As Karl Malone made the rounds Friday afternoon at the National Basketball Retired Players Association’s “Legends Lounge” for NBA All-Star Weekend, he spoke repeatedly of becoming increasingly contemplative.
On the 30th anniversary of the 1993 All-Star Game in Salt Lake City, he was keenly aware of important people from his past no longer around — longtime Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, team owner Larry H. Miller, former teammate Mark Eaton.
And now, months away from a milestone birthday, he was eager to spend some time publicly discussing and analyzing his own life.
Well, parts of it anyway.
“It’s just reflection,” Malone told The Salt Lake Tribune. “… I’ll be 60 in July. More time in the rearview mirror than in front windshield.”
In the months leading up to Sunday’s All-Star Game, there had been increasingly speculation about what role, if any, “The Mailman” would play in the return of the league’s marquee midseason event to Salt Lake City for the first time in three decades. While he remains one of the NBA’s all-time leading scorers, and arguably the most accomplished player in franchise history, more recent examinations of his moral failings and personal character have increasingly shifted the conversation on his legacy.
The NBA’s official announcement on social media that Malone would be one of the five judges for Saturday night’s Dunk Contest was littered with responses expressing dismay that the league would embrace a statutory rapist and noted absentee father.
As a 17-year-old, he fathered twins Cheryl and Daryl Ford, and was held in contempt of court for failure to pay child support, before reaching an out-of-court settlement. As a 20-year-old student at Louisiana Tech, Malone impregnated a then-13-year-old Gloria Bell, and subsequently fought a paternity claim. He did not publicly acknowledge their son, Demetress, until he was 17 years old.
None of this is new information, but in this era of confronting sexual harassment, and racial and social justice, and gender identity equity, and police brutality, it is now getting significantly more attention and reaction.
“As players, we hear what’s written about us or said about us,” Malone acknowledged.
So then, what does he think of the more negative perception of him now?
“I’m not discussing any of that backlash. I don’t care,” he said defiantly. “That’s my life, that’s my personal life, and I’ll deal with that like I’ve had to deal with everything. So, whatever.”
He’s aware of the shifting narrative, but has no thoughts about it?
“Whatever. I’m human.”
He then followed with a bit of protracted silence, making the point that he was done talking about his reputation.
He had no shortage of things to say otherwise.
While noting that he still spends a fair amount of time in Utah, given that he owns businesses here and has a part-time home in Heber, when he was queried about what his connection with the organization is like at present, he conceded that he feels a a bit estranged from the franchise.
Nevertheless, he expressed hope of finding a way to get more involved.
“We’ll see where it goes from here. I miss the Jazz. I don’t need a job — I [just] miss the Jazz,” Malone said. “Where I grew up, where I’m from, respect is huge to me. You give respect, but sometimes you feel slighted. We’ll just see. I’ve talked to Ryan [Smith] — we have a good relationship just talking, but I don’t know him that well. We’ll just see. But I miss the Jazz.”
He still follows the team, though.
He noted that 35-year-old rookie head coach Will Hardy seems to have earned his players’ respect. From watching their interactions in huddles on TV broadcasts, he gets vibes similar to how he and his former Jazz teammates reacted to the likes of Sloan, Frank Layden, Scott Layden, Phil Johnson, Gordie Chiesa, Kenny Natt, et cetera.
Despite this being an obvious transitional season, including a recent deal that sent away starting point guard Mike Conley and three other rotation players, the power forward known for going 100% all the time likes what he’s seeing from this roster effort-wise.
“[It’s about] how hard they play. And they act like they like each other and want to be with each other. I’m excited to see ‘em. I’ve never ever stopped watching the Jazz — I’ve always followed the Jazz and will continue to follow the Jazz,” Malone said. “I’m excited to see where they go from here. Trades happen, but when you have the guys in the room, that’s who you have to go to battle with. I’m excited to see what they do with all these picks. When you look at the Jazz, it’s like how Danny [Ainge] built the Celtics. So it’ll be interesting to see how it shapes up.”
Meanwhile, social media reactions and organizational distancing notwithstanding, the Hall of Famer insists that his interconnection with Utahns in general and Jazz fans specifically remains immaculate, in his view.
He loathes hearing criticisms of the state — whether it be that it’s not sufficiently cosmopolitan to attract modern NBA players, or that it has a problem with racism, given criticisms from both outsiders such as Vernon Maxwell (ironically, now close friends with Malone) or from those like Donovan Mitchell, who spent five years playing here.
“The people of Utah have been amazing to me. It does hurt when negative things are said about Utah, because I know what kind of place it is. It’s special to me,” Malone said. “We all can do better, but this is a special place to me. The people here have supported us and everything we’ve done here in this community.”
He made it clear he’s not dismissing Mitchell’s concerns, or those from other people of color in Utah, pointing out that, “I just know my experience.” And he did agree with a zero-tolerance policy on racial slurs or acts at the arena, calling for a lifetime ban for anyone caught.
Still, he added, that hasn’t been anything he’s personally dealt with, and perhaps believes it’s even a bit overblown — if Utah is so bad, why is it so popular right now?
“I’ve been in Utah, and I’ve never heard a racial slur or anything like that. When I played in the arena, I wouldn’t have allowed it,” Malone said. “… That’s what I stand on. But Utah is my home, and I love Utah — I don’t care what you’re thinking in your mind about [racism here]. I never heard it. I’ll defend Utah to the death. I believe all of us can do better, but all these people who talk about Utah — isn’t it amazing that all these celebrities are moving here? It’s a great place.”
While Malone has become a more divisive figure in recent years, he maintains voluminous support in Utah. When he and John Stockton (another franchise icon, who himself has earned criticism in recent years for being a proponent of far-right views and espousing disproven conspiracy theories) were introduced at All-Star Saturday Night events at Vivint Arena, they received a thunderous ovation.
They were applauded yet again during Sunday’s All-Star Game, and Malone got yet another ovation when sharing the stage during halftime with the two players who’ve scored more career points than him, LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Malone has noted that he continues to feel the love in Utah, and he’ll continue to give it back.
“It’s been a hell of a ride. It doesn’t even seem real to me,” he said. “… I guess Utah needed me as much as I needed them.”
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