- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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Forests of paper, miles of videotape and months of audio recording have been devoted to singing Karl Malone's praises. Oh, he took a few hits for not closing the deal on a title in Utah, especially with Michael Jordan literally plucking the ball, and thereby the trophy, from his grasp in '98. Some opposing players also have suggested he plays dirty, a justifiable allegation with all the knees and elbows he's laid on them over the years.
Other than that, though, it's been one long, 19-season lovefest.
And still it's not enough.
Proving that the Lakers are like "Law & Order" -- the names change, the drama remains -- Malone has replaced Shaquille O'Neal in the role of the Big Sensitive. Kobe Bryant is once more the protagonist, this time for suggesting Malone's indecision about whether to play -- and where -- is unfair to the Lakers players he might displace. Bryant also said his "intuition" tells him Malone isn't coming back after undergoing knee surgery last summer.
Karl somehow took all that to mean Kobe didn't want him back. How, I'm not sure, but his response, via his agent, Dwight Manley, was: That's it, I really wanted to come back and play for the Lakers but now I can't because Kobe doesn't want me.
Now, I've known Karl for a while. We've had our share of private one-on-one conversations over the years. He's even taken me for a spin in a monster truck outside of Vegas and grinned like a madman after gunning it up a dirt ramp and catching air. I didn't scream, nor did I lose control of any bodily functions, but he got me and he knew it. I respect that he's made the absolute most out of his God-given talents, that he has a variety of interests outside of basketball.
But none of that leaves me any less perplexed at his need -- no, make that demand -- to be appreciated to the fullest.
This is certainly nothing new. Malone has routinely taken great offense to slights, real and imagined. Remember when he made it known that his hotel or transportation at the '97 All-Star Game were beneath him? Remember how he lost his taste for All-Star Games altogether when Kobe then waved off his pick?
Malone and Jazz owner Larry Miller routinely jousted, the dispute always being that Miller was taking Malone for granted. It was either an insulting contract offer or ignoring his trade demands or disrespecting him with a skit last January in the Delta Center that insinuated Malone missed being in Utah.
I chalked all that up to being in a small market and the lid coach Jerry Sloan keeps on individualism of any kind. Malone's transformation when he reached L.A. seemed to confirm that notion. He not only took an $18 million pay cut to join the Lakers, he accepted $1.5 million while Gary Payton took the bigger available free-agent slice of $4.9 million. His thin-skinned reaction to questions deemed critical disappeared. He subjugated his game without complaint, so much so that Kobe felt compelled to remind him he was the league's second all-time leading scorer. He openly talked about his and the team's struggles. He talked about how incredibly blessed he felt simply to be playing. He sounded sincere -- and secure.
He doesn't sound like that anymore. He sounds like someone who feels he's being overlooked again, which is extraordinary -- and a little sad -- coming from an 11-time All-NBA selection, two-time league MVP, 14-time All Star and member of the league's 50 Greatest Ever Team.
Truth is, Kobe's comments were exactly right. Malone is being unfair to the other Lakers by not making his intentions known. They are a young team coming together. It would help them to know if a player of Malone's caliber will be joining them. In fact, it's easy to hear Malone in his team-leader days saying the same about someone holding the Jazz hostage.
Besides, what's left to ponder? Manley says his client has recovered 100 percent from surgery and is ready to go. Who puts himself through the kind of rehab required to play again, at 41, and then opts to retire anyway?
Every indication from Malone, meanwhile, is that he doesn't want to move his family or play for another team. If he wanted the best shot at a championship, he would've signed up with San Antonio months ago. If he wanted to be a big fish in a smaller pond, he would've gone to Minnesota. If he wanted to play last year's role, he could've gone to Miami.
So why not simply end all the goofy intrigue? (And if it weren't still a mystery to everyone, including the Lakers, Kobe never would've felt compelled to say what he did.)
This comes off as another ruse to squeeze every last bit of courtship and love from all concerned. Malone even reopened the door that Manley slammed shut, essentially saying he wouldn't use such "strong words" about not returning. Which means for the right amount of additional love he'll go ahead and do what he planned all along.
No matter what Malone does, his official accomplishments as a player won't be diminished. His place among the 50 Greatest is secure. He'll have a plaque in the Hall of Fame. But in the unwritten annals, in the minds of those who keep their own scorecards on what players were, this latest little outburst assures that his thumbnail sketch will include: Great Player. Manly Man. Drama Queen.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 29. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.
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