SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — During his illustrious NBA career, Karl Malone hammer-dunked, pick-and-rolled and softly flicked free throws and fade-away jumpers into the hoop for a staggering amount of points — 36,928, to be exact.

Need more proof he belongs on the stage at the basketball Hall of Fame ceremony tonight?

In becoming the league's all-time second-leading scorer, Malone led the small-market, cost-conscious Utah Jazz to two NBA Finals, 11 50-win seasons and six division titles; he received 14 invitations to the All-Star Game, took up residence on the All-NBA first team from 1989-99 and was a three-time All-Defensive first-teamer.

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Then there were the multiple NBA records (like his 11 consecutive seasons with 2,000 points), the pair of MVP awards and gold medals and more eye-popping statistics compiled throughout his 19 professional years than one of his diesels can hold.

There are plenty of reasons, in other words, why Malone earned his way into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility — an honor that will be made official during tonight's enshrinement ceremony.

Perhaps the two biggest reasons?

Work and play — in that order.

Malone was a tireless worker. On top of that, he always played hard, always played at a high level and, well, just always played.

While forcefully putting the power into the power forward position, this Mailman delivered in sleet, snow, rain and pain. Night in, night out.

"The guy didn't miss games," marveled ex-Jazz player Matt Harpring, Malone's former teammate, who was equally impressed that his fellow hard-worker didn't miss practices, either.

"That's incredible in today's world. ... You don't find that. Talk about earning your money. You earned your money with (Malone), so I've got a lot of respect for him."

Malone, no doubt, had his faults.

He was considered a bully and a bruiser, even once received the title of "dirtiest player" in a national vote and more than once sent an opponent to the hospital. He inserted his size 16 hightops into his mouth on occasion, including during several offseason contract disputes with then-Jazz owner Larry H. Miller, and was vilified for being outspoken about Magic Johnson and AIDS. Critics also gloatingly will point out how he's one of the best athletes in any sport to fail to win a championship and mock him for not being clutch.

Ditching out on work, however, was certainly not one of those faults.

In 18 seasons with the Jazz, Malone only missed 10 games out of 1,444. He played all 82 regular-season games 10 different times and took to the court in 543 consecutive contests during one Ironman stretch of his career (a streak snapped by a suspension, by the way).

And that's not even to scratch the surface of the exhausting effort he put himself through off the court. Work was simply a four-letter word that Malone loved to and felt he had to (or "gotta") do — whether it was during a game, in the weight room or elsewhere.

That hard-working habit helped turn him from an overlooked 13th overall pick out of Louisiana Tech into an NBA force and now into a Hall of Fame legend, a distinction he shares with his old Jazz buddies John Stockton and Jerry Sloan.

"He put as much into it as anybody I've ever seen off the floor," said coach Sloan, Malone's old Hall of Fame mentor.

Whether it was lifting weights at Westminster College with Stockton before and after practice or running up and down stairs twice a week at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Malone felt that extra hard work was what could give him an edge.

It also brought him a sweet satisfaction. Still does. Even simply driving by the University of Utah football team's home turf is a fond reminder of the rewarding toil he went through.

"When I pass by that place, I smile because I touched every (step) in there training," Malone said. "When I would get to the top and I'd look around, (there wasn't) one person in there. No lights, no cameras, no fans."

Only lots of steps and sweat.

Busting his tail made the difference, Malone claimed, between the good and the great.

Malone, as was evident by his ever-accumulating collection of sculpted muscles stacked on sculpted muscles, especially had an affinity for pumping iron. That was his not-so-secret weapon.

"Weight training was huge," said Malone, who not surprisingly was spotted by Sloan in a hotel gym working out Thursday morning. "If I wouldn't have trained like that, I think you could've took five years off of my career, five productive years."

Malone took a friendly jab at his less-chiseled friend Charles Barkley, affectionately known as the Round Mound of Rebound, and claimed the Hall of Famer would've had five more good years in the NBA had he taken training as seriously.

Malone also credited work in the weight room for helping Stockton play in a possible 1,504 of 1,526 games in his 19-year career.

He laughed when asked if the teammates were mentally tougher or had higher pain tolerance thresholds than other NBA players.

"Or maybe we were just crazier," Malone said. "Maybe that's why Stock, coach Sloan and myself got along — we were just bullheaded enough."

Pride and adrenaline kept Malone going in games even when his body broke down. Playing in front of 20,000 fans helped him numb the pain on occasion.

"You really sometime forget how injured you are until after," he said.

Malone didn't just suit up and suck it up when it counted in the regular season or playoffs. To him, it always counted.

That's why he returned to the first preseason game after suffering a painful finger injury while trying to teach rookie Joe Smith a lesson. Malone, who admitted he wasn't particularly fond of the hyped-up Smith or of any opponent for that matter, went up to block his foe's shot "to make a statement."

Instead of swatting the ball, though, Malone smacked the backboard.

He felt a burning sensation in his still-bent-to-this-day middle finger and looked down to see bone protruding through skin.

Sloan grumbled at Malone, "You ain't playing no more." But The Mailman insisted on finishing out the exhibition game in Albuquerque, N.M., even pointing out to his coach that he did similar things when he broke his nose multiple times in a game only to continue playing.

"I got a piece of tape, and taped it, and I played in a preseason game," Malone said. "But we were just like that."

When Malone was being honored with a statue, a street name and a retired jersey in 2006, the late Miller recalled a game against Portland in which his star suffered an ankle sprain. Malone's ankle became swelled up as big as his calf.

Malone was retaped and returned to action after halftime.

"He could hardly walk," Miller said. "But he got on the court, he wouldn't let anybody know that he was hurt. ... I think the whole team was shocked that he was even out there."

Malone finished with 24 points and 16 rebounds — and set quite the example.

"When he answered the bell in that kind of condition and played the way he did, I think the rest of the team felt they had to come to the party, too," Miller told the Deseret News. "That's what he did. He led, he inspired players by the way he played every night."

Malone hinted that there was an unspoken rivalry between himself and Stockton to not miss games. Plus, he figured if Stockton could play even without being able to move his neck from getting banged around while setting picks, and if Jeff Hornacek could play with a cartilage-lacking knee, then the 6-foot-9, 256-pound beast of a man should, too.

"You think I'm going to let those two guys half my size outdo me?" the competitive Malone asked.

He also felt obligated to play for the fans — and, by the way, "was personally kind of offended" when the NBA suspended him several times. (Malone didn't apologize for playing physical, even saying, "You hit me, I hit you. Volkswagen-Mac truck. Who's going to get the worse of it?")

"I took pride in playing," Malone said. "I took pride in when you walked up there to buy your season tickets, unless something unbelievable happened, suspension whatever ... we're going to see Karl Malone and John Stockton on the floor every single night, trying to give it their all."

Now Hall of Fame visitors will be able to see the former teammates who gave it their all together for 18 years rejoined at the hoop hip — something neither of them believe would have happened without the other.

Stockton admitted that last year, and Malone is doing the same now.

"Everything had to align perfect," Malone said. "I don't think I would have had the career I had without him."

With the exception of some championship stars lining up, it all certainly did.

Of course, even when things didn't align just right, Stockton and Malone kept playing anyway.

What: Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony

When: Today

Where: Symphony Hall in Springfield, Mass.

Who: Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, Jerry Buss, Cynthia Cooper, Bob Hurley, Sr., the 1960 and 1992 U.S. men's Olympic basketball teams, Dennis Johnson, Gus Johnson and Maciel "Ubiratan" Pereira.

Watch: Class of 2010 press conference, 8 a.m. (NBA.com); Enshrinement ceremony, 5 p.m. (NBA-TV)

e-mail: jody@desnews.com