Today is a Utah State holiday, Pioneer Day, also called the 24th of July holiday. We celebrate it on Monday this year because the religious people didn't wish to celebrate it on Sunday. And most workers in the state get a Monday off. Part of the celebration is a huge parade, which lasts for three hours, going through downtown to Liberty Park. Tonight there will be fireworks.
The holiday commemorates the 164th anniversary of the Mormon arrival in Salt Lake Valley.
The story goes that Brigham Young, who was ill, looked out at the valley from the top of Emigration Canyon on July 24, 1847, and said, "This is the place, drive on."
One hundred thirty-eight years later a different pioneer arrived. Karl "the Mailman" Malone had been drafted by the struggling Utah Jazz NBA franchise. Karl, a young man at the time, had made his reputation at Louisiana Tech. Karl was a country boy, a huntin', fishin', motorcycle-ridin' kinda guy who, despite being African-American, listened to country music. He was the youngest of several children; his father walked out when he was little and he was raised by his mother, Shirley. The famous story is that Karl's mom would hold her arms in the shape of a hoop while he practiced with a basketball. Karl was an unashamed mama's boy, who never made any bones about his love for his mother.
Karl got to Utah just in time for the 1985 Pioneer Days celebration, and the big parade. They sat Karl in a convertible emblazoned with a Utah Jazz banner and drove him through the wildly cheering throngs, eager to see the new rookie. Karl, in his naïvete, admitted years later he thought the parade was for him. It was Karl's 22nd birthday, born on July 24, 1963. I can imagine his wonder at all those thousands of cheering white people.
Karl went on to a stellar NBA career, where he achieved fame, both good and bad. There are several YouTube videos and sports blog postings about Karl and his swinging elbows, his "dirty play." We didn't think that in Utah, of course, because we didn't think of it as dirty, just brilliant basketball play. A guy can't be dirty if he's on your team, can he? The 6'8", 265-pound Karl would get a rebound, plant his feet under the basket, hold the ball tight to his chest, and do a 180-degree pivot, with his elbows chest high. Any slow moving opponent who didn't get out of the way would soon find Karl's elbow knocking him into next week. An infamous incident was Karl coming down from a rebound, his elbow hitting David Robinson on the head, sending him to the floor unconscious. Robinson was out for two minutes. I used to refer to Malone as Karl "Elbows of Death" Malone.
Karl was a legend when it came to strength and his obsessive workout routine of six hours or so a day. Had he shown any weakness under that basket he would have been killed. As it was he got mugged a lot. As another story goes, Coach Jerry Sloan was screaming at an official that they were hurting Malone under the basket, trying to take him out of the game. The official reportedly replied, "No one can hurt Malone." That was part of his iron man image.
You can read about some of the havoc Malone wreaked on other players here.
I thought drafting Malone was the second smartest thing the Utah Jazz ever did. The first smartest was the year before when they drafted John Stockton, one of the greatest point guards to play the game. The dumbest thing the team did was go cheap and not give these star players the real quality players they needed to take them over the top to a championship.Things seemed to click for a couple of years when they added shooting guard Jeff Hornacek to the line-up. They had their championship runs in '97 and '98, but as the self-pitying wail goes in Utah, they lost because they went up against The Greatest Player That Ever Lived, Michael Jordan. I capitalized it because that's how sports geeks say it. Jordan never lost a championship series.
Malone got business opportunities from the late Jazz owner, Larry Miller, who owned a couple of dozen car dealerships. He set Karl up with a Toyota dealership, and then there is a Stockton-to-Malone Honda dealership. Karl has owned several businesses, and has some in Louisiana, where he now lives. He says he comes to Utah once or twice a month on business, but he keeps a low profile (or as low a profile as a 6'8" black local sports hero can have in Utah).
Late in Karl's career in Utah we found out he had illegitimate children from two different women. One girl was 13-years-old when 20-year-old Karl got her pregnant. His son by her is Demetrius Bell, who went into pro football.
The other was the mother of twins, one of whom, Cheryl Ford, went on to her own basketball career in the WNBA. She got a league championship ring. Malone settled with Bell's mother, without really admitting he was the father. He admitted paternity of Cheryl and her brother Daryl.
Perhaps earlier in his career it might have been enough to sink him in the court of public opinion. But by the time the news came out to his fans Karl was bulletproof. His detractors just added it to the things about him they hated, but his fans forgave him. That's the way sports fans are.
The Utah Jazz are in disarray right now, the NBA is in lockout, and we don't know when our team will again take the court. But we will always have those memories of the Mailman delivering his thunder dunks and cold-cocking players who got in the way of his Elbows of Death.