The myth of invincibility

Originally Published: January 21, 2004
By Bill Walton | Special to ESPN.com

It is with extreme sadness that we witness history as the great and tough Karl Malone endures his first-ever stint on the injured list. While dreams die hard, it is hope that dies last. And now all we can do is hope that for Malone this is a temporary purgatory, particularly since we have heard for so many years now that getting and staying on the court is really about manhood, toughness, true-grit, determination, preparation, mind over matter, playing hurt and sucking it up.

Maybe it's time to revisit the elements of real health: lifestyle, nutrition and luck. As the game's iron men have run out to impressive feats over seemingly endless careers, we have all come to look at Malone, John Stockton, A.C. Green, Ron Boone, Randy Smith and so many others like them with pride, admiration and a lot of jealousy. And how many times have we heard about these guys simply wanting it more than the other guy? Or that these players were just somehow greater men able to withstand so much more pain than anyone else and how they were simply superior men in so many ways.

It is without question that Malone has worked harder than most, on and off the court, to help ensure his longevity. His year-round training regimen is inspirational and really should be emulated by all. I have no doubt whatsoever that Malone's daily routines and diet are fine and that he has always done everything he possibly could to get out there for work. But now his luck has run out and he can't play anymore. Has he somehow lost his toughness, his manhood, his ability to conquer all things? Has he all of a sudden become a slacker, a malingerer? Is Karl Malone now someone who is not willing to put the time in to guarantee his place in the lineup? Well, he's not playing now, so it must be something.

Athletes rely on their bodies holding up. They train themselves to do anything and everything, regularly crossing the lines of what is actually good for them. Along the way, you develop a sense that nothing will deter you from your goals. And you do everything to keep that going -- forever. But now someone has fallen on Malone's leg and for the first time, that veil of invincibility has been pulled back on one of the greatest and most durable athletes our world has ever known.

Karl Malone
Getty ImagesA knee injury landed Karl Malone on the injured list for the first time in his career.
How this all plays out in the future for Malone will not solely be about hard work and how bad he wants to return. First is the diagnosis: Can the doctors figure out what is really wrong? Then, comes the need to take the proper rest, allowing the body time to heal. Next is the therapy where you try not to mistake activity for achievement. And then you start to improve and the temptation and self-imposed pressure to get back out there begins to build. And then you realize that the guys you're playing against are not hurt and have no physical limitations -- they can run and jump all day -- and, ultimately, you resignedly come to distinguish between playing in pain and being hurt.

Karl Malone has finally joined the real world -- a world that is filled with doubt, uncertainty and loneliness. The painful isolation of no longer being on the team is often overwhelming. The helplessness and the loss of control is devastating. You spend all your time waiting for other people and Father Time to tell you how things will work out.

Malone is not the first to go down this road. How many of the greatest players of their days have had their dreams turn into nightmares? Mitch Kupchak. Doug Collins. David Thompson. Andrew Toney. Bernard King. Grant Hill. And this list just barely scratches the surface. Sadly, every one of them has had to endure the nonsense that they were all somehow lesser men because their luck ultimately ran out.

Karl Malone has spent his career inflicting pain on others while standing alone on top of the mountain for nearly 20 years. But things have changed. I sure would like to be there the next time Karl is with one of those fallen champions when somebody floats the bright idea that his unprecedented legacy of consistency was established because he just wanted it more than anybody else.

Bill Walton, who is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, is an NBA analyst for ESPN. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

ESPN.com NBA Insider and Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton will again serve as a game analyst for ESPN's NBA telecasts. He joined ESPN and ABC Sports' in their inaugural season of NBA coverage in 2002.

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