We were excited to be able to get a big guy in the draft, because we had picked John (Stockton) the year before. But I think early on we realized Karl was serious about getting better. – Scott Layden

SALT LAKE CITY — The story of Karl Malone’s first trip to Utah, 30 years ago today, may seem apocryphal, but it’s not. He did indeed fly in on his birthday, July 24, 1985, and did refer to Salt Lake as “the city of Utah."

And yes, he thought the Days of ’47 Parade was all about him.

“I remember picking him up from the airport and we were on a tight deadline,” says David Allred, who was the Jazz’s vice president for public relations. “I guess I didn’t make it clear to him what the parade was about. I just said, ‘I’ve got to get you to the parade.’”

By the time they reached the Jazz float, across from Temple Square, the parade had begun. Malone looked wide-eyed out the window and said, “This entire parade is for me?”

Both Malone and Salt Lake have matured a lot since he first arrived. Back then, the town was small enough to fit in a New York parking garage. It had hosted the Final Four in 1979, but little else. The All-Star Game, NBA Finals and Olympics were ahead.

Utah was hungry for a star to complement Adrian Dantley and Darrell Griffith. In its wildest dreams, it never expected a globally recognized star. So here things are, three decades since the big-shouldered kid from Louisiana made his NBA debut. Quiet rumors circulated at the time that the Mailman didn’t have a good work ethic. In reality he ate two-hour workouts for appetizers.

“The day he landed,” says Scott Layden, then a Jazz assistant, “he started going right to work.”

Even during his MVP years, Malone would work out two hours before practice, shower, and put on a clean uniform in time for the regular practice. Afterward, he would lift weights. It was an ethic he never abandoned.

The summer he turned 40, he was on his way to play for the Lakers, but still in Salt Lake when the annual Rocky Mountain Revue began. Layden had moved to New York to be president of the Knicks, but returned to Utah for the Revue. Layden had arranged to meet a friend on 11th Avenue at 7 a.m. to go jogging. As he waited on the street, a hulking figure on a performance bike appeared in the distance, dipping and surging over the foothills. It was Malone, who stopped to greet Layden, saying he had been riding since 5:30.

“He has never rested on his success,” Layden says.

But did they really think they had drafted a hall of famer way back when?

“We were excited to be able to get a big guy in the draft, because we had picked John (Stockton) the year before,” he continues. “But I think early on we realized Karl was serious about getting better.”

Boy, did he get better. So good that victory parades were planned in 1997 and 1998. Though the celebrations never occurred, thanks to Michael Jordan & Co., the second-place finishes were special. The “city of Utah” and Malone had made a name for themselves.

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In his 18 years in Utah, Malone lived big. He feuded with Larry H. Miller, buddied with him, won two MVP awards, threatened to leave, said he’d never leave, eventually did leave, kept coming back. He opened a western wear business, a long-haul trucking company, a footwear store, hunted big game and ran his ranch in Arkansas. He still has car dealerships in Utah and regularly visits.

That’s the kind of player and personality a smaller market, looking for an identity, desperately needs. Utah was already known for Mormons, but thanks to the Mailman and Stockton, it also became famous for something else.

Although the Days of ’47 were designed to recognize the pioneers who settled the Salt Lake Valley, Utahns can now can say they had a modern pioneer in Malone. In that sense, the parade honors him more today than it ever did three decades ago.

Email: rock@desnews.com; Twitter: @therockmonster; Blog: Rockmonster Unplugged

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