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NBA FINALS: PERSPECTIVES

Feeling Right at Home

It has been a season of unexpected adversity for Karl Malone, but with the quick acceptance by O'Neal and other Lakers, it didn't take him long to start ...

June 06, 2004|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

Karl Malone knew his new life in Los Angeles would be fine back in October, when all of the Laker thugs said hello.

"Big Fella ... Rick Fox, Derek Fisher," Malone said, smiling, "all the guys that I thought were jerks on the court, they all went out of their way to say, 'Thanks for coming.' "

A few days later in Hawaii, Kobe Bryant walked up to him.

"He smiled," Malone recalled, "and said, 'Glad to have you here.' "

Going on eight months later, Malone sat on an aluminum bench in El Segundo, marveling still at how quickly they took him in. After years of hard fouls and hard feelings, given and taken, Malone became one of them in the time it took to find the pair of socks he'd wear ... all season.

He and Shaquille O'Neal had once passed each other in the same gym every day for a week without so much as a nod, and they were about to become Olympic teammates. He hadn't spoken to Bryant outside of a few All-Star games. The rest of the guys were numbers on purple jerseys, obstacles on the way to a title that never came.

The way Malone had always seen it, he had friends. They were in Utah. Or near his ranch in Arkansas. He'd even cooled on the Jazz players who'd come and gone, for fear that someday he would have to stick a forearm in their backs and mean it.

He had played 18 years that way, holding teammates dear and narrowing his eyes at strangers.

In the season before the 1996 Olympic team gathered in Chicago for its training camp, Malone's daughter, Kylee, had spent much of the spring watching "Kazaam," the movie in which O'Neal starred as a 3,000-year-old genie. She was in preschool, and she loved it. Content, Karl sat beside her. Reluctantly, he rewound the tape again and again.

"We watched that dang movie so many times, I mean, I got tired of watching it," he said.

When the Lakers came to Utah, Kylee was courtside, and she saw him.

"Dad! Dad! Dad!" she shouted. "Kazaam!"

He recalled sending her to the hallway outside the Laker locker room with instructions to stand with the other fans who routinely clog the area. "Don't tell him who you are," he told her.

So, she stood, waiting for Kazaam. When he appeared, a security guard whispered, "This is Karl's daughter."

He looked down. Karl Malone? All eyes and hopefulness, Kylee peered up at him. He stared at her.

"I never did really like Karl," O'Neal said. "I thought he was a dirty player.... I just didn't like him. When you hate somebody, you hate him."

But, he said, "I can't be a jerk to nobody's kids. So, I signed the autograph."

Malone was finishing up in the Jazz locker room when Kylee came bounding through. "He was soooo nice!" she shouted, waving the piece of paper with Kazaam's name on it.

A few months later, after avoiding each other's eyes for long enough in the weight room at Moody Bible College, Malone finally said, "You know what, I want to thank you for signing an autograph for my daughter."

O'Neal nodded, and they began to talk. By late last season, their relationship had grown enough to change the course of Malone's life. At halfcourt in a game at Utah on Feb. 19, Malone recalled that O'Neal pulled him close.

"You're not going to retire, are you?" O'Neal said.

"Aw, I don't know," Malone said.

"Why don't you come play with me for a couple years?"

"We'll see."

Now Malone calls O'Neal "one of the guys I really like," and O'Neal calls Kylee Malone "My Favorite."

And so Karl Malone went about toiling for the Lakers, softened by O'Neal, burdened by a generation in the league without a title, advancing on the all-time scoring record.

"It took me a month to realize I was a Laker," he said.

Three weeks later, he tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. When he could not play on Dec. 23, it was only the 12th time in his career he'd sat out a game. It was followed by the 13th. And the 14th. By the time he returned on March 12 in Minnesota, Karl Malone, an ironman of the NBA, had missed 39 games because of the injury.

In nearly three months off the court, he sometimes visited his ranch in Arkansas, or stayed at his home in Newport Beach, or simply stayed in the locker room, taking treatment for pain that wouldn't go away.

For the first time in his career, he said, "I was feeling like I wasn't part of the team."

When he went out in public, when he went to games, fans, reporters, teammates all wanted to know the same thing. And he'd tell them all.

"I'm coming back when I'm able to come back," he said. "The worst thing about it, my teammates didn't know how bad I was hurt. That's what hurt the most, that my teammates thought I was dogging it a little. Well, I say 'they thought.' I don't read their minds. But, I didn't have any answers for them.

"I had thought more than anything that I was letting down my teammates. I'd always thought I was indestructible. Out of all this body, one little ligament. This big."

He held his thumb and forefinger inches apart. That close.

He'd spent most of a career that close.

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