Karl Malone made a promise to Larry Miller that he plans on keeping and keeping some more as he pays his last respects to the man this weekend in Salt Lake City. It's a pledge he gave last summer, when he dropped in on his ailing friend, his former employer, his father figure, at the hospital here and visited with him for four days.
"Surreal" and "unforgettable" were the words Malone used earlier this week to describe the extended call he had with Miller.
"I had four of the most unbelievable days ever with Larry," he said. "I learned a lot of things about me, and I learned a lot of things about Larry. It was uninterrupted. He couldn't go anywhere. He wasn't on the telephone. I wasn't on the telephone. We just had an opportunity to talk about things.
"You know how you always want to say something, but, sometimes, we're men and we have pride and all that. It was the first time ever that I was comfortable in what I wanted to say, and he was, too. Things [were said] that I will definitely carry to my grave.
"Everything we wanted to say, we were beating each other to the punch on saying it. I got an opportunity to do what a lot of people couldn't do. Everybody always wants to say things after the fact. After a person is gone. I had an opportunity to say my goodbye to him. It was so surreal because it was like he was saying it to me.
"We talked about all kinds of stuff. ... It was unbelievable. It was everything I wanted to say and everything he wanted to say. Man, it was just very touching to me. I will never, ever forget it. I will never, ever in my life forget it. What he meant to me and my family.
"I looked at him and said, 'If I try to start telling you what you mean to me as a person and a human being, I doubt very seriously if I can get through it without tearing up. He looked at me and said, 'Big guy, you don't have to say one word. Let me do it for you.' We always fought over who was going to talk. But that time, he talked for 25 minutes. I didn't have to say anything else."
Malone said when Miller died on Friday, people wanted to get his immediate response. He answered: "When I'm ready."
By Monday, he was more than ready.
"I'm a better person because of [him]," Malone said. "I'm blessed, and I'm fortunate to have spent my days in Utah, to be a part of Larry Miller and that organization. It makes me want to be more than what I am. He taught me, 'It's not about me. It's not about us. It's about the other people we can help.' I'm a better person now than I was six months ago, just by having that conversation."
Karl added with a laugh: "In memory of Larry, today I will not talk in the third person."
He noted his public disputes with Miller over a number of issues, including contract negotiations.
"Larry was a father figure. You do squabble with your father sometimes. ... The reason I could squabble with Larry and then go to him and say, 'I'm sorry,' is because of the respect I had for him. I wouldn't have grown from him as a person if we didn't have some unbelievable dialogue. We can go back and say, 'I should have handled that a little different.'
"At the end of the day, my respect for Larry is second-to-none. It's well documented that my father wasn't around. As a young kid, I left from Louisiana. I'm not ashamed to say it: Larry was a father figure. We always looked at each other and said, 'It's water under the bridge. Let's go on.' I'm a better man today than I was 20 or 25 years ago when I came to Utah. Larry had an unbelievable influence on that."
As Malone sat at Miller's bedside, day after day, he said it pained him to see his friend's condition.
"It hurt me all day to sit there and watch him suffer," he said. "When I heard [about Larry's death], I thought, 'He's not suffering anymore.'
"Not one time did I hear him complain or say, 'Why me?' Not one time did he say that.
"Larry Miller was my hero. Looking into his eyes, I said all the things I wanted to say to him."
And, finally, after those four days were spent, Malone punctuated his declarations and confessions and goodbyes with the aforementioned promise, a promise Miller almost forcibly extracted from him, a promise everybody on hand for his funeral on Saturday should keep in mind, an ironic promise requested by a man who so often couldn't finish a sentence without the plumbing backing up and spilling out from his eyes.
Said Malone: "He said to me, 'When the end comes, I do not want to see you crying. I want you to smile. When I met you, you were smiling, and, if this is your last time seeing me, I want you to smile.' He said, 'That's what I want from you. Is that asking too much?'"
On a day like Friday, the day of Larry Miller's viewing, the eve of his funeral services, it may well be.
But Miller's life is a life worth celebrating.
"Larry would say, 'Let's celebrate what we've done,'" Malone said, presumably grinning. "I made a promise to him; I'm going to keep it."