A Hall of Famer, ring or no ring

Updated: February 11, 2005, 10:26 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Delivery of a certified retirement confirmation came late. Way late. Weeks later than the teams awaiting this notification probably deserved.

Nevertheless ...

In the end, Karl Malone proved to be the reliable Mailman of yesteryear.

He eventually got it here, and he got it right.

Karl Malone
APDespite a frustrating experience with the Lakers, Karl Malone has been slow to rewrite the last chapter of his career.

It might have taken more than half a season for him to consent to a retirement news conference, but it finally registered with Mailman this week. He ultimately realized that a comeback with the San Antonio Spurs just didn't make sense for him, no matter how much it might have helped the Spurs or other interested suitors like Miami, Minnesota and Detroit.

Think about it.

As part of a title team in San Antonio, given Malone's famed ability to inflame passions, chances are he wouldn't have been widely embraced as a cuddly, fortysomething, future Hall of Famer filling the only void on his resume. It's far more likely he'd have been branded as an opportunistic rider of sleeveless shirttails who had to ship himself from Salt Lake City to Hollywood to the Alamo because he couldn't bear leaving the game without a ring.

And if he joined the Spurs, and then they failed to win it all this June, guess who would have taken the bulk of the blame?

And …

Either way, with or without a ring, Malone wasn't going to score 1,459 points this season, even if he played for the entire season. Which means he'd have to come back in 2005-06 for a shot at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring record, no matter how '04-05 turned out.

NBA All-Time Scorers
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 38,387
Karl Malone 36,928
Michael Jordan 32,292
Wilt Chamberlain 31,419

So what did he really have to gain, then?

Exactly.

The only mystery, which might be cleared up Sunday when he steps to the podium at the Delta Center, is why he didn't make the announcement last month instead of stringing this out so long. The original plan, remember, was for Malone to spend the holidays with his family and then make a decision in early January, as agent Dwight Manley laid out to ESPN.com back in November.

When we didn't hear anything all month, even the hopeful Spurs started exploring other options to strengthen their frontcourt rotation, sensing that Mailman wasn't coming.

San Antonio realized it, too: The Mailman didn't need a new route.

That's because Malone's legacy is secure, no matter how many Mail-haters try to denigrate his place in history. All he did is revolutionize his position, run the most celebrated pick-and-roll ever seen with John Stockton and help turn a small-market franchise in a city mocked by countless contemporaries into a powerhouse.

Malone: Durable Deliveryman
Minutes 54,852 2nd all-time
Games 1,476 4th
Rebounds 14,968 6th

He couldn't make free throws and jumpers when he got to the NBA, but he worked until he nailed both disciplines. His body-fat percentage actually got lower as he got older, because no athlete in the world had a harder workout regimen. He also never missed games until his final season with the Lakers, when knee troubles cost him half the regular season and, sadly, the last game he was ever a part of: Game 5 of last June's NBA Finals at Detroit.

But let's be clear here. After 18 seasons of service with the Jazz, you couldn't protest when he defected to the Lakers ... via a pay cut of nearly $18 million, don't forget. It wasn't even his idea exclusively; Malone defected in tandem with Gary Payton. Those two joining Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant for a season gave us one of the most colorful collections of talent in NBA annals, gripping us all with their spectacular successes and implosions.

I really didn't want to see Malone in black and silver, chasing the championship … but purple and gold?

Stamp him as a great Laker. Maybe last's season best Laker.

So now it'll be easier to remember him that way.

Or, somewhat ironically for such a noted deliverer, as the receiving half of Stockton-to-Malone.

Friday's retirement bulletin was undeniably overdue, but now? We're OK with the delay.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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