by Brian Henderson
Special to Salt City Hoops
Karl Malone will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, joining only 295 other individuals who have ever played the game. Like many in Jazz Fandom, I want to give my own tribute to the Mailman in anticipation of his enshrinement into basketball immortality. For an unprivileged teenage kid from Salt Lake City, I had an unusual opportunity to interact with Karl Malone.
Before my senior year of high school, I managed to land a job as a ball boy for the Utah Jazz. (Before I became a ball boy, Karl opened a shoe store in Salt Lake City, where during the grand opening, I met an executive with the NBA who would become a dear friend and life mentor to me, and who has opened more doors to me than I can begin to count. I owe Karl big for that.) Karl’s upcoming induction ceremony has given me an excuse to reminisce on my experiences with him during that 1993-1994 season. You can find all the stories you want about whether he is the best power forward to have ever played the game. The numbers are there, as are the awards (minus the elusive titles). Instead, I want to tell you a few personal stories about Karl Malone off of the court, and how they reflect the same traits that made him great on it. Character counts in this walk to the Hall, if not formally, then certainly in the place taken by players like Karl in the minds of fans in the pantheon of basketball’s greats in Springfield, Massachusetts. Here, then, are a few anecdotes. (Forgive my personal indulgence in this post.)
It took me two years of Rocky Mountain Revue summer league hard labor, phone calls, letters, notes, stop-by’s, and even local celebrity endorsements–thank you, Ron Boone–to become a Jazz ball boy. (To this day, it is the hardest work I’ve ever done to get a job.) But in the end, after toiling through the fall 1993 training camp with my heart pounding through my chest during every practice, hoping against all odds that I would be hired, I got my opportunity when the “boss man” simply said, “First home game is next Friday. Show up at the arena at 4 o’clock.” I went through the roof. Instantly, my unrelenting pursuit paid off. Two years felt like ten to this teenager. As far as I knew, I was the only ball boy who managed to overcome zero connections to the front office, the players, or the coaching staff. I remember thinking, on behalf of all the kids in Utah who had ever dreamed about having such an up close and personal experience with the team, that I would take none of it for granted. With college looming, I knew I only had one season on the job. So I savored every minute of it.
We all know Karl had a lion’s heart on the court, and we all saw how he wore that heart on his sleeve in the spotlight–his relationship with Larry Miller serving as Exhibit A. Tears flowed between the two like Niagara Falls in a rainstorm. Karl’s energy and expressiveness on the court, and his interaction with fans, made his game truly entertaining to watch. Remember his “poster pose”? Or his unbridled celebration with Stockton and Hornacek after “The Shot” against Houston? He showed the same heart in private, too. He was always helping people out away from the cameras. He didn’t want the recognition for those moments. I admire him for that. I was one of the people he wanted to help. About 3/4 the way through that season, before a home game, he called me over to his locker and asked me if I had plans for the summer. “Let me send you down to New Mexico. I’ll get you a job at one of my car dealerships. You’ll have a great experience and save some money for college.” It was a generous offer, and one I turned down with some difficulty.” Just let me know,” he said. “I’ll get you a job if you want it.” It wasn’t the right situation at the time, but I have always appreciated his gesture. There are a thousand stories like mine, I am sure of it. Karl’s heart made him great on the court, and off it as well.
Karl Malone was a workhorse. The second most productive workhorse of all time in scoring, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His on-court production was unrivaled and his blue collar mentality drove his entire career. After all, he did play all 82 games for ten seasons, and in the others only missed a handful more with the Jazz. In a recent interview with KSL-TV, he said, “Not one time did I step on the floor physically and think that somebody was in better conditioning than I was.” He was simply always prepared, and got the job done. One night, after a game, the team was headed straight from the Delta Center to catch the charter flight for a road trip. But Karl had called in a food order–for everybody. “Do you have a driver’s license?” he asked me. “Yessir.” (It was not the time to admit that my only accident had come in the heart of downtown during the past NBA season on the day I skipped school to sneak into the Delta Center and watch Michael Jordan and the Bulls practice. Jazz fan Karma, no doubt.) He pitched me his wallet and the keys to his massive truck (with a two foot lift), and told me to be back in 25 minutes. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, now that’s trust.” Later, I realized I was about the safest place for his keys and his money, since he would have had me drawn and quartered had anything happened to his truck, or his wallet, or his food. So I tore off in Karl’s ride (after almost needing climbing gear to get up into it), grabbed the food (after convincing the restaurant employee the call wasn’t a hoax by showing him Karl’s driver’s license), and made it back in time to pass the food onto the bus as it was backing out of the arena. Karl got it done, by any means necessary on the court, and off it as well.
Finally, my greatest thrill that season happened with the entire team, but represents what Karl made us all feel during his 18 seasons with us in Utah. As the team marched through the 1994 playoffs, excitement in Utah built to a fever pitch. We dismantled David Robinson and the Spurs in five games during the first round. Then, the epic Denver Nuggets series went seven games before the Jazz prevailed. It was May 23, 1994. Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals was in Salt Lake City. As was the pre-game custom, the ball boys lined up on the court to form a gauntlet through which players passed and high fived us and one another during team introductions. The eventual NBA Champion Houston Rockets were in the building. The house lights went dark. The notorious Delta Center crowd roared to life. The deafening noise ricocheted off every corner of the building. The air was electric. Fireworks lit up the court. The entire building rocked in anticipation. I was standing on the court with the team, twenty thousand people screaming for the Jazz to defeat the favored Rockets–Hakeem, Mario Elie, Kenny Smith, Robert Horry, Sam Cassel and company. Could we do it? As longtime PA announcer Dan Roberts introduced the last of the starting lineup, one of the players hooked me with his arm and dragged me into the team huddle somewhere near center court. In the middle of a scrum with Karl, John, Jeff, and the rest of the team, I was pummeled by them all–play punched and jostled around until I was dizzy. The huddle broke. The lights came on. The team ran to the bench. Looking up at twenty thousand people screaming for a Jazz victory, I was alone on the court, and ambled off feeling like I was at the center of the basketball universe. I was. That’s how Karl made all of us feel. He put us at the center of it all.
So, as Karl heads to the Hall on Friday, congratulations are in order. Yes, he’s human. Yes, the Jazz fell tantalizingly short every time. But Karl made us believe. And in every one of those moments, we were all thrilled to be part of it. We all owe Karl big for that. Here’s to the greatest power forward who ever played the game. The guy with the lion’s heart, and the unrivaled work ethic. The guy who gave this 17 year old kid and everyone else an opportunity to be part of one of the greatest careers in NBA history, and who took care of so many of us away from the limelight along the way.