During his career, Karl Malone was a model of consistency, always capable of delivering a big performance when needed. That reputation earned him the nickname “The Mailman,” touting his impressive regular season resume and reliability on the court.
Best known for his 18-year run with the Utah Jazz, Malone's presence helped make the Jazz a perennial playoff contender. His on-court presence - much like birth, death and taxes - was guaranteed as he played in fewer than 80 games just once during that time. The only disclaimer was a lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.
Aside from that, Malone was a fearsome scorer, physical rebounder, and an intimidating presence. With the Jazz, Malone compiled 14 All-Star game appearances, two Most Valuable Player awards, and led the Jazz to the NBA playoffs in each of his 18 seasons with the team.
The personal success was there but a prize commemorating his team's success was lacking.
Playing in an era where Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls ruled the NBA, Malone and his passer-in-crime John Stockon gave everybody a run for their money. Making the NBA Finals on two occasions, Malone gave it his all to capture that elusive championship ring.
However, some feel that the Jazz's inability to win an NBA championship is Malone's fault, citing one of the few weaknesses in his game.
“I always thought like Malone was the weakest link because he wasn’t a good foul shooter,” said legendary point guard Isiah Thomas during a 2013 appearance on NBA TV's Open Court. “Had he been a good foul shooter they would have beat Chicago.”
Thomas was referencing Malone's two missed free throws during Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals. Had Malone made those two foul shots, the Jazz would've taken a late lead over the Bulls, putting themselves in a position to win Game 1. Instead, in typical Jordan fashion, his late game heroics put the Bulls in front and led his team to victory.
True to his stern, no-nonsense demeanor, Malone wasn't looking for sympathy after his failing to produce in a big spot.
“I'm from Summerfield, Louisiana,'' Malone said to Stephen A. Smith of the Philadelphia Inquirer after the game. “Where I'm from, we don't make excuses. I missed the free throws. We lost the game. It happens.''
One narrative that came from Malone's missed free throw was the Bulls' Scottie Pippen, telling Malone – who was standing at the foul line – that “the Mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays.”
It didn't matter that Malone – the 1996-97 NBA MVP – averaged nearly 30 points and 10 rebounds a game every season, it didn't matter that he worked hard on his free throws, improving from a 48 percent free throw shooter in his rookie season to 75 percent during the 1996-97 regular season. It didn't even matter that Malone's 26 points and 11.4 rebounds per game were, at times, carrying the Jazz that postseason.
The Mailman seemed unable to put a stamp on his success.
Despite Malone and Stockton, the Jazz could not defeat the Bulls, losing to them in six games. However, Malone and company got another chance the following season, reaching the NBA Finals once again following an NBA-best 62-20 regular season.
Malone's free throw shooting improved but the Bulls' tight defense, led by Pippen and Dennis Rodman, seemed to impact him the entire series. Once again, the Jazz lost to the Bulls with the dagger coming courtesy of a Jordan jumper in what's now an iconic NBA moment.
The Jazz never returned to the NBA Finals following their two consecutive series losses to the Bulls, casting doubts that Malone would ever win a championship. In a last attempt to get that championship, the 13th pick in the 1985 draft signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers before the 2003-04 season, a team that had won three of the last four NBA championships.
Legendary point guard “The Glove” Gary Payton also joined the Lakers that offseason. With their new acquisitions, the Lakers, led by incumbents Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, were prime to add to their legacy and add the missing feather to Malone's cap.
Instead, Malone suffered through his first injury-riddled season, playing in just 42 games while averaging 8.7 rebounds and a career-low 13.2 points. While the Lakers did make it to the NBA Finals that year, with Malone's veteran savvy playing a huge role, they were promptly crushed by the Detroit Pistons in five games.
That season turned out to be Malone's last.
Just like that, Malone was gone from the NBA after two decades of dominance and an NBA record 95 postseason losses.
The Louisiana-Tech superstar's on-court accomplishments stood in rarefied territory. Upon retirement, Malone finished with 36,928 points, putting him just under 2,000 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) for second place on the all-time list. In fact, Malone and Abdul-Jabbar are the only two people in an exclusive club of players with at least 36,000 career points and 14,000 rebounds.
It was only a matter of time before Malone was enshrined in the National Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor he received in 2010. During his acceptance speech (via Desert News), Malone thanked everybody from his mother to his legendary coach of 15 seasons in Utah, Jerry Sloan.
Emphasizing his desire to share his success with others, Malone claimed that he wanted to do nothing else but “try to play hard” during his career.
While his efforts didn't earn him a ring, they did earn him the respect of everybody in the game. A championship would've been great but it was his desire to earn one that shined through.
"Even though he never won a championship, he had an outstanding career," said Sloan to NBA.com about Malone. "He played a lot of times when he shouldn't have. He did whatever he could to try to win, and I think that kind of thing is overlooked a lot these days in the game of basketball."