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A nice award, but it pours salt on wound

It all went smoothly Thursday as Karl Malone stopped by the Delta Center once more before taking off for the summer -- except for the one question: A television anchor asked which was more important, winning the MVP award, or winning a championship.

Just like that, Malone clouded up. "You tell me which is most important," said Malone."I'm asking you. You tell us," the anchor replied.

"Where you been for the last 20 minutes?" said Malone testily. "Of course, the championship is most important."

You'll have to excuse the Mailman if he's still feeling touchy about not winning the you-know-what. And the fact that he and his cohorts are gradually growing you-know-what. That's all he's been hearing for the last few years. Malone fails again to claim title! Mailman falls short! Age creeping up on Jazz stars!

He just wasn't in the mood to be reminded.

Other than that, Malone's day provided the first bit of levity the Jazz have seen since they exited the playoffs a week ago. "I do have a life," he joked, "but I don't really have a job to go to."

Malone arrived to find a banquet room at the Delta Center packed with two kinds of people -- media and Jazz employees. Truth told, the employees outnumbered the media about 5-to-1. There were people from tickets, public relations, sales, events and pretty much everyone else this side of the grounds crew. By the way, who was that guy with weed whacker?

Malone arrived 25 minutes late, but that wasn't even a problem. It was mid-afternoon, so media members weren't on a tight deadline, and nobody from the Jazz organization was about to complain. For them it was a nice break in the routine. Malone pro- ceeded to cover everything from his second MVP award, to his future with the franchise, to free agency, to his appreciation of Jazz fans, to NBC analyst Peter Vecsey, to sitting by the pool with his kids.

"This year's been pretty good," he said, slightly subdued, "but it didn't end the way I wanted."

On the one hand, getting his second MVP award was of major significance for Malone. It put him in an elite group of nine players who have won more than one. On the other hand, he was standing in the sponsor room of the Delta Center, not mid-court during halftime of the conference finals. Without the playoffs to give it impact, receiving the award lacked sizzle. It was like proposing over the telephone. He didn't even have the trophy. He asked the NBA to kindly express mail it to him in Salt Lake, but that was a no-go. "I guess I'll have to go to New York to pick that up," he said.

In lieu of a trophy, he brought along a baseball cap that the league sent him, with the inscription "MVP."

"That's the only thing I got to show for it right now," said Malone.

Malone allowed that this year's honor helped legitimize his first award. When he won in 1997, there was talk that he received the honor as a "distinguished service" award. But this time there was no Michael Jordan to deal with, and not even all that many contenders. Malone finished comfortably ahead of Miami's Alonzo Mourning and San Antonio's Tim Duncan.

Clearly, at the relatively ripe age of 35, the Mailman is at the height of his influence.

At the same time, there are critics once again, pointing out that the Jazz lost early in the playoffs this year. That despite the fact that the ballots are in before the playoffs begin.

The second MVP award puts Malone in some of the most elite company in the game's history: Bob Pettit, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan have also won more than one MVP. It's a fast crowd. The problem is, when you run with the greyhounds, you're judged by them. Unfortunately, so far Malone hasn't been able to completely pass muster. He holds the distinction of being the only player in NBA history to win two or more MVP awards but not a championship. While the others can justify their greatness with titles, Malone can only point out his consistency.

What's more, only two players -- Charles Barkley and David Robinson -- have won the award once without winning a title. Even Bob McAdoo caught on with the Lakers at the end of his career long enough to get two championship rings. With Robinson and the Spurs making a serious run, it could mean Malone and his longtime friend Barkley will be the last two on the list.

That fact isn't lost on Malone, who hears the voices in his head, telling him every day. And so as he worked out last summer, running stadium steps in Arkansas on a sweltering summer afternoon, his brother asked if he thought he was working too hard.

Replied Malone, "I'm afraid not to."

Which stands to reason. There's nothing worse than being reminded.