Karl Malone doesn’t want to talk to me.
And he only wants to talk to you about the good times, not about the bad, not about the issue that has rightfully grown in public attention but that he has never fully addressed.
In 1983, a 20-year-old Malone impregnated a 13-year-old girl, Gloria Bell.
This was first reported 25 years ago, though it has often been conveniently overlooked — like during the NBA’s All-Star Weekend. The former Jazz star was invited in by the league to participate and be celebrated as a slam-dunk contest judge, to be trotted around as a legend not long after the league named him one of its 75 greatest players of all time.
That’s why he showed up for a scheduled media availability at a downtown hotel on Friday. After conducting a couple of interviews with reporters stationed at varying tables, Malone informed a media rep that he would only talk with Salt Lake Tribune reporters, and others at the same station, if the columnist waiting with them exited the area. He wanted me gone.
What did I do? Malone and I had our ups and downs during his elongated stretch here, years ago, but I figured all that was good now. He once invited me to his house for a pool party and to his ranch down in Louisiana or Arkansas, wherever it is, two very nice invitations I declined. He made appearances on my radio show on multiple occasions. That’s the last time, in fact, I talked with him.
On Friday, suddenly, decades later, he was having none of it.
What had torqued the Mailman?
Ultimately that doesn’t matter. For him, it was just another attempt at side-stepping accountability, holding onto anger, dodging anticipated tough questions.
Malone, then, will be judging dunks on Saturday night. He and the NBA want to distract you from those tough questions and tougher answers. Let the spectacle and status quo wash over you. Remove you, too, from the discourse.
Bell told The Tribune in 1998 that her family never considered pursuing criminal charges against Malone because he was a “neighborhood kid” and could not provide support for the child from jail. But a 20-year-old man impregnating a 13-year-old is statutory rape. Being an NBA legend doesn’t wash that away.
As mentioned, this has been widely known for a long time, but times have changed. With greater awareness, resolute attitudes, demands for accountability, the lens on such matters has sharpened. When The Tribune first reported Malone’s indiscretions — including a paternity fight regarding twins Malone had fathered with a 17-year-old when he was 17 — in 1998, some readers were deeply troubled. Many Jazz fans, though, and some members of the media went right on cheering for and/or reporting on Malone, same as it ever was, concentrating more on what the Jazz star, the NBA All-Star, did on the court, not what he’d done in his younger years off it.
Malone initially denied paternity and later agreed to a settlement that reportedly did not require him to admit he was the child’s father. He stuck his head in the sand when he should have risen up to handle his responsibilities. Eventually, begrudgingly, some reconciliation came and Malone acknowledged the child, Demetress Bell, and Malone now has a relationship with the 38-year-old Bell, a retired NFL lineman.
But the popularity of the documentary “The Last Dance” then brought Malone — and his misdeeds — back into the public consciousness.
Type his name into Google or Twitter and see the flood of responses.
“I know people talk negative about me,” Malone said on Friday. But when a reporter, The Tribune’s Eric Walden, asked him about the backlash coming his way now because of his mistakes, he said he did not want to talk about his personal life. He had no further comment.
He should have many comments.
Apologists say that’s ancient history. Critics say it must be remembered — confronted, condemned and used as a tool to educate one and all.
“He made a mistake, but at the end of the day, he’s still a great dad,” Malone’s son, K.J. Malone, said in a video he posted on social media in 2020. “He still takes care of Demetress.”
But Malone himself hasn’t said anything of substance. He continues to seek your respect and adoration, but until he acknowledges his misdeeds, explains his subsequent actions, can you believe he is changed? What are we to make of him?
To me, Malone has always been an enigma, made all the more surprising because he can seem such a straightforward, countrified man. But the conflicts within, contradictions that remain still, blow at you with the subtlety of an airhorn in a shower stall.
Representative of his moderate personal discrepancies is this: Malone has been a hulking piece of humanity that few NBA players, no matter their dimensions, wanted to mess with. He elbowed David Robinson in the forehead, dropped him like a rock, and nobody messed with him. He almost split Isaiah Thomas’ face in half during a game once. On the flip side, he was and is about as sensitive an individual as there is, quick to get his feelings hurt, slow to forgive those who he perceived or he perceives as having hurt him.
When Malone wrestled Dennis Rodman, alongside Diamond Dallas Page and Hulk Hogan, in that infamous, ridiculous joke of an exhibition 25 years ago in San Diego, Karl, a lifelong wrestling fan, played to the hordes, climbing up on the ropes, raising his fists over his head, trying to get the crowd whipped into a friendly frenzy. Instead, the crowd turned on him, starting to chant, “Utah sucks … Utah sucks … Utah sucks.” The expression that came over Malone’s face in that moment revealed the wounded, insecure little boy that resided inside the mountain of a man.
I’m not Sigmund Freud. I don’t know why his feelings get roughed up.
I stood nearby on Friday before I knew I was banned, listening to his words. The mind, the Malone mind, was peppered now with his own version of perspective and perspicacity and paranoia, the turn of the years having brought, he said, new understanding. But like the physical form, the spry attitude was intact. He was half-defiant, and no more … what’s the word? … conformed.
He had his fun with questions lobbed his way, sometimes reading into them dimension that was completely unintended. Again, classic Malone. Maybe you recall when during his retirement announcement Karl informed everyone on hand not to mess with his family, because he, like the Wolverine, would attack back, as though anyone needed such a warning.
He repeated something similar during Friday’s interviews. He talked about the fantastic athletes playing the game now, but he has a problem with players taking days off, not relishing the job the way he did. He said his mindset when he played was to “answer the bell every night.” He expressed appreciation for what his mother taught him when he was a kid, underscoring the lesson of “hard work.” He said he misses the camaraderie around the game, but he’s channeling and gaining the thrill of competition conjured in basketball now by way of his business pursuits. He said he lives in the moment, not harboring regrets about his missing out on a championship. He talked about family. He got emotional talking about the late Larry Miller and the late Jerry Sloan, two people who greatly influenced him during his playing years, crediting them for helping him become the player he was and the person he is. He said, “You know when you’re [being] disrespected. I have feelings.” He said, “Words do two things — they uplift or they tear down.” He said he wanted more than anything respect. “If you respect me, I respect you.”
And therein is the problem. How much should we respect Karl Anthony Malone?
Should we remember him as a great player, as a gifted scorer, as a rugged rebounder, as a relentless and determined force on the floor, as a proud veteran who labeled younger pros “knuckleheads,” as a free-wheeling and sometimes careless individual, as an insecure man who holds grudges? Should we seek two pounds of pain and punishment for his improper behaviors of the past, requiring a deep explanation, further commentary, because, as a role model, he affects the behaviors of others, especially as he’s continued to be honored by the NBA?
You want to love him or loathe him, or harbor parts of both?
Nobody’s perfect, he’s done positive, notable, charitable things, but his flaws, whenever they emerged, are easy to consider severe.
His statue on the southeast plaza of the arena in which the All-Star game will be played might properly memorialize him as a player, but what about as a man? The mountain of a man? The measure of a man? Only Malone can specifically address that. And he should, clearly and candidly, to Jazz fans who have stood and cheered for him, some waiting for answers, many more now seeking explanations, wanting him never again to duck out down a back alley, remaining the contradiction, the enigma he’s been.