The glistening black pickup that looks like it just roared off the cover of Truck World magazine rolls down the narrow, two-lane state highway toward Farmersville.
Pine trees lap at the edge of the asphalt.
Speeding over a hill at about 65 mph, the pickup suddenly crashes head-on into a wall of nostril-narrowing stench.
The driver smiles and, without taking his eyes off the road, says, "Chicken farm."
Yes, Karl Malone is home.
He came back for his family's sake.
And his own.
"It's just home, you know?" Malone said. "I think we all kind of knew we were going to end up back here."
In this tiny speck of rolling, absolutely rural northern Louisiana, Malone is a husband and father, brother and businessman, neighbor and friend.
After 25 years in the spotlight - first as a star player at nearby Louisiana Tech and then with the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA - Malone seems content about shifting his life into a lower gear.
"There just comes a time when you say, 'You know what? I don't mind sitting back and not having it all be about me,' " he said. "It's about family and what we want to do as people. That was our conclusion."
Last summer, Malone moved his family from Newport Beach, Calif., where they had lived during his one season with the Lakers, to a gated home a couple of miles outside Ruston, which they rent.
"I used to love the view of the harbor in Newport," said Malone's wife, Kay. "Now, I've got cows."
Not for long.
The Malones just purchased a large wooded lot in a secluded subdivision on the edge of town. Construction on their new home is ready to begin. Once it's completed, Malone does not expect any more moves.
"It was time to try something different," he said. "It felt like the right time to get away from the limelight. . . . We miss our friends in California and in Utah, for sure. But this has been good. It's a decision that has helped me grow."
Karl and Kay Malone live in Ruston with their four children, Kadee (14), Kylee (12), Karl Jr. (10) and Karlee (7). The family also includes a 2-year-old German Shepherd and a Siamese cat.
"She used to have a sister," Kadee Malone said, "but a coyote got her when we were living in California."
So much for urban living.
Life in retirement
A typical day in retirement for Karl Malone?
There really isn't one - except that it starts early.
"Four-thirty, five o'clock," said Malone, who explains that he often wakes up well ahead of his wife and doesn't want to disturb her.
So he quietly slips out of bed and embarks on the next 24-hour journey in his life - one that might include a two-hour bike ride through the Louisiana countryside or a weightlifting session that would make most of today's NBA players cringe.
Malone claims he works out "two or three times a week."
"Seven," counters Kay Malone.
"Contrary to what a lot of my family and friends say, I am slowing down," Malone said. ". . . I'm cutting back as we speak."
Recently, Malone was offered an option to build a fast food restaurant in downtown Farmersville. A few months ago, he would have jumped like Michael Jordan at the opportunity.
But today, he's carefully weighing how much time and energy such a venture would require before committing to it.
"A big fear when I retired was boredom," Malone said. "So I started doing all these different things, just so I wouldn't get bored. But that hasn't been a problem."
Malone's life remains crowded with his work. He is owner of Malone Timber, a huge lumber operation, in addition to smaller endeavors like the just-opened K.J.'s Big Truck Wash and Accessories, located a few miles north of the chicken farm.
Named for Malone's son, Karl Jr., K.J.'s offers local truckers a high-tech wash and blow-dry for $25 to $65, depending on the size of the rig. While waiting, they can look over a complete collection of lug nuts and mud flaps.
"I am living my dream," Malone said. "I'm doing all the things I used to cram into the summer. I control my own time. That's the biggest reward. . . . I have time with the people who matter the most."
Time with the kids
On this sunny-and-mild February day - the kind Utahns can't expect until May - the most important order of business for Malone is daughter Kadee's softball game.
Although she's only an eighth-grader, Kadee is the starting first baseman for the varsity team at Cedar Creek Academy, a traditional Class 1-A power in Louisiana.
Karl Malone spends the morning at his lumber operation before hustling back to Ruston for lunch with his wife and brother.
Dan Malone is the third-oldest of nine children in the family. He is thrilled his little brother has moved back to Louisiana, which is within driving distance of his home in McAllen, Texas.
"Karl loves it here," he said. "Sometimes I think he's happiest when he's out there in the middle of nowhere - on his backhoe, working, all by himself."
During a 90-minute lunch at the Log Cabin Market and Grill, everybody notices Karl Malone. But only one customer seeks an autograph, and he does so by sending over the 30-something waitress who calls everybody, "Hon."
Dan Malone intervenes, politely suggesting that asking for an autograph during lunch is inappropriate.
Everybody seems to understand.
The autograph seeker, after getting his pen and piece of paper back from the waitress, waves his hand apologetically.
Later, Malone said, "One of my goals in life is not to hurt anyone's feelings. But that's a hell of a burden sometimes. It can gnaw at you."
"When I played, I never truly realized how many people were tugging at me," Malone said. "I've learned that since I retired."
After lunch, a quick trip to K.J.'s Big Truck Wash and Accessories means Malone misses the first pitch of the softball game. But well before Kadee's first at-bat - she's the No. 7 hitter in the lineup - he is settled into a lawn chair that Kay Malone has positioned for her husband at the end of the wooden bleachers.
This is a big game, according to one Cedar Creek parent. A rivalry game against nearby Oak Grove. It is Cedar Creek's first true test of the young season.
The game is played at Cedar Creek's immaculately groomed softball field, which is carved out of a southern pine forest and has an Augusta National feel to it.
In the second inning, Kadee Malone lines to short with two out and a runner at third. Karl Malone winces, but applauds the effort.
Two innings later, a close play at third results in a discussion between the two umpires. While they are talking, Malone stands up and nervously walks in a tight circle.
A tobacco-chewing Oak Grove parent notices.
"If Karl Malone steps foot on that field," he says to a friend, "I'll whup him."
In the bottom of the seventh, Oak Grove owns a 2-1 lead. With two out, Kadee Malone drills a line drive to right center that skips all the way to the green fence.
It is an easy triple, but the Cedar Creek coach decides to gamble. He waves Kadee home.
After a perfect relay throw, Kadee Malone is caught in a rundown and tagged out, ending the game.
Waiting for his daughter in the gathering dusk, a glum-looking Malone whispers, "That one right there, that hurt."
An hour later, the pain subsides.
Sitting in his living room in a white T-shirt, blue gym shorts and looking like he could still give Jazz coach Jerry Sloan 30 minutes a night, Malone visits with his wife and is pleased to discover that Kadee has won a speechwriting award.
Holding up a certificate of achievement that his daughter has been presented, Malone said, "This is important. The ballgame, that's superficial. This right here is what daddy likes to see."
Making a difference
Two months after moving his family back to Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.
Malone knew what he had to do.
He ordered heavy equipment and fully-loaded logging trucks from Malone Lumber to the stricken area near Pascagoula, Miss.
At first, FEMA officials on the scene suggested Malone drop off the supplies and leave. When Malone balked, they asked him to help clear debris from a local golf course.
"Unbelievable," he said. "Crazy."
Eventually, Malone and a sizable entourage of employees, friends and new neighbors helped clear debris from 114 lots, paving the way for temporary housing to be built. They also handed out supplies.
"I never knew what a bag of peanuts and a bottle of water - good, cold water - could mean to someone," Malone said.
Katrina devastated the region just 12 months after Malone's mother - Shirley Turner - had died. That's the reason he attacked the situation with the purpose and determination that characterized his NBA career.
"Right before she died," Malone said, "she told me that - someday - I should do something good for people I don't even know."
When Katrina hit, Malone remembered his mother's words.
"It was just one of those things I had to do," he said. "I promised my mom and a year later - bam. A year later - boom. It happened. Now, what are you going to do?
"It was one of those real-life gut-checks. Talk about the game of life. . . . The only thing I thought about was my mom. Because of what she said to me, it was important. It was the right thing to do."
Malone's eyes glisten.
"I feel like I was put here for more than basketball," he said. "None of us know why we're here, exactly. We can only guess. But I feel I'm here to make a difference and basketball was my avenue."
On Thursday, Karl Malone will become the seventh individual in Jazz history to have his jersey retired. A statue of Malone also will be unveiled on the southeast corner of the Delta Center plaza, right next to the one of his longtime teammate, John Stockton. "It's a big honor," Malone said. "It's huge. It's a personal accolade. You don't ask for them to do it. . . . But it's an honor. I'm proud. It seems like the final piece to the puzzle." More than anything, the jersey retirement and statue unveiling is a tribute to Malone's unparalleled drive to succeed. "I wasn't born to play basketball," Malone said. "[But] I never shied away from work. And I was lucky. I was fortunate with injuries and I tried my butt off. . . . That's what it says."
This Week's Events
Wednesday, 8 p.m., KJZZ
"Back Home with Karl Malone" A one-hour TV special Thursday
4:30 p.m.: Malone's statue will be presented by Jazz owner Larry H. Miller and statue creator/designer Brian Challis at the southeast corner of the Delta Center. The Jazz also will acknowledge a local street name change in honor of Malone.
6:30 p.m.: Malone will be the guest on the Jazz pregame show on KJZZ.
During the game: the Jazz will feature video clips from current and former NBA players in addition to showing highlights of Malone's 18 seasons with Utah.
Halftime: The ceremony will air live as Malone's jersey becomes the seventh to hang in the Delta Center rafters.
Postgame: KJZZ will air a 30-minute highlight show of Malone's career, "Karl Malone, Final Delivery"
Tickets: A limited number remain available when purchased in conjunction with a mini-plan. Call 801-355-3865.