So Karl Malone sounds off again, blasting Jazz management and teammate Greg Ostertag, and a hefty segment of fans lashes back, labeling the Mailman selfish and petty and childish.

"He makes plenty of money," some say. "Why should he care what anybody else makes?""Ostertag is trying," others point out. "Why can't Karl cut him a little slack?"

You'd think Jazz fans, after watching Malone in action for 12 years, after hearing him speak his mind on numerous occasions, would understand. You'd think there wouldn't be 40 percent of fans in a Deseret News survey saying Malone was "posturing for yet another lucrative contract extension" and another 40 percent saying he was "getting a little too big for his NBA MVP britches."

But after all these years, most of us haven't realized that Malone approaches the game the way he does, spends countless hours working out in the offseason and never seems to be entirely satisfied, for one simple reason: respect.

Malone doesn't believe he's respected. That may seem like an incredible statement, considering that he won the NBA's Most Valuable Trophy last season, that he was the West's leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game this season, that he's a lock to make the Hall of Fame and considered by many to be the greatest power forward to ever play the game.

Malone hears all that, and he appreciates it. But he's just as quick - perhaps quicker - to notice when he's booed, when he's slighted by the media, when he feels team management hasn't dealt fairly with him.

There are some who would say Malone's constant harping on respect is an act, a way of getting himself pumped up for the next quarter, the next game, the next season. Keith Henschen, a sports psychologist at the University of Utah and a member of the Jazz's medical staff, says Malone does use such incidents to get himself - and his teammates - going, but he points out that Malone also is genuinely motivated by what he perceives as "injustice."

"Karl is very, very `fair' oriented," Henschen said. "He's bought into the idea that if you work hard and achieve, you should be respected for that. He works hard and he expects others to work hard, and he expects to be respected for that."

As a corollary to that expectation, Malone is offended when he perceives that someone else - Ostertag, for instance - is rewarded out of proportion to his contribution. Malone put in 11 grueling seasons to reach a salary of $5.12 million this season; next year, after three unremarkable seasons, Ostertag will begin playing under a six-year, $39-million deal.

Sure, Malone makes millions, not only from the Jazz but from a shoe contract and endorsements and various business interests. But Malone's discontent isn't strictly about money. If you make $70,000 a year, that may be plenty for you to live on, but if the person across the street is doing the same job, for the same kind of company, and getting paid 50 percent more, it's going to bother you. Especially if the guy across the street can't carry your briefcase.

What's easy to forget is that superstars are human. Malone is a physical marvel, a rock of a man who appears capable of playing forever. But he's also the son of a father who committed suicide when Karl was 3. To any child, the suicide of a parent is an incomprehensible rejection. Some psychologists believe our psyches are essentially formed in the first couple years of our lives, so it doesn't seem too far-fetched to assume that when Malone's father rejected his family, it was the first installment in a series of personality-shaping events that cause the Mailman to bust his behind night after night, season after season, in search of approval, in a quest for respect.

And that is, ultimately, what makes Karl run.

It's what makes him driven to win a title, despite frequent declarations that his career won't be tarnished if he retires without a championship ring. John Elway said that often, too, until the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl and the veteran quarterback was finally able to acknowledge the truth, that he desperately wanted to win it all.

Malone isn't inclined to deep public introspection, but he does acknowledge that he's motivated by a certain insecurity. While he doesn't put it in those terms, he recognizes that fear moves him.

"I'm afraid not to work hard," he says. "I'm afraid not to work out in the summer. I guess I just don't want to look back on my career and think that I didn't do something physical-wise that could have made us a better team."

On another occasion Malone said, "I'm afraid to fail. I still haven't said, `I've made it.' I still haven't said that."

With that in mind, Malone put in his usual offseason last year, though it was shorter than most. He spent much of it at his Arkansas cattle ranch, working out maniacally in a stiflingly hot shed, two-plus hours at a time, weights and cardio stuff, sometimes going for long runs in 90-degree weather.

"I tried to work out with him a couple of times and my body was really tired," said Jazz swingman Shandon Anderson. "I couldn't keep up with him."

Malone's regimen is nothing new. He's even been known to spend time lifting weights or climbing the StairMaster after a blowout game, if he feels he didn't work up a brisk enough sweat. That's what everyone has come to expect from the player Jazz coach Jerry Sloan says is "the hardest-working guy I've ever been around, both on and off the court." In an era when stars lounge through the offseason, cutting rap CDs and making movies and playing sillyball on MTV, Malone is an aberration.

Malone certainly could have made an argument that he deserved to rest on his laurels. After all, he went straight from Dream Team duty in the summer of 1996 to the longest season in Utah Jazz history, culminating in the franchises's first appearance in the NBA Finals.

Some of his teammates, in fact, did that very thing, showing up at camp in October overweight and out of shape. Their lack of conditioning irked the Mailman, who spoke out, labeling them "lard(rears)" and "unprofessional." That didn't sit well with certain teammates, but nobody criticized Malone, at least not publicly. For one thing, people who don't get along with Malone have a way of finding themselves banished to Philadelphia or Vancouver. For another thing, Malone was right. They were out of shape, and it quickly showed when the regular season started and those players were unable to play at the level of just a few months previous.

Malone, on the other hand, picked right up where he left off. He'd hinted after the Finals that it might be time to call it quits, but when veterans' camp rolled around he was present, fit and firm and ready for another run. By midseason Malone was talking about another MVP trophy, saying the one he had was lonely and needed "a little buddy." He was clearly putting up numbers equal to last season, motivated no less than usual by the fact he felt people weren't showing him enough respect.

"I'm Karl and Karl is supposed to work more than the next guy on the team," he said. "Karl is supposed to do a lot of things, and a lot of people don't want to give me credit, and sometimes it (ticks) you off."

If history has shown anything, it's that a ticked-off Malone is a good Malone. In 1990, Malone felt snubbed by All-Star voters, who for some unexplainable reason chose to elect Laker forward A.C. Green to the starting team, over the Jazz forward. The next night, Malone went out and scored his career high, 61 points, against the guiltless Milwaukee Bucks.

And it doesn't take that much of a slight to get the Mailman going. Once this season, a courtside fan in Dallas got under Malone's skin, and he responded with some choice words and a big night. Afterward he said, "That guy . . . kept me going. He just kept running his mouth. Sometimes these guys don't know that by doing that they make you concentrate a little bit harder to shut them up. At the end, he was just sitting there looking like a deer in the headlights."

Henschen said Malone thrives on such treatment. "He enjoys that, coming from the disrespect camp," he said. "It spurs him on."

What's easy to forget about Malone is that the man is no youngster. At age 34, most power forwards are broken-down backups, relegated to thug duty, counted on at best to pick up a few rebounds and garbage points. Malone, despite injured tendons in the middle finger of his right hand that will require postseason surgery, is playing what many close to the team say is his best basketball ever.

"He's so tremendous," center Greg Foster marveled. "Since I've been on the team, he's had maybe four bad games."

"He gets better each year," said former NBA coach Kevin Loughery. "Usually after three or four years, you reach your peak. I've noticed he's a much better passer now and he still gets you the big hoops."

Malone answered his few critics - and perhaps settled a question in his own mind - when he came up big early this season during a stretch when his longtime runningmate, point guard John Stockton, was out with a knee injury. For years, a debate has raged over who is the Jazz's actual MVP - Malone, the bruising finisher, or Stockton, the playmaker. Without Stockton, some said, Malone's numbers would decline because he'd get fewer easy shots. That proved true for other Jazz players, but Malone carried the team during that stretch. Astute basketball people noticed.

"He's answered a lot of questions people had about what he would be like without his buddy John Stockton," said ESPN analyst Rolando Blackman. "He's still great and was just as strong."

What Stockton's absence did was give Malone another opportunity to confirm for himself what most people already knew - that he's a rare mix of power and athleticism, that over the years he's grown much tougher mentally.

"He's an interesting guy, a very deep guy, very solid," Henschen noted. "Fans don't understand him, but he's awfully bright."

But while he's become tougher over the years, there's still a vulnerable side to Malone, the little kid who's lost a father and doesn't understand why. In ways too convoluted for most of us to understand, the pursuit for respect has propelled Malone to the heights and continues to drive him to prove that he can erase the doubts, even if they're his alone.

*****

Additional Information

West race

Team W L Pct GB

Seattle 52 17 .754 -

Utah 51 17 .750 1/2

L.A. Lakers 50 19 .725 2

San Antonio 47 23 .671 5 1/2

Phoenix 45 25 .643 7