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Malone misfires with vow to start packing a firearm

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THE LIFE OF a major sports star is more difficult than most people think. The onus of fame intrudes on even the simplest act. A well-known NBA player can't visit the grocery store without people in the checkout line staring at what's in his shopping cart; he can't take a child to the park undisturbed.

But privacy isn't the biggest concern; it's safety. Contrary to popular belief, most pro athletes don't travel with bodyguards or security officers. In their everyday routine, they operate the way everyone else does - alone and unprotected. But they are far more likely to be a target.That fact was driven home last week when the Jazz's Karl Malone received a death threat in New Jersey. Afterward, he expressed concerns about security in the NBA.

This wasn't the first time Malone's life has been threatened. In 1992, a death threat was called in when the Jazz played in Chicago. A plainclothes police officer boarded the team bus when it left the hotel for Chicago Stadium. The bus took a different route than normal to the arena and a phalanx of police officers lined the way from the bus to the locker room. It ended up an uneventful night. Still, the experience was unnerving.

After the latest death threat, Malone told reporters "from now on I'm going to be packing," and added, "We (fly) charter, and I'm going to start carrying a gun on the road with me, no questions asked . . . I'm going to protect myself."

In a KSL-TV interview this week, Malone elaborated, saying he had "seen a lot of movies" and if necessary he would "go out in a blaze of glory."

Malone, it should be noted, is one of a dwindling number of NBA players who will still answer questions honestly. He is popular with most reporters and is annually included on the NBA's "All-Interview" team. Because of that, his remarks occasionally raise a controversial issue. When he expressed concern over playing against an HIV-positive Magic Johnson, there was a national uproar. Malone was booed in virtually every arena in the league for voicing a concern that numerous other NBA players had - but didn't dare say.

On a lesser scale, Malone's words came back to haunt him again this week, this time over the use of firearms.

Malone is no gun-toting gangbanger. He has never shown up on the police blotter. He doesn't stay out late, hang out in nightclubs or run the streets looking for trouble. His idea of excitement is driving his Harley on the open road. He is involved in the Prevention of Child Abuse, donates to numerous charities and can often be seen before games, greeting handicapped children. He has been known to distribute $100 bills to the homeless on the streets. His favorite activities center around his wife and children.

In terms of citizenship, he is near the top of NBA players. He is even an honorary member of the Utah Highway Patrol.

Much as he would like to play John Rambo or the High Plains Drifter in the movies, he isn't one in real life. He has never been seen in an arena or on a team plane or bus with any sort of weapon.

However, the message Malone sent in the past week misfired badly. There is no "blaze of glory" involved with gunfire, only tragedy. His contention was that he would carry a gun for protection - the same logic skinheads and gang members use to justify their activity.

Most of Malone's remarks appeared to be tongue in cheek. But in an era in which several NBA teams are trading tickets for guns, hoping to cut down on crime in their cities, even joking is dangerous. Too many children spend hours each day mimicking the actions and attitudes of NBA players.

Some 35,000 Americans are fatally wounded by gunshots annually; 16 youths are killed every day by gunfire. Children under 15 die from gunfire in the United States at a rate 12 times higher than the combined rates of 25 other industrialized countries. Reports in high-crime areas show 35 percent of students carry firearms to school. More youth are dying from guns than any other means other than motor vehicle crashes. Estimates are that there are three gunshot wounds for every gun death.

Amid this siege of violence, Malone has said from now on he will be "packing." Indeed, he has a permit to do so in Utah. But in admitting as much, the Mailman sent the message that carrying firearms is a good way to ensure safety; that it's OK to carry guns. In this case it's the wrong delivery.