Prepared Himself Physically And Mentally
Malone has been compared to a "raging bull" and a "runaway truck." But that unfairly overlooks the physical preparation and mental discipline that Malone brought to each game. For years, he has punished and polished his 6-foot-9, 256-pound frame into a well-sculpted mass of muscle that tapers to a 31-inch waist with less than 5 percent body fat. His deeply private, year-round training sessions include arduous running drills, high-intensity weight lifting, and brutal StairMaster workouts. His off-season regimen also includes bailing hay on his 50-acre ranch in the steamy heat of an Arkansas summer, just down the road from where he grew up as a kid.
Never good enough to get by on talent alone, Malone was considered the "strongest and best-conditioned basketball player on the planet" according to The Sporting News. He missed just one game in the last eight seasons. Until receiving a one-game suspension in April of 1998, Malone had started 543 consecutive games, the longest consecutive starts streak in the NBA. The secret, Malone said, was mental. "If you find something to give you motivation—whether it's negative or positive—ride it. Mine happened to be negative, when people said I wouldn't be a good basketball player," he told Sport.
"My workouts are important to me," Malone told a Sporting News reporter. "I don't do it for fun, and I don't do it for glory. I do it because it's necessary. I feel my strength and endurance give me an advantage, and I want to keep that advantage," he added.
The eighth of eight children to Shirley and J.P. Malone, Karl was raised mostly by his mom. Shirley worked at three jobs, after his dad abandoned the family when Karl was four. He died of bone cancer in 1977. His mother remarried and had another child, his sister Tiffany. Shirley has always been Malone's confidante, his "fishing and hunting buddy," and his moral example. Malone credited his mom with instilling in him "bedrock religion" including the value of hard work and forgiving his father for abandoning him. Karl talks to Shirley before every game. Always and lovingly, he told Playboy, that his mother tells him how many points to get, how many rebounds, how many assists. He'll tell her, "OK, you got 'em!" Then he'd go out and get even more.
One blemish on the Mailman's superstar status and fan appeal was that one flagrant foul—some would say intentionally vicious sledge-hammer elbow—on Isaiah Thomas in December of 1991. The hit caused Isaiah to get 40 stitches near his eye and Malone a $10,000 fine and one-game suspension. Malone claimed it was an accident and did not mean to hurt Thomas. Right after the incident, he and Isaiah talked it out (no apology given, but a denial that it was deliberate).
In April of 1998, Malone was suspended yet again for a flagrant elbow. The injured victim was David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs. He was fined $5,000 and suspended for one game. It ended his starts streak of 543. Malone apologized to Robinson after the game.
Still, the media perpetuated the image of Malone as a villain on the baseline. After a game in which Malone sent Atlanta Hawk Sidney Moncrief sprawling, according to Sports Illustrated, fellow Hawk, Dominique Wilkins stung the Mailman with a rebuke, to this effect: "You're a cheap-shot artist. You're not a man. You always go out there to hurt somebody smaller than you." Not everyone buys the Mailman-as-Villain image. Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson differed in Sports Illustrated, "There's no way I consider him a dirty player. He's physical, throws his body around and does play the enforcer role on that team. But that's not the same thing as being dirty. The main thing a coach asks from his players is to be competitive every minute. And Karl Malone is." According to an informal poll cited by Sports Illustrated, "50% of NBA players consider Malone physical but entirely within the rules, 40% say that he tests the upper limit of physicality too frequently, and 10% believe that he's outright dirty."
Those who believed the worst about Malone usually did not know him away from the game. "People think I'm the meanest guy in the world when I'm on the court, and maybe I am," Malone told Sport magazine. "But off the court I'm a nice guy. When I go home, I'm just Karl, I'm just Daddy," he continued. And not just to his own kids. In the summer of 1995, he befriended 13-year-old cancer victim Danny Ewing. The friendship went both ways, and Karl learned there's more to life than basketball.
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