Consistency, toughness and durability. These are three words that describe the Hall of Fame career of Karl Malone. The 6’9, ” 250-pound power forward averaged at least 20 points and seven rebounds for 17 consecutive seasons, was named First Team All-NBA for 11 straight, and missed a total of 10 games in his first 18 seasons.
Malone began his basketball journey in the unincorporated community of Summerfield, Louisiana (population: 200), where he led Summerfield High to three Louisiana Class C state titles from 1979-81. The small town prospect went on to Louisiana Tech University, where he averaged 18.7 points and 9.3 rebounds in three seasons. Malone led the mid-major Bulldogs to their first two NCAA Tournament appearances, including a Sweet 16 in 1985.
The Utah Jazz liked what they saw in Malone, taking him with the 13th overall pick of the 1985 NBA Draft. The young forward had a solid first season, averaging 14.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists while making the All-Rookie Team.
The hard-working Malone improved rapidly, raising his per game averages to 21.7 points and 10.4 rebounds in 1986-87 and 27.7 points and 12.0 rebounds in 87-88. Malone was chosen as an All-Star for the first time in 87-88, and was named Second Team All-NBA. The Jazz also advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals, with Malone averaging 29.7 points and 11.8 rebounds in 11 playoff games.
By his fourth year, Malone had become one of the NBA’s elite players. He was named First Team All-NBA for the first time after averaging 29.1 points and 10.7 rebounds, and won All-Star Game MVP after scoring 28 points and grabbing eight rebounds in the midseason classic.
Malone also raised his free-throw percentage to 76.6, a massive improvement from 48.1 percent his rookie year. This was especially important since he was getting to the free-throw line 11.5 times per game, tops in the NBA. Malone’s talent for getting to the line was combined with a strong mid-range game, which made him a tough cover in the half court. He was also a force on the fast break, where his relentless energy created plenty of easy opportunities in the open court.
Malone’s emergence was not only attributed to his unwavering work ethic, but also to the presence of All-Star point guard John Stockton. The duo shared the same energy and physicality on both offense and defense. In particular, they ran the pick and roll to perfection, frustrating opponents for the better part of two decades.
Malone set career highs in 1989-90 by averaging 31.0 points and shooting 56.2 percent from the field. The next year he averaged 29.0 points and 11.8 rebounds while shooting 52.7 percent from the field and 77 percent from the line. The Jazz continued to win with Malone and Stockton leading the way, but in six years they had yet to get past the second round of the playoffs.
In 1991-92, the dynamic duo advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time. The Jazz lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in six games, but Malone had an outstanding postseason, averaging 29.1 points and 11.3 rebounds while shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 80.5 percent from the line in 16 games.
The 1992-93 season brought a unique honor for Malone and Stockton, as the two became the first teammates to share All-Star Game MVP. Malone had 28 points and 10 rebounds while Stockton had nine points and 15 assists as the Western Conference won 135-132 at Salt Lake City’s Delta Center, the home arena of the Jazz.
After a first round playoff exit in 92-93, Utah was back in the Western Conference Finals in 1993-94. The Jazz lost to the NBA champion Houston Rockets in five games, but Malone had a solid postseason, averaging 27.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 16 games.
Another first round exit in 1994-95 was followed by Utah’s third trip to the Western Conference Finals in 95-96. The Jazz lost a tough 7-game series to the Seattle SuperSonics, but Malone was excellent once again, averaging 26.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 18 postseason games.
The next season would bring several firsts for Malone and the Jazz. Malone won his first NBA MVP after averaging 27.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists, and the Jazz advanced to their first NBA Finals in franchise history.
Unfortunately Utah would have to face Michael Jordan and the defending champion Chicago Bulls. The Jazz played a competitive series against the 69-win Bulls, but Chicago prevailed in six games. Malone was his usual productive self in the postseason, averaging 26.0 points and 11.4 rebounds in 20 games.
After a second straight regular season with 60+ wins, Utah was back in the NBA Finals in 1997-98. The Jazz once again faced the Bulls, and the result was the same, with Utah losing in six games. Malone was excellent in the series, averaging 25.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting 50.4 percent from the field and 78.9 percent from the line against a stingy Bulls defense.
The Jazz would get no farther than the Western Semifinals in Malone’s final five years in Utah, but the individual honors kept coming. In 1998-99, he won his second NBA MVP after averaging 23.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists, and was named First Team All-NBA for the 11th straight season.
Malone continued to be one of the NBA’s most productive players into his late 30s. He remained among the league leaders in scoring and rebounding, and was setting career highs in other categories, including assists (4.7 in 2002-03) and steals (1.9 in 2001-02).
After 18 seasons in Utah, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer left for one last chance at a championship. Malone joined Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Gary Payton in Los Angeles to play for the Lakers.
After missing only 10 games in his first 18 years, Malone missed 40 games in an injury-plagued 2003-04, averaging 13.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists for his new team. The Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals, but lost to the Detroit Pistons in five games, leaving Malone without an NBA title. It was the only thing missing from his Hall of Fame resume.
Malone finished his career as the second-leading scorer in NBA history with 36,928 points. He ranks first in free-throws made (9,787), second in field goals (13,528) and seventh in rebounds (14,968).
In addition to his NBA accomplishments, Malone won two Olympic gold medals for USA basketball, including one as a member of the original “Dream Team” in 1992. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2010, the ultimate honor for a small town kid from Summerfield, Louisiana.