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."
The blood-colored Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL arrives bearing the Mailman. He has decided that this is the right night to repair to Monopoly's Park Place, a Dallas nightclub. "It'll be good for Jenny to get out," he says. Jenny, 27, is Karl's sister. They are two of Shirley Turner's nine children. Karl summers in Dallas. From there he can be at his mother's door near Summerfield, La., in slightly more than three hours. Jenny and brother Terry, 26, are at Monopoly's when Karl arrives. Jenny means to chastise him for being late, but she can't bring herself to do it. Malone didn't know how to find Monopoly's. He doesn't go often.
The club is packed. "I don't worry," says the Mailman. "Nobody makes any trouble here. If they did, I'd just say, 'If that's what you want, I can take you outside; then we can come back in and have a good time together.' "
No one is even slightly inclined to take Malone up on this offer, be it at Monopoly's or in the NBA. Shortly after the Mailman came into the league out of Louisiana Tech in 1985, he was upbraided on the court by Maurice Lucas, formerly the league's enforcer extraordinaire. "Stop going over me," growled Lucas, "before I hurt you." And what did Malone say to that? "Nothing. I came down and dunked on his bean." When you've put rings in the snouts of 200-pound razorback hogs, as the Mailman did as a teenager, the Maurice Lucases of this world don't seem bad. "Nobody's tried to intimidate me since," says Malone. "I can play that kind of game too. If you want that."
The Mailman admires Lucas. And Tyson. And, especially, his mother. He also admires teammate John Stockton, Tommy Hearns, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Herschel Walker, Flo-Jo, 48 minutes of playing time and four-wheel-drive vehicles. "I love heavy equipment, stuff that works. Dependable stuff," he says.
The Mailman loves Big D, too, and has come to Monopoly's to dance, not to talk. The fact that he seems to have the eye of every woman in the joint doesn't impress him. He dances with Jenny. He dances. And dances. And dances. The couples on the floor change, and most of the dancers come off the hardwood sweating and winded. The Mailman keeps going with Jenny and then with whoever can keep up with him. Finally, after a good 48 minutes, the Mailman comes off the floor smiling. The next morning he will do 400 sit-ups as penance for this night of revelry. Then he'll begin his real workout—10 100-meter dashes, three 200-meter runs and three 300-meter runs. Next he'll lift weights, curling 60 pounds, pressing 270, again and again. "I like doing it," he says. "I see myself improving. I feel the power and strength growing."
"Sounds like Karl all right," says Stockton. Stock, the Jazz's point guard, last season set the NBA record for assists (1,128), in no small part because of Malone's outlet passes and rim-bending jams. "I've never seen Karl tired," Stockton says. "He's on a different standard than the rest of us."
"Jordan doesn't get tired. Bird doesn't. The great ones don't," says Layden. "Karl wishes there were 200 games a year. He gets stronger as the year goes on. He thrives on playing."
Malone wore down the entire league last season, when he averaged 25.9 points per game the first half of the season and 29.4 the second. His average of 37.7 minutes per game in the first half went to 40.3, and his rebounds increased from 10.9 to 13.2. The Mailman has started 211 straight games for Utah, a team record. 'I've never seen Karl physically dominated in a game," says Stockton. "Yet he's not walking around trying to bully people. Not to take anything away from Mark [Eaton] and Thurl [Bailey], but Karl has risen above all of us."
"What John Stockton doesn't know," says Malone, "is that he is like one of my older brothers to me, and not because he gives me the ball on the break. Mess with Stockton and you mess with me."
In the case of Karl Anthony Malone, perhaps it's best to leave the last word on what he has done, can do and is likely to try, to his mother. City people tend to get carried away. "I'm going to tell you like this," says Shirley Turner. "We're just country people. I don't get caught up in worldly things. Neither does Karl. You know why? They let you down. They fade away. I hope all this doesn't go to Karl's head. I don't think it will. He's proud he can get up in the morning and know he didn't hurt anybody to get where he is. That's the son I raised."
The son Shirley raised hasn't forgotten his family. "If not for Karl, I don't know what direction I'd be headed in—I love him," Jenny says. She cried when Karl bought her a little red runabout so she could get to beauty school and back. Torese, Jenny's son, says "Yes, sir" to Uncle Karl out of loving respect. Torese won't wear anything on his feet but purple-trimmed Cons—what Uncle Karl wears. Torese wears his hair cut like Uncle Karl's, too.
"Karl was a happy child, a loving child," says Shirley. Karl was four when his father, J.P., left and still a boy when J.P. died of bone cancer. Shirley had eight children then. But Shirley can't be beaten down. She worked for 18 years at the sawmills in northern Louisiana, where she ran forklifts and operated planers. Then she worked the poultry houses at night, cutting chickens into parts.
"I saw my mother wear cardboard in her shoes, just so each of us could have a good pair," says Malone. "I saw what the water did to that cardboard. I can never repay her."
Ed Turner also saw. "She worked so hard," he says. Turner and Shirley were married in 1975, and Turner, a plumber by trade, tried to get her to retire, so he opened Turner's Grocery & Washateria on Alternate Route 2 near Summerfield, 26 miles from El Dorado, Ark. Shirley still works hard: She puts in about 65 hours a week in the store.
Ed had wanted a child. So Shirley had Tiffany, who, at nine, is the baby, after Karl. "Karl would get into devilment every now and then," says Shirley.
"But he was always respectful," says Ed. "Called his elders ma'am and sir."
Shirley tells about the time Karl and Terry stole melons from a neighbor's patch and broke open some of the ones they didn't steal. The neighbor came to Shirley and said he knew she was hardworking, so he didn't want money; he just wanted to make sure this didn't happen again. That was not enough for Shirley. For the next six weeks, Karl and Terry cut and stacked wood for the neighbor and threw a big log on his fireplace every night.
Ed will tell you of the time Karl flipped a car. Ed was going to break the news to Shirley. Karl said no. "Wanted to do it himself," says Ed. "He was responsible."
In late September, just before the Mailman left for his winter home in Salt Lake City, Shirley piled Tiffany and a couple of grandbabies into the car, put a lawn-sized garbage bag filled with greens in the trunk and drove over to Dallas, where she made Sunday dinner for Karl: hot-water bread, fried chicken, catfish, potato salad and the greens. "You know, I'd like to find a woman I could marry one day," says the Mailman. "But I think I expect a little too much."
"It'll have to be a country woman," says Shirley. "She can have lived in the city all her life, but she has to have a country heart. We don't go out to eat every night. We cook. We work. We save. We're just country people."
"It's going to be hard to find a woman like my mother," says Karl. No, Mailman. It's going to be impossible.
The patrons of the Salt Palace depend on the Mailman to deliver 48 minutes, 25 points and 12 rebounds approximately 50 nights a year against the best the NBA has to offer. No matter how good an athlete he is, Malone can't do this on ability alone. Work is involved. We work. The Mailman enters the garage at his house above Salt Lake City after a morning of weightlifting. The Chevy Silverado S-10 four-wheel drive with monster tires is idle. Sitting next to the truck is the 1940 Ford V-8 coupe that belonged to his 6'9" maternal grandfather. It's in mint condition. We save.
Half an hour later, the Mailman indulges in a little fullcourt improv at the University of Utah gym with some Jazzmen, including rookie Eric Leckner. Bob Hansen, big Mike Brown and Scott Roth, a swingman who is trying to make the team and is living at the Mailman's house. The Mailman put up Bart Kofoed all of last season. "The man has the biggest heart in Utah," says Roth.
After each game with his teammates, the Mailman says, "Run it back! Let's go again." He rebounds, outlets, blocks shots, runs, shoots, jams and then says, "Run it!" We cook. One by one, the other players grow distracted. They have other things to do. Mailman says, "Run it back!" He isn't pretty out there. He has few feline attributes. No soaring 360's. He plays like the late Gus Johnson (the Bullet star of the 1960s and early '70s), only faster. "I say to hell with a shootaround," says Malone. "I say, blow the horn."
Later, the Mailman and Roth run up a 60-degree incline on a grassy hill more than a mile up in the clean Utah air. After a few minutes, Roth stops. As the Mailman runs more hills, Roth quietly says, "That man has to be one of the most magnificent athletes on the face of the earth."
The Mailman makes it clear. He did sign a contract extension before last season for a reported $6 million for six years. That was before Michael Jordan got the Sears Tower and before a point guard named Mark Price got $1.2 million for 1988-89. "This is between me and Mr. Miller," Malone says. Mr. Miller is Larry H. Miller, the owner of Larry H. Miller's Chrysler-Plymouth, Dodge, Toyota, Chevrolet, Hyundai and Subaru, all strung neatly in a row along State Street in Murray, a suburb of Salt Lake City. Larry H. Miller also owns the Jazz. He's a friendly sort who tries to get Malone to call him Larry. But the Mailman has trouble with that, i tried to get him to call me Larry," Miller says. "He said, 'Mr. Miller, I wasn't brought up that way.' I said I knew that, but "Mr. Miller' made me nervous. He said, 'O.K., Mr. Larry.' "
Malone represents himself now. "Young guys always say, 'See my agent,' like it's cool or something. Hey, that ain't cool," says the Mailman. "I've got mule sense. I didn't go to Tech just to play [he is a year shy of a degree in Elementary Education Studies, but says he will get his diploma some day]. I don't want to ever have a meeting with somebody and then say, 'I stuck him good.' And I don't want anybody to say that about me."
"The only way to go out is the way Doc [Julius Erving] went out," says the Mailman. "I want to kill 'em, but I want to kill 'em with kindness."
Meanwhile, nothing short of what Shirley is having for dinner can stay the Mailman from the completion of his appointed rounds. He's just good-hearted country people from backwoods Louisiana who doesn't really know if he belongs. That's what will get him by in the end. For all interested city people, the end is when Malone gets the rock from Stock, dunks on your bean and delivers the salt of the earth in your face. Yes, sir.