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Its Malones choice: Utah or É

Karl Malone laughs when it is suggested that, a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday, he ought to be taking it easy for a while.

'Just got back from a 31-mile bike ride in the mountains,' the Mailman says from his Salt Lake City home. 'About 80 percent of it was up hills. Why don't I take some time off? Because everybody else is taking some time off.'

That work ethic has carried the Hall of Fame-bound power forward of the Utah Jazz to one of the great careers in NBA history.

Malone took about three weeks off after Utah was eliminated by Sacramento in the first round of the playoffs. He went to his ranch in Arkansas, did some logging and 'mellowed out' a little.

Then it was back to work. In the short term, he is preparing for his role with the United States national team, which will attempt to qualify for the 2004 Olympic Games in the Tournament of the Americas in Puerto Rico in August.

Malone is by far the oldest member of the U.S. team, but he might be the most fit of the players who arrive at training camp in July.

'I will be playing with some twentysomething-year-old kids, but I'm not going there to be the elder spokesman and not play,' he says. 'I'm expecting to play. I don't want to wait to get in shape during training camp. I want to go in there in regular-season shape.'

An instant 'yes'

Malone didn't hesitate to accept a spot on the U.S. team for several reasons. One, he is a patriot who finds it impossible to turn down a chance to represent his country. Two, he was ashamed of the way the United States played in the World Championships last summer.

'That was embarrassing,' he says. 'We have an opportunity to redo this thing a little bit. I'm looking forward to getting us back to where we are supposed to be.'

On July 1, Malone will begin to focus on his NBA future. For the first time in his 18-year career, he is a free agent, able to deal with any team. Utah will be able to pay him more than anyone else, and owner Larry Miller says he wants Malone to end his career in a Jazz uniform.

But Malone is chagrined that the Jazz haven't already ensured his future in Utah with a contract extension. He says agent Dwight Manley will listen to what Miller and General Manager KevinO'Connor have to say when the time comes, but he isn't committing to a return just yet.

'I would rather not say right now,' Malone says. 'We will see what happens. A lot of people want me to say I will stay. They (the Jazz) have first dibs, but they have had first dibs since last July.

'If you can believe it, I still feel like I have something to prove. That is part of the reason why I have already started training.'

Malone concedes that he was thrown by John Stockton's decision to retire. The Mailman figured his longtime running mate would wait to see what he did before making a decision.

'It hurt when Stock retired,' Malone says. 'I didn't really think he would. That kind of wigged me out for a week. My wife (Kay) had to bring me back to reality with: 'Enough about Stockton. You need to get yourself together and decide what we are going to do.' '

Will speak at tribute

Malone will speak at a special tribute to Stockton on Saturday night at the Delta Center. He had intended to watch his daughter, Cheryl Ford, play a WNBA game for the Detroit Shock on her birthday that night.

'She understands the significance of the event,' Malone says. 'I will see her play other games this summer. Stock is family, too.'

Soon thereafter, Malone will have to decide if he also has played his final game for the Jazz. If he signs elsewhere, the L.A. Lakers probably are the first option. San Antonio if the Spurs lose to New Jersey in the NBA Finals and Dallas are also on the short list. The Jazz can be expected to make a two-year offer of around $15 million, and the Spurs might be able to provide a similar deal. The Lakers and Dallas probably would be able to give only the midlevel exception of about $4.6 million annually.

At this point in Malone's career, it's not about money, though. It's about the opportunity to win a first championship ring.

'This is kind of an exciting time,' he says. 'It is like being recruited in college again. I'm going to see how aggressively teams come after me.'

Health permitting, Malone will break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record sometime during the 2004-05 season. Odds are increasing that he will be wearing a uniform other than that of the Jazz when he has his date with history.

Notes: Just about every member of the Blazer front office, including outgoing General Manager Bob Whitsitt, director of player personnel Mark Warkentien, coach Maurice Cheeks and his staff and the team's scouting crew, is in Chicago this week for the pre-draft camp. Herb Brown is one of 12 NBA assistants working as head coaches during scrimmages involving 66 draft-eligible players. Most of the expected first-round picks skip the event. Oregon's Luke Ridnour was in town for a physical only. É Portland has the 23rd and 54th selections in the June 26 draft. 'Our second draft pick is almost surely here,' veteran assistant Jimmy Lynam says. 'The first pick, probably not. But there are usually about 10 or 12 players here who catch your eye. In the three or four days you're here, you try to get a feel for them.' É Representatives of all 29 NBA clubs are at the camp. 'Some teams have one guy here, others as many as 10,' Brown says. The buzz during the week has been about all the head-coaching openings (and positions filled). 'A lot of the conversation has been about that subject, for sure,' Lynam says.

Word in Detroit is that Rick Carlisle was fired as coach, despite his 100 regular-season victories in two years, because of his behavior. The Detroit Free Press wrote that he 'shoved a senior Pistons executive as he tried to high-five players, yelled at secretaries, snapped at the medical staff, ripped on assorted personnel É in front of other people. É Some players never cared for him, since he could stand in an elevator with them and not even strike up a conversation.' Carlisle, intense and driven, was never like that during his three years as a Blazer assistant under P.J. Carlesimo. Carlisle believes that it is part of a smear campaign by Pistons President Tom Wilson in response to public sentiment that Carlisle didn't deserve the firing.

Last Friday, the Detroit News had a Q and A interview with Pistons GM Joe Dumars. It began: 'There has been a lot of speculation regarding Rick Carlisle. How do you assess his growth this season?' Dumars: 'What we tend to forget is, it is Rick's second year as coach. It's not like he is a 15-year veteran who has seen it all. I commend him on stepping in and making adjustments and doing whatever it takes. Rick got us into the playoffs and was willing to do whatever it takes to get a win. That's all you want from your coach do what it takes to get the win, and we'll worry about feelings tomorrow. Rick did a great job of that.' Q: 'You expect him to be back, right?' Dumars: 'I would hope so. The guy has won 50 games two years in a row and we have advanced a little farther this year. I don't have any problems with that.' Q: 'There has been a lot of conjecture. Do you fully support your coach?' Dumars: 'You say a lot of conjecture, but none of it has come from me. That has no bearing on what is going to happen to Rick Carlisle. As far as hanging a guy out to dry, we are not even into our third season yet. I support my coach.' Q: 'You don't see any reason why he wouldn't come back?' Dumars: 'None whatsoever. It's amazing. Somebody said there was a rumor on the Internet. Come on, man, that cheapens what (the media) is doing. I don't even want to respond to that.' Three days later came the announcement of Carlisle's dismissal.

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