If the word "respect" doesn't fly through your frontal lobe within seconds of hearing Karl Malone's name, then you're probably not suited to drive home tonight, much less work heavy machinery.
There is a fair amount, with Malone, to get down on. To not respect. The nutty trade demand, pitched right before what may have been Utah's best chance for a championship in 1999. The one-year swing with the Lakers in 2003-04 (though, hell, wouldn't you have wanted to play with Shaq and Kobe?). The uneducated flap with Magic Johnson in 1992. The ... well, that's about it.
Because when some green rookie enters the NBA -- be he blue chip or second round, four-year or one and done -- Malone is the gold standard that we'll hold him up to. He's the best-case scenario. We don't expect these players to mature and work and develop and sustain like Karl Malone, but we do know that if this particular player took the Malone route while mapping out his NBA career, then he'll squeeze each and every ounce out of the potential that he was born with.
Because Karl Malone is the player that all NBA players should strive to be.
Point guard or power forwards. Rural, urban, fast, slow, "I'm the NRA" or, "seriously, man, the NRA?" Every one of them. Nobody worked harder at his game and his development than Karl Malone. Nobody. Just a half decade into his career he was without weakness, after entering the NBA with dozens, and a period of sustained brilliance was the result.
Nineteen years in the NBA, 25 points and 10 rebounds as the average. That's ... I'm sorry, but that's astonishing. Those are numbers that make you think twice (three times, four times; every damn day) when you decide to pass on handing Malone a starting slot on your all-time team. Nineteen years, and he could have played a few more. Nineteen years, and his per-minute efficiency even in the lone gimpy year of his career at age 40 was better than 40 percent of today's starting power forwards.
Nineteen years, and he never let up. He wasn't a product of the system, he was the system. He set the screens, he made the moves, and he finished from everywhere. He also finished 1,459 points shy of breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring record, and though the idea behind someone like Malone (just one of the greats, your instinct tells you) topping what might have been the best player at the most important position this game has, Malone would have been a rightful and deserved owner of that record had he hung around.
The issue, for better or worse, is that Karl didn't hang around. He gave his great 19, suffered through the lone injury-plagued season of his career in 2003-04, and went out. "Like Kung-Fu," he once told us, though the reference really never caught on.
And since then, what? There was a roast. We heard he attempted to move his massive construction fleet down to New Orleans to work on Karl's dime to aid in Hurricane Katrina relief. He hasn't tried to coach, he hasn't tried to talk, he hasn't tried to come back. Out, like Kung-Fu.
(I'm sorry, Karl, but it just doesn't scan well.)
There was nothing mesmerizing about this man's game. There was nothing that intrigued, nothing to get wistful over, and nothing to breathlessly tell your grandchildren about. Save for all those points, all those rebounds, all those wins, and all that work. Because while Malone didn't have the prettiest sky hook, a jumper that brought rain from 25 feet, or gravity-defying exploits to spare, his work won games. Game after game, year after year, teammates be damned, he allowed his team the best chance he possibly could to win, as a result of his incessant, unrelenting, hard work.
And you could toss that in the face of whatever current NBA player you choose, but be sure to toss it in the face of the players that came before Karl, and the ones that he played alongside. Because nobody worked like Karl, in any generation. To hold him as the gold standard is cruelly unfair, because we're all holding pieces of silver in comparison. Even you, MJ. Even you, Kobe. Even you, Kareem. Magic and Larry? Go shoot another commercial.
Karl Malone never won a ring, because this is a team game and there's only so much you can do. He never won the hearts of the masses in a way that compared to the rivals he was consistently outclassing, because there was little that was charming about the way he went about his business. And because he hasn't made himself a part of our lives since his retirement six years ago, his impact will be felt less and less, as the years move along.
Which we cannot allow. Simply, utterly, cannot stand for it.
Because this is who we're supposed to look up to. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? He's the guy running (actually running) a high-intensity aerobics class just one week after losing in the NBA Finals, playing in 102 of the possible 102 games along the way. He's the guy with the goofball southern accent and the curious way with words, the leather and the F-150 and Neal McCoy cassettes, who also just took a team that had no business going as far as it did, to wherever it went.
Karl Malone is the best-case scenario. Your greatest hopes for whatever player you want to pick. If they Karl Malone'd it, they'll be the best they can be.
It's hard to think of a legacy that demands as much respect as that.