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Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Updated: May 12, 4:56 PM ET
Karl Malone falls short, as a father

By Jemele Hill
Page 2

This is how Demetrius Bell, drafted a couple of weeks ago by the Buffalo Bills in the seventh round, describes his relationship with his father:

Karl Malone
Karl Malone had an incredible NBA career -- but he hasn't been nearly as exemplary in another role.
"I treat it as if my mother went to the sperm bank. I don't hate him for [not being in my life]. It made me a better person."

But it's pretty hard to reduce your father to a DNA dispenser when everyone else in the world knows him as the NBA's second-leading scorer of all time, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, and arguably the greatest power forward ever.

Yes, Bell's father is Karl Malone. And if you're wondering why you've never heard of Bell or seen these two engaged in any father-son moments, it's because Malone apparently wants nothing to do with him.

Malone has never publicly spoken about Bell. Attempts were made to contact Malone through the NBA office, but he never responded.

It's hard to tell which is more astonishing -- that Malone actually feels this way, or that Bell was able to overcome the heartbreaking reality of being rejected by a parent.

What matters most is that Bell triumphed in spite of how his father behaved. He grew up in Summerfield, La. -- Malone's hometown -- and earned a basketball scholarship to Northwestern State, nearly 2½ hours away from Summerfield. Everyone there describes Bell as a gem. When I called the school to find out more about Bell, the sports information director talked nonstop about how polite, well-liked and determined Bell is.

Malone aside, Bell's story is unbelievable. He thought he was going to be a big-time basketball star like you know who, and didn't start playing football until three years ago. The football staff looked at Bell's size and relative speed, and hatched the idea that Bell would make an outstanding defensive end.

He played that position in 2005, appearing in just one game. The next season he was pressed into duty as an offensive tackle three weeks before the season started. After 22 straight starts, Bell became an All-American, a first-team All-Southland Conference selection, and now a proud NFL player. Plus, Bell is expected to graduate this spring.

"I was crying," Bell said when asked what it was like to be drafted. "I was just so happy."

Bell isn't the only Malone child to fall victim to this rather heinous pick-and-roll. Bell is one of three children Malone has fathered outside of wedlock, although he is the only one who Malone has apparently refused to have a relationship with. Malone's other two children outside his marriage are fraternal twins Daryl and Cheryl Ford. Both of them played basketball at Louisiana Tech, like their father, and Cheryl is a forward for the WNBA's Detroit Shock.

Demetrius Bell
Bell overcame the absence of his father to become an NFL player.
In fact, you may have seen the Louisiana tourism commercial featuring Cheryl Ford and her famous father, who finally appeared in his twin children's lives when they were 17. Bell lost out in the father lottery. According to Bell, Malone told him it was too late for him to be his father, and he'd have to make it on his own.

Nice to meet you too, Dad.

"I grew up around good people," Bell said. "I never turned to a father figure. I was lucky. I didn't need one. I'm happy. I don't need anything else."

If Al Sharpton is itching to picket something, he should organize a protest outside Malone's house, since the National Fatherhood Initiative says two out of three African-American children grow up without their father in the home.

Roger Clemens' alleged seedy indiscretions -- including a possible sexual relationship with a 15-year-old -- are nothing compared to what Malone has done. Malone reportedly impregnated Bell's mother when she was 13 and he was a sophomore at Louisiana Tech. Malone is lucky Chris Hansen wasn't around and he didn't have to answer to the authorities.

It would be one thing if Malone was unable to financially provide for his son, but he made more than $100 million during his NBA career. The Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune reported that when Bell's grandparents initially took Malone to court for paternity in 1986, his second year with the Jazz, they requested Malone pay $200 a week. Malone didn't respond to the suit, but a Louisiana judge ruled he was Bell's father -- after a paternity test showed that was indeed accurate -- and ordered Malone to pay $125 a week, plus past and future medical expenses. Malone claimed that was too much and later reached a confidential out-of-court settlement with Bell's family between 1988 and 1989.

Worse is that Bell has developed a good relationship with Cheryl and Daryl, who also grew up in Summerfield. The three have gone fishing together, and Bell describes them as a tight-knit group. Though one can't help but wonder, if Cheryl hadn't starred at her father's alma mater and gone on to play professionally, would Malone have felt so inclined to reappear in her life? If the media hadn't done so many stories about how Cheryl was following in her dad's footsteps, would we ever have seen Malone in the stands when his daughter won a WNBA championship in 2003?

"I just can't fathom how someone can't acknowledge their own child," said ESPN NBA analyst Jalen Rose, who had a nearly nonexistent relationship with his father, Jimmy Walker, a basketball legend at Providence and the No. 1 pick in the 1967 NBA draft.

Rose spoke to his father for the first time nine years ago, but he was fortunate in the sense that when his father played, the NBA wasn't as popular as it is now, and Walker didn't have the same distinguished career as Malone.

The first time Rose and Walker "met" was at Walker's funeral last year.

"I know about kerosene heaters, sugar milk and syrup sandwiches," Rose said. "Those are the days when it was bitter and personal. But I went to college, became an All-American and had a NBA career. I had to realize that was God's plan for me. I was healthy and happy, and it wasn't like I was living under some freeway."

Cheryl Ford and Karl Malone
Malone has, after many years, acknowledged and embraced his daughter Cheryl.
But Rose admitted that when he was growing up, his father's abandonment drove him to be both a great player and a good student. He wanted to show his father what a huge mistake he'd made by not being a part of his life. It's the reason Rose chose No. 42 when he was at Southwestern High School in Detroit. He knew his father wore 24.

"I wanted sorely to let him know my name and rub it in his face and let him know what he was missing," Rose said.

Bell says he has nothing to prove to Malone, although no one could blame him if he secretly wanted to show up his old man. I asked Bell what he would do if his father called him up one day, ready to be what he's never been.

"It's something I haven't thought about and I'm not really ready to talk about it," Bell said. "I just don't know right now."

Absentee father certainly isn't the image most have of Malone -- especially in Summerfield and Salt Lake City, where he's revered. In fact, in 2003 Utah governor Mike Leavitt presented Malone and his wife, Kay, with a special declaration to "commend and thank Kay and Karl Malone for their incredible service, friendship, and generosity to the state of Utah." In the press release, Malone's frequent visits to sick children were praised, as well as his Karl Malone Foundation for Kids, which aids children and families in need. It makes his apparent reluctance to be a father to Bell that much more astounding, especially when you consider that Malone also grew up fatherless. Malone's father committed suicide when he was 3.

A decade ago, Malone and his wife -- with whom he has fathered four children -- spoke at a conference on families and talked openly about the children Malone has fathered outside of their marriage.

Of course, the Malones were talking about Daryl and Cheryl, not Demetrius.

Malone told the audience: "Everything I've been through, everything I'm about to go through in my career and my life, if my family wasn't with me and didn't support me, it would be really tough."

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.