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Days of clunky throws over as Malone nears a record

It seems like a lifetime ago — and it is, for some joy-riding teens — that Karl Malone's free throws clunked like a State Street jalopy.

Not a pretty sight.

With just a little tinkering and a whole lot of commitment, however, Malone transformed himself into the man who should soon become the NBA's all-time leader in free throws made.

The Mailman needs to sink just 18 shots from the line to record No. 8,532 and skip one ahead of Moses Malone, a feat likely to occur sometime during a four-game Jazz Delta Center homestand that opens Tuesday night against Detroit.

Hard to fathom for a fellow who converted just 48.1 percent of his 405 free tosses as an NBA rookie during the 1985-86 season, way back when retired Jazz coach Frank Layden lectured him relentlessly on the prudence of taking something when it's given to you.

"Starting off my career," Malone said, "I wasn't a good free-throw shooter."

But . . .

"I worked at it and worked at it, and, now," he said, "I want to go up there and shoot free throws."

Who can blame him?

Malone, in his 16th season as a pro, has made himself a career .737 free-throw shooter. This season, he is shooting 78.7 percent (414-of-526) from the line. And in the past 13 seasons, he has been under 70 percent only once; that was in 1993-94, when he shot .694.

It's all because he realized what he had to do in order to make himself into the player he is today, a two-time NBA MVP and the league's second-leading all-time scorer.

"He could have been content to say, 'Okay, I want to shoot 50 percent; that will be good enough,' " Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "But he wanted to be a good player — not only a good player, but he wanted to be a great player."

To do that, Malone knew he would have to take his game inside. But doing that meant he would be hacked, held and hustled, early and often.

Said Sloan, "He really wasn't an inside player as such and a guy you know who looks to get to the free-throw line because he shot 40-some percent."

Malone had a choice to make: Avoid going inside; go there and leave yourself susceptible to teams happy to send you to the line because they figured you'd probably only make 1-of-2 anyway; or let them know you're bound to get your 2, whether it's with a layup or a pair of made freebies.

By Malone's figuring, only one option made sense.

"I just realized that — not only early in my career, but (also) if I was going to play longer — guys, teams, would foul you," Malone said. "Guys would foul you when they get tired. Guys would foul you when they don't want to run the floor.

"I want to be able to make them pay for doing that — not all this 'let's foul him,' like they were doing early on, 'and make him make a free throw.' . . . It's about taking a part of your game that you're unhappy with and trying to get better."

It's something he learned he could do from, among others, Sloan.

"Guys think Coach Sloan is corny sometimes — (saying) 'You can get better and better, no matter how long you play this game,' " Malone said. "But it's a true statement, if you're willing to make that commitment in the summertime, when the camera's off, when you're in that gym by yourself, and nobody's around. That's when you get better."

Malone, Sloan said, has only one person to thank for doing just that: "Everybody would like to say they helped Karl Malone become a good free-throw shooter, but he helped himself. It takes that kind of ambition to make yourself better, and he's always done that."

He has, but only after hoisting his share of shots that didn't exactly slide through the cylinder. It's no wonder that Malone shakes his head now, when he thinks about what he is about to do.

"To be 18 free throws away from all-time — to me, it's kind of mind-boggling," he said. "It really is, when you think about how many guys have played the game."

And when you think about how many are still clunking them virtually every time they toss one up.

A free look

A peek at Karl Malone's progression to the verge of becoming the NBA's all-time leader in free throws made, with 8,532:

Rookie NBA season: 1985-86: 195-of-405 (.481)

Sophomore season: 1986-87: 323-of-540 (.598)

Third season: 1987-88: 552-789 (.700)

Best season: 1998-99: 378-480 (.788)

This season: 2000-01: 414-526 (.787)

Career: 16 seasons: 8,514-11,553 (.737)


E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com