Like Barkley, the Mailman understands that part of his legacy is tied to his never having won a championship. But I didn’t come to Louisiana to talk about that because what is there to say on the subject? Lots of great players didn’t win one, starting, of course, with Malone’s teammate Stockton. George Gervin didn’t. Patrick Ewing didn’t. Dominique Wilkins didn’t. Hell, Elgin Baylor didn’t, and you could begin the discussion of NBA forwards with him. There are a host of reasons it didn’t happen but there are also two simple ones: For much of his career he went up against the Magic Johnson-led Lakers in the West, and when he and Stockton finally made it to the Finals in 1997 and 1998, there were Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Did the Mailman chase a championship when he signed on with the Lakers in 2003? Sure he did. So did lots of other guys, Barkley for one. But what interests me most about Malone was that he didn’t hang around to try to eclipse Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. He needed 1,459 points when he walked away after a disappointing ’03-’04 season during which he tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee.
Malone had slowed down by that time but, given his facility for work and rehab, he could’ve probably gotten back to, say, 80%, and covered the point total in one season. He hadn’t lost his strength game, he had an accurate outside touch and no one had his facility for getting to the line. (The Mailman is the all-time leader both in free throws made and attempted.) I’m not saying that he should’ve hung around; I’m just saying I was surprised he didn’t.
“I’m gonna tell you why, Jack,” Malone said. And he turned serious.
“When I lost my mother nothing mattered for a long period of time,” Malone said. (Shirley Malone, to whom Karl was extremely close, died, at age 64, on Aug. 13, 2003, about six weeks before Malone would join the Lakers.)
“Nope, nothing mattered,” he continued. “Not basketball, not business, not my friends. My world, which was basketball, didn’t matter. Records didn’t matter.”
Malone is tearing up by now. He tells me that he kept a journal during that time. He called it “Through My Eyes.” In the journal he pledged not to retire and come back.
“That is one of the most disrespectful things you can do to the game,” Malone continues. “I think when my mother died it just made me think about certain things more seriously. That was one of them.”
He may also have been drawing a distinction between himself and Magic, who did retire and come back. Twice. Malone was respectful to Magic’ leadership in Barcelona but broke away with his comments about HIV when they got back to the States. I detail it all in Dream Team.
Predictably, Malone’s reflective mood after Shirley’s death wasn’t the only factor in his leaving. The 2003-04 season was a turbulent one in L.A., defined by Kobe Bryant’s occasional absences to deal with his legal issues tied to an assault charge in Colorado. (Bryant missed 17 games.) And it eventually came to light that there were problems between Malone and Bryant involving Kobe’s wife, Vanessa. (She is now his ex-wife.) It is an impossibly complicated story and I have to be honest: I have no idea who to believe. (I direct you to this link. es.pn/Medb9x if you want to read more.) But it was part and parcel to the drama of the season.
“When nobody cared what was written or said, that season with the Lakers was the most fun I ever had playing in the NBA,” said Malone. “It even came close to the Dream Team experience. When we were good, we were great. Watching the way Shaq and Kobe played together was something else. (Note: The Lakers won 10 in a row early and 11 in a row late.]
“And then it was like somebody threw in a little string. ‘Okay, let’s tell something that Shaq said about Kobe.’ ‘Okay, today, let’s go get Kobe. What did he say about Shaq?’ You could always use one against the other. And I always said that when it became a job instead of a passion, it was time to go.”
Malone also brought up another anecdote that factored in his decision to retire. I found it surprising.
“We’re playing San Antonio in the playoffs. [The Lakers eliminated the Spurs in six games in the Western semis.] They’re fouling the hell out of me and I’m talking to the referee, Bernie Fryar, about it. Now, here I am, 40 years old. Done what I did in the league. And you know what he says to me? ‘Just shut up and play.’
“Man, that bothered me a lot. To say that to another person? A veteran? That stuck in my mind. I knew it was time to go, and I loved how I did it. I just retired and went on with life.”
The incident with Fryar says much about Karl, and, to a degree, the mentality of the superstar athlete: He seems so strong, invulnerable even, but slights, real and imagined, sting him.