In the early summer evening when the cicadas start to sing he'll take a pole down to the pond, sit beneath a tree, drop a line into the water and think about his life.

Sometimes it's hard to believe.When he was a kid, nobody told Karl Malone he'd be rich. That he'd be famous, his name known even on other continents. That he'd be practically worshiped by a million or so people in a faraway land called Utah.

It's the kind of rags-to-riches stuff myths are made of, and it's true. It actually happened, Karl Malone's story did. It's happening still, the continuing saga of a once-unknown kid from backwoods Louisiana who emerged from nowhere to make it big in the big time.

Though his past and his present are like night and day, he remains transparently anchored to his upbringing, which is perhaps the very thing that keeps him centered now.

"I realize where I'm from," says Malone. "I know what's happened to

me." The same Karl Malone who used to wear his older brothers' hand-me-downs today is worth who knows how much - maybe $25 million if you count his endorsement contracts, his land and business holdings and if you figure he's saved or invested half the paychecks he's earned in his nine-year career with the Utah Jazz.

It's a guess that might not be preposterous. Malone, well-known for his public generosity, also has a fundamental quality shared by good businessmen everywhere: He's thrifty, maybe even a little tight.

`To struggle was hard'

To start from the beginning you go to the deep South of Clairborne Parish, La., where Malone grew up in a tin-roof shack at a place called Mount Sinai that in some press accounts has been described as a town.

Mount Sinai, in fact, is no town at all. It's not on the map and consists of little more than a house or two and a store, which Malone's parents quietly

run. His mom, Shirley, and her husband, Ed Turner, live now in a modern brick home across the highway from Malone's childhood home, which today is unoccupied and surrounded by tall weeds at the edge of a forest.

Early in his NBA career, Malone built the new house at Mount Sinai for his mother and his "step-pop," as he calls Turner, who supplanted the blood father that abandoned the Malone family early on.

At about the time Malone started making waves in the NBA, he also paid off his college loan from Louisiana Tech and bought his sister a car. Both were huge gestures in a perpetually depressed area of slow-talking people and hound dogs, where poverty is common, integration is still a recent memory and the Civil War doesn't seem all that far removed.

Malone regards these roots with proud affection.

"I don't have a problem talking about it because it was a great learning experience. It helped me know what I should do, what I could do. To struggle was hard."

He did so under the firm guidance of his mother, a tough woman who ran a forklift in a lumber mill while Malone and his siblings were growing up.

"We always got a lot of the things we needed, not necessarily what we wanted," says Malone. "But we never went hungry. And we never wore dirty

clothes." From a tender age the Malone children were ingrained with a strong work ethic. Karl started in the fields and chicken barns of Clairborne Parish when he was 13.

"He used to pick up hay bales for my husband," remembers Edna Brown, the postmaster at nearby Summerfield, where Malone went to high school and played his first basketball. "That might've been one of the things that helped build up those muscles."

Not to be overlooked was the timely development of discipline, says James Scriber, Malone's first coach and principal today at Summerfield High.

"I give a lot of credit to his mother. She raised him right. And she did it pretty much by herself."

Malone was 6 years old before he had a stable male parental figure in his life, a circumstance he accepts with surprisingly little regret, along with the fact that his real father died well before Malone's professional basketball career began.

"I didn't know him well," says Malone. "He was never around. I just didn't know him. I don't know whether he would've been a good father."

"I never say I wish my father could see me now. I say I wish my Grandma or my Grandfather could see me now."

`He's one of us'

Malone, an avid outdoorsman, first went hunting sometime before the age of 10. It was with a .410-gauge shotgun, for squirrels.

Further distant details from the Louisiana chapters of his life can be ascertained by hanging around Summerfield for an afternoon.

One font of local Malone trivia is Butch Bays - aka "Mr. Butch," in the vernacular of the South - who runs Bays General Merchandise, the only store in town; an old-fashioned wooden-floored gas station that serves many purposes including hardware repository, lunch counter and bait shop.

"I've known Karl since he was a boy," says Bays, who laughs fondly at the local lore on Malone's system of selecting bloodhounds.

"He'd go out in the woods with 12 or 15 dogs at time!" What for? "To weed 'em out. See which one's best."

Does he come around much any more? "Sometimes," offers Bays, beginning one of his favorite modern-Malone stories.

"Last year or so he stopped right here in his truck, come in and said, `My mama still got a charge account here?' I said, `Why sure she does.' He said, `Well, put me two Gatorade on her ticket.' "

Bays gets a good laugh out of this because at his store it's not every day a multimillionaire stops to charge anything at all, much less two Gatorades.

Locals who pass daily in and out of the post office across the street all know Malone.

Liddie Buggs, his former baby-sitter, long ago recognized a trait in Malone that has persisted into adulthood: "He was one of those who would get into

anything." Janice Daniel, a retired teacher who had Malone in business class during high school says he was an "average student."

"I'm sure he could've done a lot better."

Daniel couldn't resist sauntering over to Bays store one day when Malone was there, offering the famous ballplayer some input.

"I was worried if he was managing his money well," says Daniel. "I said, `Now Karl, I know you're making good money, but are you saving any?' He's one of the most level-head people like that - well, I haven't known many celebrities - but he hasn't changed," she says. "He's still Karl."

"You got to remember that he came up on nothing and all of a sudden he's a millionaire," explains Bays. "It would change some people, but when he comes in here it's still, `Howdy, Mr. Butch. Yes sir. No sir.' I didn't expect it in him, but that's the way he was raised."

"He's one of us," confirms Ken Bailey, a sheriff's deputy.

And Smith, the postmaster, pays him what for Clairborne Parish is apparently the ultimate compliment.

"He's earned the respect of a lot of white people around here."

`I love municipal bonds'

So what's Karl Malone do with all that money? He spends a lot of it. During his earliest NBA years, Malone partied with the best of them, frolicking among the rich and famous as celebrity athletes sometimes do. But by the time he married former Miss Idaho Kay Kinsey in 1991, something had clicked in his head, fiscally speaking, and he was in the long-term investment mode.

"People need to understand that basketball is my first job - it's what I do," says Malone.

But he has taken the larger view too, knowing the NBA won't support him much longer.

"You start thinking along the lines of saving every penny you can here and there. That's a big part of the battle right there."

"The first and fifteenth are going to roll around, you know that with any job, and you can get caught up in that zone, thinking it's going to last forever. But I'm working toward knowing what I want to be doing when I finish the game."

This attitude is what sets him apart from many professional athletes.

"I'm a nut for land," he says. "I'm driving along, I see a number, I write it down."

And he has the portfolio to prove it: a 200-acre farm in Arkansas, replete with a herd of high-dollar Beefmaster cattle, where he also owns a 400-lot development outside El Dorado; considerable but undisclosed holdings along the Snake Rive in Idaho, where he's thinking of starting a dude ranch after retiring; and a mansion in Salt Lake City.

Diversity is his motto, though.

"I love municipal bonds," he says, because they're tax free and they're a sure if unspectacular bet.

"I'll go in maybe $100,000, maybe $200,000 at a time. It's something that pays consistent, and if you get to a position, well, you don't care as long as it pays consistent."

Whenever he does buy something he is likely to go through intermediaries, because with fame comes a surcharge.

"I'll make calls myself, but I don't say who I am. When I say it's me, the price goes up."

He's been shrewd enough to make money purely off his name outside the basketball arena, too.

Malone is the spokesman for Hardee's, appearing in national commercials that are shot three or four at a time over the course of a day, then aired in rotation. His current Hardee's contract is for two years. He's also the NBA spokesman for L.A. Gear.

This summer he launched what may prove to be his best and most secure investment, Karl Malone Toyota in Albuquerque, N.M., with partner Larry H. Miller, who owns the Jazz.

Miller, who knows a deal when he sees one, noted at the time that it was the sort of business coup that doesn't come along everyday.

"Sunbelt. Toyota. Metro. That's the combination that makes it a plum," said Miller, who calls Malone a "quick study" and says he has more commercial chutzpah than most entrepreneurs.

"Sometimes when Karl kind of gets talking his post-game talk you wouldn't think that he's as good a businessman as he really is," says Miller.

Malone also has a sporting-goods store in Sugarhouse dubbed Mailman's, borrowing the famous nickname a Louisiana sportswriter hung on him a decade ago after driving through rough weather to see Malone's team win its college's conference championship. (Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail nor double-teaming stopped the "Mailman" that night.)

And he's endorsing an impending western-wear line of clothing that backers hope will be picked up by a major retailer such as JC Penney or Sears.

Then, too, there's the overland trucking company, an 18-month experiment that ended suddenly when Malone liquidated the business last month after losing money on it.

The seven-truck Malone Enterprises Trucking Inc. cost $1 million or more to start, and was able to land solid clients like Albertson's Food Centers, poultry processor ConAgra, and Kroger Co., the largest grocery chain in the

country. But some said it was impossible for Malone to adequately oversee the operation given his other obligations. Others said the company underbid jobs. Malone himself has been quiet on the subject, though in an interview this summer he said losing is part of the deal when you dabble in commerce.

"If it's not going to work, I don't have so much pride I have to stay with it," he said. "I can swallow real hard."

`Everybody wants it'

The Mailman fired his agent almost five years ago because he was too bossy, and, well, Malone likes being the boss.

"Best move I ever made," he's decided.

"It wasn't that I didn't like him," he explains. "It's just that I'm the one who knows what I want to do."

Since then Malone has shown a penchant for hiring women as supervisors of his wealth and assorted enterprises, a product, perhaps, of a childhood in which the dominant personalities were his mother and his sisters.

Diane E. Kirk, an investment specialist with Zion's First National Bank, is his personal banker. Kirk brings relevant experience to the job, having at one time served in a similar capacity for Hakeem Olajuwan of the Houston Rockets.

"He's one of the hardest-working people I know," says Kirk. "Sometimes I get tired trying to keep up."

His general business manager is Kay Cash, a neighbor who befriended him when he came to Utah. Roxanne Hasegawa, a producer at KSL-TV, is his

publicist. Even his trucking company was run by a woman, Sue Drechsel.

And Janet Romano, a Salt Lake clothing designer, is the creative force behind the clothing line Malone will unveil in a few months. Romano says she met him only after writing a letter soliciting his endorsement, one of many such offers Malone gets over the course of a month.

"We'll get 20 or 30 and we might seriously look at one of them," he

says. Romano's idea evidently offered the right allure.

"I wrote to his attorney and didn't hear back for about four months," she recalls. "And then what he said to me was `if you'd come to me looking for money I wouldn't have talked to you.' "

That's because Malone gets barraged with pleas for financial support of every stripe.

"I don't think I was put here on this earth just to play basketball," he says. "On the other hand, I wasn't just put here to give my money away

either." "With money comes headaches - if you got it, everybody wants it," he laments, though he has given freely to charity, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars - maybe millions - in Utah alone. The most recent example occurred at a luncheon last month for the Utah Food Bank, an organization for which he is honorary chairman.

"I can always go down to Hardee's if I want something," he told the mostly corporate audience, admonishing them to give generously and reminding listeners of their own relative good fortune.

"When you wake up in the morning, you sit down and choose what you want to eat. Not everybody has that."

Then he shocked the crowd by unexpectedly giving one of his almost-new $130,000 trucks to the food bank.

Romano calls Malone a "surprisingly good businessman" who has a "real true sense of who he is and what he wants.

"He told me he doesn't ever want to walk into a store and see somebody wearing one of his shirts and then be embarrassed to talk to him," says Ramone. "And he makes a habit of whenever he sees one of his Toyotas on the street to stop, write a note that says thanks for buying my car, and leave it on the windshield.

"Those are smart business things to do."

`Petty' and `arrogant'

His Arkansas spread - a half hour from Summerfield - is where Malone can usually be alone.

"This is sort of my getaway, back where I'm from, where I can be me," although incursions have occurred.

Once when he was fishing a woman and her two children knocked on the ranch house and told his wife they wanted Malone's autograph.

"She said, `He doesn't do that when he's up here.' " The persistent fans left momentarily, only to negotiate a barbed-wire fence to reach Malone, who was a little irritated by the invasion, though he signed after asking the intruders to tell their friends not to try it.

"You can send them away in a nice way," he says.

Anytime he is in public, people recognize him, he says, even outside of Utah and beyond his Arkansas-Louisiana stomping grounds, but most especially in Salt Lake City.

"When I go to the grocery store, they'll say, `D--- what're you doing here?" "Shopping," he replies. "You?"

He says public life takes its toll on a marriage, too.

"Somebody like you can be seen in public talking to a female friend and that's all it is. If I do it it means I'm having an affair."

"I got married with the intention of getting married on time," he says.

"We hear all kinds of stuff and I used to get really upset about it, but now I just go on. They're going to do what they're going to do."

Malone has his critics.

Those include people who say he sometimes comes off as arrogant and self-centered, particularly when he gives basketball interviews. They say it's especially bad at the beginning of a new season, when the Jazz are at their deepest what-does-it-take-to-win-a-championship angst.

They need him - Karl Malone, the premiere power forward in the NBA - is Malone's perennial reply.

One newspaper columnist labeled him "petty, spoiled and arrogant" after Malone appeared on an hourlong, primetime television interview on the eve of training camp last week. The writer said in print what a lot of people thought, taking him to task as "an ego-inflated athlete who makes more in a year than most Utahns make in a lifetime."

Jabs like that roll off Malone like rain, though. He is not the same guy who came to Utah a decade ago and offered to wash the loaner car Miller gave him for a weekend after he drove it around for awhile.

"In the past I've worried about what other people think. I was always the guy who in the end wasn't happy about myself," he says.

"Now if people don't like it, I really don't care anymore."

`It's your life'

But perhaps he has a humble streak.

"Am I perfect? No."

"I try to be respectful of other people. I say, `Karl, if you do this, what's going to happen to them?' But I'm a person who makes mistakes."

If he could, would he retract anything he's ever said? "Never. The things I say in public are the things I absolutely want to say. If I don't say it, I'm not being faithful to myself."

Malone might be at his best when he casually works a crowd of fans beyond the glare of television lights. During his annual truck tour of Utah this summer he drew 3,000 people to an afternoon appearance in the little Duchesne County burg of Vernal.

Long after his handlers shut down the autograph line he was still greeting strangers, shaking hands, putting his elegant signature on whatever was thrust in front of him.

Kirk says Malone will devote days at a time to this kind of thing "because he feels bad that a lot of people just see him on TV."

"He also likes to bring the store to them," she smiles, noting the presence on these sojourns of Malone's mobile version of his sporting-goods enterprise, a tractor-trailer filled with for-sale items from his store.

But Malone makes this drive in his own personal rig - which he still owns - for other reasons, too.

"I'm with me, I'm with myself," he says.

Most of the time he drives solo, cloistered in a custom-made cab outfitted with a cellular phone, a laptop computer complete with satellite uplink and a location system that can let associates know where he is at all times. The truck also has a radar detector, which Malone never uses because he says he doesn't speed. (He got pulled over once, near Nephi, after someone called the cops to say he'd made an illegal turn).

Rarely does he let anybody ride with him, maybe because this time on the road is the most revealing. It is behind the wheel on a flat, open road where he is most reflective.

"I wish I could be Karl Malone for four days and then have another three days just to be a kid," he says a half-hour out of Vernal on his way back to the Wasatch Front. "I'm 31 and my wife tells me I'm still a kid, but, see, I didn't like my kid life.

"So I'm able to do it now. What I always wanted to do was drive my own

18-wheeler." He volunteers that while he was in Duchesne County, where his appearance followed a retreat at a hunting lodge, he told everybody one morning that he was going trout-fishing by himself. Malone snuck off to a nearby river, spent 10 or 15 minutes casting flies and then put his flippers on and paddled around in the water - alone, pondering cosmic questions.

"I guess I feel that in life you come and you go, what you do with it depends on you. If it goes on after you die, well that's up to your people, your wife and your kids, it's up to them to see your spirit live on."

"But it's your life."

In Heber City, where he stops to buy gas, a crowd quickly forms.

"I'm not going to fill it up," he says. "If we stay here longer than five minutes it's just going to cause a big mess."

As he pulls out minutes later, working his way through 15 gears, it's apparent that the word is out. A crowd of youngsters scramble through fences and race across fields to pace the truck, waving and motioning all the while for Malone to blow the semi's horn.

He obliges them, repeatedly, talking through it all.

"I believe I'm afraid to fail. I'm afraid to go broke. Everybody and their mother is waiting to say, `I knew he wasn't going to take care of his money.'

" But they're wrong, every one of them. Karl Malone, the pride of Clairborne Parish, knows he has been blessed, and he is - above all - no

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fool. "I still haven't said, `I've made it.' I still haven't said that."

And - for the moment, moving up U.S. 40 toward Park City - he is neither arrogant nor egocentric, tugging on the truck horn as a carload of frenzied fans wave.

"Everyone's got special gifts," he says. "A lot of people are afraid to look for that special gift, whatever it may be, but everyone's got

something."

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