Karl Malone is weighing retirement from pro basketball after this season, and right now the scale is tilted that way.
The prospects of pursuing or defending a championship, the possibility of becoming the league's all-time leading scorer and another season of making a seven-figure salary aren't enough to counterbalance the emotions and shifting priorities caused by the death of his mother last summer.
Yes, the games give Malone, 40, a break from the grief. But there are still those lonely moments on the freeway to and from Staples Center when he has only his thoughts.
"I ain't going to lie, I have days that I tear up a lot," Malone said. "I don't feel like I've been shortchanged, but I feel like [there are] certain things I can control now and ... I'm not going to let days slip by [with] me wanting to do something that I'm not doing because of chasing the record or chasing something else."
There have been times during this turbulent season -- when he occupied a spot on the injured list for the first time in his career -- that he thought about walking away on the spot, without playing another game.
He didn't want to let down his teammates though. And his wife, Kay, wouldn't allow it.
So he returned March 12, having sat out 39 games, and gave the Lakers some much-needed defense and another scoring threat. His performances, though, are less joyous than dutiful.
"Since I lost my mom, it takes effort to work," Malone said. "My wife really helped me out, just a couple of days ago. She said, 'You know what, Karl Malone? I don't want to hear about it. Just go out and do what you do.'
"I work so hard, because my mind [isn't] here all the time. I can't explain it to people unless you were as close as I was to my mom. It'll never be the same."
Even his time in the weight room, the refuge where he built that famous physique of which he is so proud, isn't enjoyable anymore.
"It's a chore mentally," Malone said.
He'd rather be with his wife and four young children, who range in age from 5 to 12. They'd prefer if he pursued his basketball goals, which is why they signed off on his move from the Utah Jazz to the Lakers in the first place.
"My wife keeps reminding me that all of them made a sacrifice to be here, and you're not a quitter," Malone said. "So I'll suck it up. But at the end of the season, all of us will sit down with collective heads and say, OK, what do you want to do? But I just haven't recovered from my mom. Sometimes it's best to move on and do other things. We'll see at the end of the season."
Shirley Jackson Malone was 64 when she died of a heart attack in August while at Malone's ranch in Arkansas. Karl was in New York with the U.S. team, preparing for an Olympic qualifying tournament. He left for the funeral and didn't return to the team, then launched into a month's worth of workouts-as-therapy and was ready for the Lakers' first day of training camp.
At times, such as when Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant lobbed verbal grenades at each other before the season started, the perspective Malone gained from his mother's loss allowed him to put the daily dramas of Lakerland in their proper place. It also made him wonder whether his time wouldn't be better spent elsewhere.
A championship ring probably would make his decision much easier. It was the only thing missing from his 18-year stay in Utah, the reason he joined the star-studded Lakers. But if the Lakers fall short, the jewelry alone might not be enough to bring him back.
Nor would the prospect of surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record of 38,387 points. The record is tantalizingly close, physically embodied by Abdul-Jabbar himself, who has sat along the baseline at Laker home games recently for his new job as New York Knick scout. Malone is at 36,798, with 1,589 points to tie. Because he sat out so much time this season it would take him 116 games at his current scoring average of 13.7 points -- 11.4 below his career average -- to get the record, which would take him past next season and into 2005-06.
"Maybe sometimes I don't know if things are meant to be broken," Malone said. "I'm not going to stay around for that.
"I've just got a different thing. I'm thinking, before I lost my mom, if I did break the record, she was going to be here. If we won a championship, she was going to be here. My first game as a Laker, she was going to be here. All of that turned upside down. And a lot of other things don't matter like they used to matter."
He'd rather chase his kids around the house or watch them on baseball and softball diamonds. He wants to spend time with older daughter Cheryl Ford, the WNBA player with whom he has recently forged a closer relationship, after having been absent for most of her 22 years.
That's not to say that he doesn't enjoy his time with the Lakers. He said that, despite all the turmoil, he would sign to come here again, even knowing everything he knows now.