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A FIRST FOR JAZZ: NOT LEAVING UNTIL JUNE 1

SHARE A FIRST FOR JAZZ: NOT LEAVING UNTIL JUNE 1

For the first time in franchise history, the Utah Jazz cleaned out their lockers in June yesterday. There are worse times to end a season. April, for instance.

Karl Malone grinned when he considered the double-edged sword of cleanout day - a day that you want to delay as late as possible; but, still, you can't help but look forward to when it comes, and you're finally going to have more than one night off in a row."You want to go just as far as you can (in the playoffs)," said Malone. "And then, you want to appreciate it when you have some time off."

NBA teams don't waste any time ushering in the offseason and the Jazz are no exception. Their season ended about 90 minutes before midnight in Houston on Tuesday, the last day of May, and by 11 a.m. Wednesday morning, the first day of June, the players were assembled at the Delta Center for the last team meeting of the franchise's longest-ever season.

As a Delta Center maintenance man took down the "Western Conference Championship" banner from the upper concourse area the Jazz met in their locker room to allocate playoff shares. Another maintenance worker, mopping the floor, looked up and, just to make sure, asked a reporter, "They're not going to practice today, are they?"

Not unless they were bound, tied, gagged and drugged.

The only fastbreak they had in mind was to the parking lot.

The only physical exertion would be lifting boxes of basketball shoes into the trunk.

Somebody asked Malone what he was most looking forward to.

"I'm going to love to wake up for the next week or two and turn to my wife and say, 'What do you want to do today?"' he said. "And then we'll just do whatever. We'll just swing."

"What if your wife says she wants to play basketball?" asked a reporter.

"Not my wife," answered Malone, laughing. "She doesn't like basketball."

Malone said he's planning to have a reunion with several of his teammates later this summer at his ranch in Arkansas - and the basketball ban will still be in effect. "No balls," he said, "just fishing poles."

"I'm thinking of raising some chickens this summer," he added.

"I've played a lot of basketball for two straight years now," he said, going back to the Olympic summer of '92. "What I want to now is just get away and spend time with people who have put up with me. I'm going to give something back to those people."

Malone said he plans on coming back next fall recommitted to the Jazz cause. "One through 12, it's the best bunch of guys I've ever been associated with," he said. "When things got tough, nobody started pointing fingers. We're so close. It makes you want to come back."

To those critics who have said the Jazz are an old team that's getting older, Malone said, "they're the same people who said we wouldn't make it out of the first round (of the playoffs). Do I feel old? No. I've lost a little more hair, that's all. I feel fine."

The leader of the Jazz turned to clean out his locker. He emerged with a small plaque featuring a lacquered peanut holding a fishing rod. The inscription at the bottom of the stand said "FISHING NUT."

"Best gift I got during the playoffs," said Malone.

With that he was outta there. The parking lot was calling. The summer was calling. Loaded down by boxes of Nikes and Reeboks, and little else, Malone and his teammates headed into the offseason. They could take solace in the fact that of all the basketball teams in America, only three - the Rockets, Knicks and Pacers - could say they cleaned out their lockers any later than the Jazz. And they could take further solace in the fact that never before had a Jazz team waited so long to run out of opponents.

As John Stockton said just before he climbed into his 1954 Corvette convertible, "We outdid everybody's expectations except our own - so there's some satisfaction in that. Now we'd like to do better. That's going to keep us going."

After a short break, of course.