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IF THE MAILMAN RETURNS, IT’LL BE WITH JAZZ

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Though disappointed with the season-ending playoff loss to Houston Tuesday, the Jazz's Karl Malone didn't retire or ask to be traded. Mostly, he talked about spending time with his family.

Said Malone, "I need to get away and do some thinking. If I can be totally committed to winning an NBA championship, I'll be back."As for the prospects of him playing somewhere else other than Utah, he said, "If I play the game, I will always be with the Jazz."

"My main thing," he continued, "is to get away from everything and everybody and make a smart decision."

Malone said he wouldn't be working basketball camps or making appearances as he has in other off-seasons. "I'm just going to spend time with my myself and my family. I'm going to see what I want to do in life. I'll have to just wait and see."

San Antonio's Dennis Rodman started it and Denver's Brian Williams refined it, but now Utah-bashing has reached an apex. This week, Houston guards Mario Elie and Vernon Maxwell each took a turn evaluating the merits of Salt Lake City.

Maxwell appears to have the same geographic disorientation Malone did when he first came to Utah and referred to Salt Lake as the "city of Utah."

"Nothing against the city of Utah," Maxwell told the Houston Chronicle, "but there is no way any of us wants to go back. What were we there - four days? It seemed like four years. That's the most boring place in the world, if you ask me."

Before Tuesday's Jazz-Houston game, Elie said there was "no way" they would let the series return to Utah. "I thought I was going to go out of my mind. I'm a New York City guy, and I like to be in places where there is always something going on. I like to be able to go out after a game and get a nice meal, then go someplace and relax. But by the time the game is over in Salt Lake City, they've got the whole town closed up. It's like being in Pittsfield, Mass.

"You can't spend all your time locked inside your hotel room thinking about nothing but the game. That can wear you out mentally. I want to be able to go out during the day and do a little shopping. But I think they've only got one mall in Salt Lake, and the stuff they sell isn't exactly my taste. I was out looking to buy maybe a nice linen shirt, and all I could find in the stores were those damn Karl Malone and John Stockton t-shirts.

"Look, it's just time to go someplace with a better selection."

Elie also took a jab at Malone, who says he wants to retire in Utah. "If the Mailman likes the place so much, let's just send him back for the whole summer. Then we'll have one more date."

Jazz center Mark Eaton, sidelined since training camp with a bad back, has to wonder what could have been, had he been available for the playoffs. The 7-4 center was once termed by Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon as the toughest player he had to play against.

With Eaton as a backup, Jazz center Felton Spencer - who is prone to foul problems - could have played with abandon. And Eaton has always given Olajuwon problems as a defender.

But Eaton prefers not to think about hypothetical situations. "I've thought about it but I don't like that kind of pressure," said Eaton. "You could drive youself crazy thinking of what-ifs."

Eaton went on to point out that "this team has shown on its own that it can beat anybody."

Speaking of Eaton, it appears the 12-year NBA veteran won't play another season. "I would say the chances of me returning are remote," said Eaton.

Though Eaton, 37, remains vague about his plans, the bad back that kept him out of the entire season hasn't healed. And on July 1 his contract expires.

Asked about how much progress his back has made, Eaton said "it's the same."

He added, "It appears that it will require further intervention" - meaning possible surgery.

It stood to reason the Rockets would win Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.

The Rockets have always done well in the fifth game. The Rockets won the 1981 conference championship with a game-five win against Kansas City. Five years later they won the Western Conference title over the Lakers in Game 5 at the Forum.

ADDENDUM: Jazz physician Dr. Lyle Mason said he thought Jeff Hornacek sustained a broken nose when struck by Hakeem Olajuwon in the fourth quarter . . . Vernon Maxwell's four treys in the first quarter equaled an NBA playoff record . . . Utah's .333 shooting percentage was the worst playoff performance in franchise history.