The NBA celebrates NBA 75 roster players almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is Karl Malone, who skipped his senior year at Louisiana Tech and came in 13th in the 1985 draft. This story appeared in the February 13, 1989 issue of The Sporting News, the week before for Malone to win his first Most Valuable Player of the NBA All-Star Game award.

SALT LAKE CITY – The jukebox is blaring. Karl Malone is hunting for his stash of homemade jerky and talking non-stop with ball boys, his teammates, Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller, general manager Dave Checketts and anyone else who wants to talk or listen.

This post-game activity is nothing new to Malone, who has been on the job for seven hours. As part of his pregame ritual, his love affair with basketball, he shows up at the Salt Palace for a home game at 4:30 pm, three hours before kickoff.

Tonight has been a success for Malone. The Jazz have won and, as usual, have scored over 30 points and had double-digit rebounding total. But as he savors the victory and his performance and breathes in the atmosphere he loves, he celebrates past triumphs.

And why not?

Many, including Malone, have called him the best power forward in the world. He has proven his worth on the court. He has backed up brash statements with an astonishing result. So if someone else starts something and he finishes it, he realizes he has the right to gloat.

The parable that Malone tells on this occasion features Ralph Sampson. The scene occurred on December 10, 1987, when Sampson, then with Houston, and Malone were being interviewed live on television before a Rockets-Jazz game in Houston.

“We were side by side on the court before the game,” Malone said, “and they were doing a story about how the United States and Russia had agreed not to make some kind of nuclear bomb or something. That was the most important thing and then All of a sudden they said they were going to interview us and they said, “Malone doesn’t bully Sampson.” I didn’t know what they were talking about. The guy started interviewing him and said, “Malone is between 6 and 9 years old. How can I be intimidated by him? “And I said,” Akeem (Olajuwon) intimidates everyone in the league, and he’s six feet tall. Ralph Sampson is 7-4 and he’s not as intimidating as Akeem. “

“Well he was standing there, and he didn’t try to tone down what he was saying. He didn’t say, ‘Well, I respect Karl.’ If he had, he would have said the same thing. But if a boy was going to show me And talking trash, I’ll do my best to make it look bad. So I said, ‘When the horn honks, may the best man win.’ “

So what happened?

“I had about 25 points (actually 21) and he didn’t score,” Malone recalled.

Then what happened?

“And then they changed it,” Malone said, grinning mischievously.

That happened two days later, in fact, and for Sampson and perhaps a few others in the National Basketball Association, it was a lesson learned. In three and a half years with the Utah Jazz, Malone has taught many lessons. For some, it has been professionally painful. For others, the pain has been all physical.

When Malone left Louisiana Tech after his junior year, some scouts were concerned his game had peaked. There was no room for improvement. Some said he was not smart enough or dedicated enough to become great.

They have all been wrong.

Its improvement has been obvious. He increased his scoring average from 14.9 points per game as a rookie to 21.7 the following year and 27.7 last season. Halfway through this season, he was averaging 30.3 points per game, which placed him second in the league.

His field goal percentage has improved from 49.5 percent as a rookie to 51.2 percent in his second season, 52 percent last season and 52.2 percent this season.

And his free throws, once the weakest part of his game, have improved from 48.1 percent as a rookie to 59.8 percent next season, 70 percent last season and 77.6 percent. cent this season.

His rebounding has also improved from 8.9 per game as a rookie to 10.4 next season to 12 last season at 11.7-oops, it’s a little lower this season. But, as he said, “the season is not over yet.”

MORE: Classic photos of Karl “The Mailman” Malone

It is clear that Malone did not peak at Louisiana Tech.

But the mark of a great player is how well his team does, and in each of Malone’s seasons, Utah has won more games than the season before.

The year before his arrival, the Jazz won 41. In his rookie year, he won 42, then 44. Last season, Utah won 47 games. Halfway through this season, Utah was 25-16, projecting a 50-win season.

And every year, the Jazz have done better in the playoffs. In Malone’s rookie season, the Jazz lost a best-of-five first-round series in four games. The following year, they lost in the first round in five games. Last year, they lost to the Lakers in a tough seven-game series in the Western Conference semifinals.

Utah has a nice core, including All-Star point guard John Stockton and standout backup Thurl Bailey. But it’s obvious that Malone is Utah’s greatest force, the man who makes the Jazz a legitimate threat to the Lakers’ Western Conference supremacy.

During the last low season. Malone again put an end to the notion advanced by scouts when he was in college that he wasn’t dedicated. Since the end of his rookie season, Malone has been an avid weightlifter. During the summer, he also runs and runs. With every inch of muscle he gains, there seems to be a corresponding improvement in his game. And with each game of experience, he seems to get more disciplined.

“His physical abilities are incredible,” said Jazz president Frank Layden. “For his size, he has great hands and is so fast and agile. The difference between his current game and his rookie season is temperament. As a rookie, he was like a runaway colt, hard to control. Now he plays on purpose.”

He also plays with a sense of security. During the last offseason, the guy who had to stay out of his freshman season at Louisiana Tech because his GPA was below 2.0 negotiated an $ 18 million, 10-year contract for himself. Because he did it himself, he didn’t have to pay the standard 4 percent commission to an agent, saving him $ 720,000.

Malone structured the contract to get him all the cash this season. Over the next nine years, 30 percent of your money will be deferred. You will receive that money from the age of 35. “And then when I’m 45, my NBA pension will take effect,” he said, smiling smartly.

It is obvious that in a very short time Malone has refuted the theories that led him to be available when Utah exercised his 13th pick in the 1985 draft. Executives of 11 of the 12 teams who passed him by get slightly ill with each new. Malone achievement. Probably only one player should have been chosen before him: Pat Ewing. And that’s just because the Knicks’ Ewing is a six-foot center.

Golden State coach Don Nelson said Malone is “the most dominant power forward in the game today.”

And Milwaukee coach Del Harris said, “Karl Malone is the definition of what a power forward is supposed to be.”

Obviously, it is satisfying for Malone to be considered the best. But you are no longer motivated to prove people wrong.

“The guys who passed me by were saying, ‘It’s as good as it’s going to get,'” Malone said. “So the first few years, I went out to prove them wrong. Now, I’m just going to play. It’s hurting them more than me.

“This is the first year that I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I made the All-Star team last year. I have a new contract, so I don’t have those extra pressures. I can go out and have fun.”

Not that Malone ever minded proving himself.

“I’ve dealt with that since I’ve been playing sports,” he said. “At the high school in Summerfield, Louisiana, they said, ‘You are a lot of farm boys and you will never win the state championship at this school. Go to another and play soccer and basketball. ‘ We only had baseball and basketball, and I only played basketball. We won the state (title) in my last three years in school.

“I went to Louisiana Tech and they all said, ‘You should go to the University of Arkansas so people know who you are and you can get the publicity.’ But I wanted to be close to my mother, so I went to Tech. My last year there, we were fifth in the nation and almost beat Oklahoma.

“So I was selected by the Jazz, and people said, ‘It’s good that they recruited you, but no one knows the Utah Jazz more than they knew the New Orleans Jazz. You will never win anything. ‘ So I wanted to prove them wrong. That’s what motivates me. If you tell me I can’t parachute, I’ll make you a liar because I’m going to do it. I could die, but I’m going to make a liar of you. “

Malone has yet to lead the Jazz to the NBA championship, but despite playing in one of the most anonymous cities in the NBA, fans across the country voted him for the All-Star team twice. That indicates a great popularity and appreciation for the Mailman.

“The pub I’ve been hosting is amazing,” Malone said. “All the time. Everywhere. Everybody said they would never recognize me in Utah. But I think if you behave the right way and do the right things, you will get there.”

And if you do things the way Malone does, with style and strength, you’ll get noticed too: ask some of the players, “wrong guys,” said Utah center Mark Eaton, who have tried to stop Malone from taking over. Besides being the strongest forward in the NBA, Malone can also be the fastest, he can be penalized for a foul, but the other players never forget, nor do they want to relive the experience.

“Everybody does it once,” Malone said, “because they want to know how it feels. But they only do it once.”

And those players who want to challenge Malone publicly usually do so only once. Ask Sampson.

Malone has accomplished so much in such a short time that the only question he faces is: What’s next?

He has proven the scouts wrong. He has been an All-Star. You have financial security. He even made a 3-point shot on January 12, the first of his career.

“I’ll never forget that,” Malone said. “Maybe he should be in the three-point contest.”

Malone, however, is not worried about being satisfied. Your experience will not allow it. Malone is the eighth of nine children. Shirley Turner, his mother, remarried after Karl’s father died when Karl was four years old. Shirley worked for 20 years operating heavy equipment in a plant and also had a part-time job at night.

The Malones were so poor that Shirley used to circle her arms so Karl could practice shooting. But Malone is driven by the future as much as he is by the past.

“What encourages me is that I know that there is someone out there who is waiting to take my place in the limelight,” Malone said. “A young man who is waiting and saying, ‘If you slip a little, I’m going to be there.’

“And I’m curious myself how good I can be. They say you don’t peak until your fifth or sixth year in the league. I keep my perspective and stay straight on and off the court, me. ” I’m just curious … “