Shirley Malone Turner, mother of Louisiana Tech's Karl (Mailman) Malone, leans over the counter at her general store near Summerfield, La. (pop. 400), a big chaw of Levi Garrett tobacco in her cheek and her gold tooth gleaming. "We had a whole storeful in here last spring watching those two [NCAA] tournament games they played," she says. "Everybody was so proud of them. And this year, I think they're going to go even further."
On a wall nearby is a picture of Malone, a debonair-looking 6'9", 255-pound fourth-year junior center-forward who led the Bulldogs to a surprising 26-7 record last season and a first-round tournament upset of Fresno State. He's standing in front of one of the two backboards he shattered while dunking one-handed last year, WAS IT LIVE OR WAS IT MEMOREX? reads the caption under the photo. Nearly 1,000 shards of glass from the second board were mailed out by Tech as promotional souvenirs to members of the media. "People are still talking about that," says Turner with a chuckle. "Karl, he's just a very strong boy."
From Turner's Grocery & Washateria to Tech's Thomas Assembly Center, 39 miles down Louisiana Alternate 2 and Highway 167 in Ruston, folks in northern Louisiana are again gathering to watch the Bulldogs, who had an 11-1 record at week's end and were ranked No. 13, and their big, friendly Mailman, so named because he always delivers. Times are a-changing in Ruston, where Tech's women's basketball team, winner of 140 of its last 146 games and of two national titles in the last four seasons, had in recent years been the only game in town. The men's squad had been relatively unsuccessful since former coach Scotty Robertson left for the NBA in 1974.
But these days when current Bulldog coach Andy Russo opens the screen door and walks into Bee's Cafe, a Ruston institution, for a plate of fried chicken, he's greeted as if he were the second coming of Huey Long. He drops off one of his team's DUNKIN' DOGS posters, which is quickly hung alongside one celebrating the Lady Techsters. "People here aren't as wild and crazy as those Cajuns down in south Louisiana," says Russo, 36, a Wilmette, Ill. native who has attracted little notice while averaging nearly 19 wins in five seasons at Tech. "But they do appreciate a good team."
Russo has assembled a quick, strong, veteran lineup with plenty of interchangeable parts. They're Bulldogs in the literal sense: disciplined, no-nonsense sorts who dive, scrap, pass off and shout "All for one, one for all" every time they break a huddle. They're mostly laid-back Louisianians who get much of their emotional energy from the street-smart northerner, Russo. "We don't have any outlaws on this team," the coach says, "but we'll come at you."
Besides Malone, Tech also boasts a smooth, savvy point guard in junior Wayne Smith and a redoubtable shot-blocker in 6'10" senior Willie Simmons, who bears a striking resemblance to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—goggles and all. While the Mailman is leading the Bulldogs in scoring (15.6 points per game) and rebounding (8.7) for the third straight season, his teammates have carried Tech on several occasions. In a 73-64 victory Dec. 7 over then 19th-ranked Louisville, for example, a win that lifted the Bulldogs into a Division I Top 20 spot for the first time in their history, Malone got into early foul trouble and scored only four points, 15 fewer than his career average. On the other hand, in Tech's only defeat of the season, an 84-72 loss to Oklahoma on Dec. 30, Malone came through with 22 points and 15 rebounds while his teammates committed an uncharacteristic 26 turnovers. The Mailman vented his frustration in that one with a resounding slam dunk that knocked a rim out of balance and forced a 10-minute delay for repairs.
Such muscular play is a Tech hallmark. So are the half-court man-to-man and matchup zone defenses Russo began learning under his former boss, Texas—El Paso coach Don Haskins, and refined with help from Fresno State coach Boyd Grant. "I saw Fresno play a few times on TV last year and liked what I saw," says Russo. "I wrote and called Boyd, asking if he'd teach me." Russo spent a week at Fresno State's summer camp last June and installed Grant's system at Tech during five grueling weeks of two-a-days last fall. "I'll tell you, it was rough!" says Simmons. But worth it: Last Saturday the Bulldog defense keyed a 92-63 win over Northwestern La. State. For his part, the Mailman delivered 20 points, six rebounds and seven assists.
Malone has overcome an early-season slump brought on by foul-proneness and an unnerving accident. On Dec. 3, he inadvertently flattened Rice center Dave Ramer with an elbow while hauling down a rebound. Ramer suffered a depressed right cheekbone, fractures above and below the right eye socket, a collapsed sinus and a hairline fracture of the jaw, and is out for the season. Owl coach Tommy Suitts called Malone's high-elbow style "borderline criminal," and Texas papers played up the incident. "I talked to Karl on the phone the next morning and he just broke down into tears," says Turner. "He kept saying, 'I didn't mean it.' "
The Mailman's mom, who is married to plumber Ed Turner (Karl's father, J.P. Malone, died of cancer in 1977) has always been his confidante. She's also his fishing and hunting buddy, his sometime employer at the country store and the counselor who convinced him to sign with nearby Tech instead of distant Arkansas. Karl is the eighth of her nine children, all of whom learned bedrock religion and the value of hard work. "A social worker came once and said, 'Did you know you qualify for welfare?' " says Shirley. "I said it was my responsibility to take care of my children. I believe every tub should sit on its own bottom."
The Mailman sat on his bottom his entire freshman year at Tech. His 1.97 high school grade point average left him short of the 2.00 required for freshman eligibility. "That was the best thing that ever happened to me," says Malone. "My last years of high school [in which he led his team to three consecutive Class C state titles], I was starting to think I was better than other people, that I was special and things would just come to me." Today Malone is respectful and polite. And by applying himself to his elementary-education studies, he has raised his GPA at Tech to 2.6, third highest on the team.
As for his basketball, well, he has come a long way since the days when he would nail a de-spoked bicycle wheel to a tree or ask his mother to climb up on a chair and hold her arms out like a rim for him to shoot through. Last spring he survived until one of the later cuts at the U.S. Olympic Basketball Trials. His principal weakness remains his inside game on offense. "He tends to just turn around and shoot," says Smith. "If he learned just two or three moves—to turn and face his man and then break him down—he'd really put the ball in the hole." Says Malone with a sheepish grin, "I'm working on it."
Meanwhile, back at Turner's G&W, Shirley talks of a possible trip to Lexington, Ky. to watch her son in this year's Final Four and pats her youngest child, 5-year-old Tiffany, on the head. "Karl says he's going to make this one a Lady Techster someday," she says. "They're pretty good, too, you know."