Karl Malone entered the last few seasons disgruntled Ñ upset that Utah hadn't extended his contract, disappointed that the Jazz hadn't added more talent around him and John Stockton, and ticked off that he couldn't have spent a little more summer time branding cattle on his Arkansas ranch.
That won't be the case this season. Malone seems more at peace than since he hit middle age for a ballplayer a decade ago.
Though he returned to the Jazz in what he calls 'the best shape of my life,' Malone acknowledge that he occasionally feels his age (39). Though he enters the final season of his contract with the Jazz, there will be no controversy about it, he says.
Though he is chasing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record (at 34,707 points, he probably is 2 1/2 seasons away from Jabbar's 38,387), the Mailman hints that he might even consider canceling delivery service after this season.
'Who is to say at the end of this year I want to be staring one or two more years in the face?' Malone said while in Portland last week. 'Maybe I have had enough. I'm not ruling anything out. On one hand, you want to play. You still have goals. But financially I'm fine, and my outside businesses are giving money in return.'
Malone, who is making $19.25 million this season, says he won't negotiate with the Jazz until after the season. He would have preferred to extend his contract during the summer but isn't worried about it.
'After July 1, you are sitting there waiting for the phone to ring,' he says. 'But it's something you can't control. Three or four years ago, I'd have been really disappointed. But the Jazz have given me security through the years. The one year I don't have, it won't destroy me. It might even make me buckle down a little more. Really and truly, it's been good for me, a blessing in disguise. I've put it in my mind not to let it be a distraction this year.'
Malone says it's hard to envision himself finishing his career in anything but a Jazz uniform, 'but it's not my option,' he says. For 17 seasons, he and Stockton have been linked like salt and pepper. Stockton, 40, is on a one-year deal, 'but don't assume I'm retiring' after this year, the veteran point guard told The Tribune. 'If I feel good, I very well might play again next season.'
But Malone has never played for an NBA champion. What if the Los Angeles Lakers were to offer a deal, albeit for a pittance of his current salary and a crack at a ring?
'You don't want to get caught up looking at other teams, thinking, 'I wish,' ' Malone says. 'I know if the powers-that-be in Utah have their rathers, Stock and I will finish together.'
The all-time scoring record would be nice, 'but it's not my driving force,' he says. 'The main thing I want to do is play healthy basketball, not have nagging injuries like I had all last season. I want to do things on my own terms this season. I want to have fun. The other day, my brother told me, 'All the stuff you have done over your career, you haven't enjoyed yourself.' As much as Karl Malone can, I want to enjoy myself.'
One day recently, as he drove his four youngest children to school, Malone sought opinions. 'I said, 'What 'ya all think about daddy retiring after this season?' The feedback ranged anywhere from 'you should retire so you can take us to school all the time,' or 'you should keep playing because we know you love to play.' '
He also asked his wife, Kay, 'but she wants me to make that decision,' he says. 'She doesn't want me to look back some day and say, 'I wish I'd have played another year.' '
Malone already has changed his thinking about family.
'I'm kind of moody during the season,' he says. 'I sleep a lot. On weekends, I am too tired to play with the kids a lot of the time. I'm trying to get away from that, trying to spend more time with them. Maybe I'll be ready to give it up. By the time this season is over with, I'll know.'
When he walks away from the game, Malone knows what his focus will be Ñ his logging company in Arkansas.
'We buy timberland, select cut and enhance the wildlife,' he says. 'If I had to get up every morning and do a job, that is what I would like to do.'
Malone says he cut down on his 'adventure' time last summer to spend more time with his family.
'I did get to drive a monster truck for the first time, in the Delta Center,' he says. 'Did a jump with Gravedigger. It was a rush.'
He spent the month before training camp at an Arkansas ranch, where he did speed work on his mountain bike for the first time in addition to his usual workout regimen. 'But I tried to do more fun stuff,' he says.
By next July, when he turns 40, Malone might have walked away from the game and moved on to the next phase of his life. But don't bet on it. The game still means too much to him, and the career scoring record is out there for him to reach. The rest of his life is still at least a couple of years away.
FIRST LOOK: If you saw Mike Dunleavy on Monday night in the Rose Garden, you saw what Golden State has seen in the preseason from the No. 3 pick in the June draft Ñ excellent all-around play (14 points, eight rebounds, seven steals, five assists in 43 minutes) and lousy shooting. The 6-9 rookie was shooting only .295 through four games and was pressing against Portland, forcing up a few shots.
That's not a worry for another rookie, coach Eric Musselman, who thinks that his prodigy will go through growing pains but is destined for greatness.
'In two or three years, I think Mike will be absolutely phenomenal,' says Musselman, son of the late Bill Musselman, the ex-Blazer assistant. 'He can get shots, and that's a gift. He is real intelligent and composed. He is a great runner for his size, and he has shot really well in practice. He needs to get stronger, and he is feeling his way through the whole thing, but I'm pleased.' The Warriors see him as a small forward who can play some power forward and a little shooting guard, Musselman says.
In the first Blazer-Warrior exhibition, Ruben Patterson and Bonzi Wells picked on Dunleavy's defense. On Monday, Wells and Derek Anderson tried to take Dunleavy to the well five times, but the one-time Jesuit High standout did a much better job getting his body in front.
'There is a sense out there that teams are going to try to go at me and post me up, but I haven't felt it has been a problem yet,' says Dunleavy, who weighs 225, a little more than he did last season at Duke. 'I'm not as concerned about that as I thought I would be. I think I have handled it pretty well. We'll see as the year goes on.'
NOTES: Brent Barry has reached veteran status at age 30, but the Seattle guard isn't taking anything for granted. 'What I did last year was take advantage of the opportunity to finally get a chance to play,' says the former Oregon State star, who averaged career highs in scoring (14.4), rebounds (5.4) and assists (5.3) last season. 'I'm not the player who is going to take over a game offensively or overpower an opponent. I just need to take advantage of the opportunities. If I do that again this year, I'll be happy.' Assistant coach Bob Weiss says Barry has nothing to worry about: 'He will always help us with his outside shooting and his knowledge of the game. He is among the upper echelon of guys in the league as far as understanding the game.'
There are no significant rule changes this season, but the implementation of instant replay Ñ to help determine if fouls or baskets are made before the buzzer at the end of quarters Ñ will be a positive thing. ... Frederick Jones Ñ they are calling him Fred now Ñ scored only one basket for Indiana last Saturday, but it was a driving layup with three seconds left to give the Pacers an 86-84 win over Atlanta. 'I didn't feel any pressure in that situation,' the ex-Duck told the Indianapolis Star. 'If you hit the shot you win, and if you don't you go to overtime. It makes me feel good the coach (Isiah Thomas) has confidence in me. It took me back to my college days. I always had the opportunity to take those shots in college.' Says Thomas: 'I have been really impressed with him. He is as smart a player as we have offensively and defensively. He has good poise and is a tough competitor. He is going to be a good player in this league for a long time.'
Cleveland free agent Ike Nwankwo was born to Nigerian parents in Lansing, Mich. The 6-10 player has played for teams all over the world, but in no more interesting place than Turkey. His first game there, the home team escorted a goat to center court. 'I thought it was the mascot,' Nwankwo says. 'They cut his throat. ... I freaked out. The coach told the players to put some of the blood on their head for good luck. I wouldn't do it, and everybody looked at me like I was crazy.'