to make light of hiring Malone as a coach. Immediately after Hornacek accepted the head coaching job with the Phoenix Suns, he said he’d contact Malone about serving as an assistant, but claimed he had doubts about receiving a commitment because Karl would want to go fishing after a couple of weeks.
Not everyone is concerned about Malone’s commitment to his new part-time coaching gig, but some do wonder what fueled him to make a return to basketball. Most former NBA stars of Malone’s caliber (other than Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Isiah Thomas), choose to remain far away from the sidelines after they finish their careers. Of course, there may be varying reasons why many former greats practice intentional avoidance when it comes to basketball, but some undoubtedly do it because it’s painful to be so close to the action without putting on a uniform. Other retirees do it because they can’t handle watching other players fail to do things they did easily during their own playing careers. It seems this would be especially difficult for Karl Malone, one of the best power forwards to ever set foot on an NBA court. But it’s possible Karl Malone accepted this coaching job to see how he measures up against the young NBA talent of today.
Ever since the Jazz announced Karl Malone’s return as part-time coach, I can’t stop myself from imagining him in a Jazz uniform again. There’s a chance I’m consumed by illogical thinking, but is it silly of me to think that Karl Malone (age 49), could realistically make a return to the NBA? Is it also unrealistic of me to think that deep down, some part of Karl Malone has always wanted to return as a player? I would venture to say neither one of those notions are completely impossible or entirely out of the question. Remember, this is Karl Malone we’re talking about: the man who still exercises and trains the way he did when he played for the Jazz. The man who still has biceps larger than a human head. The man of many words, who never shies away from a challenge or showmanship, nor cowers from any opponent. The 14-time All-star, two-time league MVP, all-time leader in defensive rebounds, and second leading scorer of all-time. The Hall of Famer who, with the help of a man named John Stockton, kept the small-market Jazz on the map for nearly two decades. If there is any doubt about what Karl Malone has done for the NBA or the Jazz organization, just take a look at his statue outside of Energy Solutions Arena.
It is admirable that Karl Malone accepted the invitation to help the Jazz bigs develop and hone their skills, but you wonder if assisting these young bigs (who are nowhere near his talent level), will bring all the competitive memories flooding back. Maybe Karl Malone believes (with some help), he could elevate the Jazz to championship status as a player even at age 49. Maybe he’ll get fed up with coaching and decide he can still wreak some havoc on the court. Maybe he hasn’t forgotten the two NBA titles that Michael Jordan and the Bulls stole away from him in 1997 and 1998, or the one the Pistons stole in 2004—and maybe he wants another shot. Maybe he wants to prove that he can still average double digits in scoring and rebounding. Maybe he hears everybody telling him it’s foolish to think about, and maybe he doesn’t care. As Jazz fans, we may never know.
Most critics believe at some point down the road, whether it’s this season or next, Karl Malone will step away from the Jazz. The way he’ll make his exit is still up for debate. Some say he’ll ride off into the sunset on a horse, go back to meticulously cleaning his rifles, and take a few extra fishing trips with his buddy and fellow outdoor enthusiast John Stockton. Those critics might say that Malone is walking away because he doesn’t know how to keep a commitment, but I believe the reason could be quite different. If he does leave sooner than later, maybe it’s because he too realizes that returning to basketball is out of the question, and that truth alone becomes more than he can take. Or maybe he listened to Clyde Drexler’s response to a reporter when asked if he could still lace up his shoes for another NBA game: Drexler replied that he could play for the full 48 minutes, and then he’d be forced to sit in an ice bath the rest of the week.
Basketball fans (especially Jazz fans), love making predictions, even if it’s clear the opinions we express are sorely misguided. It’s obviously difficult to predict a future that isn’t yet realized, but for now we do know—“Karl Malone is coming back to basketball”, just as an assistant coach. The rest is partly imaginative speculation, and mostly wishful thinking.